Big Sur, two presidential libraries and Halloween haunts with friends have dominated the most recent portion of our Year on the Edges of America. We’re over our colds, the weather’s been great and we’ve been amazingly campsite-lucky.
What could be better?
If only America’s political pandemonium were as ephemeral as G’s Halloween ensemble.
This part of the California coastline certainly lived up to expectation – tall rolling mountains to the left, glistening blue ocean to the right. We were gobsmacked by the dramatic views, which are possibly even more dramatic than last month’s coastal views in Oregon – which we thought at the time were the best ever. We found ourselves stopping nearly every 10 minutes to ogle the ocean from another viewpoint.
There were several days where we moved barely 50 miles further down the coast.
Here’s a view from the California Sea Otter State Game Refuge looking back northward toward the Bixby Creek Bridge, which we’d just crossed. It’s said to be one of the most photographed bridges in California.
We drove only a mile or two further before pausing again. This time I pulled our stools out from under the bed and set up our small aluminum table right on the edge of the cliff while Georges toasted sandwiches for us to enjoy from our perch.
We spent two nights in the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park in a lovely campground with loads of hiking trails. We were still recovering from our colds, so, uncharacteristically for us, we spent more time snoozing, reading and puttering than we did hiking or biking (or photographing).
Further down the coast we made a mental note to be sure return sometime with reservations for a spot in the right-on-the-coast-cliff Kirk Creek National Forest Campground … and to take care to avoid buying gas at the tiny junction of Gorda, where, as the only pump along the rugged and rural road for miles around, they can get away with charging a whopping $6.59 a gallon.
At the San Simeon State Park in Cambria we befriended campsite neighbors David and Brenda of Tehachapi, sharing a bottle of wine as we admired their adorable, hand-restored, 15-foot 1955 single-axle Dalton trailer.
Then it was on to the vineyards of Paso Robles. We always enjoy time with Jim and Barbara there – not to mention the views and the sixmilebridge wine.
On the weekend, we snagged a perfect on-the-beach campsite at Morro Strand State Park and spent a glorious five hours watching the waves, the surfers and the birds – including ring-billed and California sea gulls, migrating royal terns, long-billed curlews, willets and multiple varieties of plovers.
The next day we re-entered urban and traffic-clogged California, but softened the blow in Burbank by meeting son, Laurent, for dinner just before he returned home to Phoenix from a business trip.
We’re presidential library buffs, so we set aside one day to visit Ronald Reagan’s in Simi Valley and another day for Richard Nixon’s in Yorba Linda. (Eleven down, two to go.) We enjoyed them both, but came away unexpectedly impressed by the Nixon facility.
The Nixon Library and Museum was significantly updated and renovated two years ago, to good effect. It boasts predictably of Nixon’s international and domestic achievements, most of them overshadowed, of course, by the Vietnam War and Watergate. But that’s the thing: the library doesn’t duck Watergate.
In fact, it devotes an entire hall and a great amount of detail to the scandal. It addresses Nixon’s culpability in a surprisingly forthright manner – more straight forwardly than, say, how the Reagan library handles Iran-Contra or the Clinton Library and Museum in Little Rock handles Clinton’s impeachment.
Here’s just one example of a clear-eyed exhibit.
Here’s an introductory panel at the library, which sets the tone for the rest of the exhibits. The goal seems to be to draw attention to Nixon’s very real achievements without sugarcoating his very real flaws. The library is less about passing judgment and more about sharing authentic history.
By contrast, the Reagan Library is all about burnishing the Great Communicator’s image as a warm and inspirational leader. There’s not a lot of introspection here.
The facility is beautiful, perched atop a Simi summit with gorgeous views, aligning perfectly with Reagan’s “shining city on the hill” imagery of America.
The exhibit on the four summits between Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev is the meatiest. Those summits resulted in the two historic treaties on display at the library, and negotiated reductions in nuclear arms, which helped bring the Cold War to an end.
The room on communism is powerful, if rather schmaltzy. It includes an emotional video and this quote on the wall from Lenin.
Another section of the library praises Reagan’s record as California governor in increasing wages for the poor and reducing taxes on the middle class. It describes him as environmentally progressive, noting that he added 145,000 acres of park land and enforced new and tougher measures on air and water quality. These claims have a bit of an Alice-in-Wonderland ring to them as they are boasts more typically associated with Democrats than Republicans….
One of my favorite exhibits was the reproduction of Nancy Reagan’s “second-hand clothes” retort to the national press corps at the 1982 Gridiron dinner. Here’s what she wore to the dinner…
…and here is a close-up of the rewritten lyrics that she sang that night.
In the end, the Reagan Library seems as much a salute to Reagan’s Hollywood career as to his presidential leadership. G said it best: It’s a very “pleasant” library, just as Reagan was a very “pleasant” president – not particularly deep or introspective, optimistic, idealistic, a bit out of touch and, well, pleasant.
The Nixon library, by contrast, feels firmer. It starts by devoting an entire hall to the tumult of the 1960s, as if to suggest that Nixon’s troubles were in part attributable to the times he inherited. Think Vietnam War, Watts riots, Selma marches, MLK and Bobby Kennedy assassinations, TET Offensive, etc.
(There was something surreal about reviewing the traumatic events of the 1960s at the very time America again seems unhinged. We visited these libraries amid the discovery of pipe bombs in the mail, anti-Semitic shootings in Pittsburgh and presidential delusions about rewriting the Constitution.)
And the library reminds us that Nixon was the first incoming president in 120 years to face a Congress completely controlled by the opposing party.
Yet by the time Nixon resigned five and a half years later, the Vietnam War was ended, he’d opened communications with China, brokered peace between Israel and Arab coalitions, re-established relations with Egypt and opened relations with Syria. He also signed into law the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and a number of other far-reaching offices still in existence today.
He established the Nixon Doctrine of 1969, which formalized the expectation that the US would provide military assistance to foreign allies but would look to the nations directly threatened to assume primary responsibility for providing the manpower for their defense.
Vietnam, of course, was a bugaboo. Nixon had campaigned on a promise to end the war, but then didn’t for several years. He argued that an honorable peace couldn’t be achieved without meeting two requirements:
1. The US mustn’t abandon its ally in South Vietnam.
2. The POWs must be returned.
These conditions delayed and complicated resolution. Definitions of “an honorable peace” were as voluble then as Trump’s twitter feed is today, ranging from immediate withdrawal to total annihilation of North Vietnam. Congress cut funds for South Vietnam, which complicated matters by contributing to South Vietnam’s defeat.
Historians continue to debate Nixon’s record in Vietnam.
Regarding Watergate, it’s interesting to recall that four presidents preceding Nixon also recorded their conversations. The difference was they did so selectively. Nixon recorded everything, presumably for his use later in the writing of books. His mistake was in assuming the tapes were his personal property, not the people’s. In one plaque, the library attempts to make a positive out of the point that at least Nixon recorded it all and didn’t pick and choose.
In fact, you can actually listen to all 18-and-a-half-minutes of the gap in the infamous 1972 recorded conversation between Nixon and Chief of Staff HR Haldeman about the Watergate break-in. It’s broken into nine segments. In parts you can hear voices faintly in the background; in other parts you hear buzzing punctuated by distinct clicks and silence. It’s still unclear what precisely was erased, by who and for what purpose.
Some other little-known or oft-forgotten facts about Nixon:
- His loss in 1960 to Kennedy was razor thin. Amid reports of vote stealing in Illinois and Texas, Eisenhower urged Nixon to call for a recount and even offered to pay for it. Nixon declined. He said later that he did so because he knew it would take several months and was worried the country harmed by having an uncertain presidential succession for that long.
- He hired four times the number of women in executive branch as any of his predecessors.
- He signed Title 9 of the education amendments into law, which prohibited sex-based discrimination in federally funded programs.
- He signed the first nuclear weapon treaty with the Soviet Union, negotiating the SALT accords with the Soviet Union’s Leonid Brezhnev.
- Like Reagan, Nixon seemed blessed with a true and loving marriage. Many of the love letters Richard and Pat Nixon exchanged throughout their 50-plus years together are preserved and on display at the library.
The library leaves unaddressed, of course, how we are to reconcile the two conflicting chords of Nixon’s character – the brilliant and confident strategic thinker with the profoundly paranoid and insecure politician. How could a man who wanted above all to be remembered as a peacemaker so contort his values as to justify breaking laws and lying repeatedly and baldly to the very American people he aspired to serve?
Here’s the money quote from Nixon’s interview with David Frost four years after his resignation.
And here’s a note he sent in 1990 to his grandson, Christopher, who had just won election as president of his sixth-grade class. Note the last sentence about the importance of treating losers graciously.
Texans may be surprised to see historian Mark Updegrove, president and CEO of the LBJ Foundation in Austin, quoted extensively in the library’s opening video about Nixon’s accomplishments. And it was impressive to recall that President Clinton in his eulogy of Nixon in 1994 urged that Nixon be judged on nothing short of the totality of his career.
As a footnote, it’s worth adding Pat Nixon, the best educated First Lady until Hillary Clinton came along, has a legacy of her own. She reportedly was the first First Lady to:
• Visit an active combat zone, which she did in Vietnam in 1968.
• Address a Republican National Convention, which she did in 1972.
• Visit Africa, which she did, as an emissary for her president-husband, in 1972.
• Embrace the ERA, as did her husband.
• Wear pantsuits.
It was great to reconnect with Allison, formerly of The Dallas Morning News and currently the California politics editor at the Los Angeles Times, over breakfast Halloween morning. California politics are about as Democratic as Texas’ are Republican – quite the haunted house for Allison and her team to explore.
We parked our Casita for a few nights in the driveway of Tania and Michael, new friends we made last May during our pass through Charleston, where they were vacationing from their home in LA. It was great to catch up and revisit our common interests.
Tania is a great cook with a great kitchen. She and G had fun creating scrumptious dinners while we were there; Michael and I enjoyed consuming their creations – and helping to create animated conversations.
Here’s G’s glazed salmon with potatoes dauphinois with Belgian endive and tomato nicoise.
Tania really gets into decorating for Halloween.
We four dressed up to greet the more than 200 trick or treaters that came to their home Halloween night.
Even little Nico got into the act with his angel wings.
We fed candy to giant dinosaurs and tiny princesses.
All in all, Southern California is fairly familiar territory for us. G’s first visit to the US from Belgium was to LA more than 30 years ago; he went on to help operate restaurants in the Santa Monica area. I’ve worked and played in Southern California off and on over the years, most recently in 2016 overseeing a marquee event celebrating the centennial of the Pulitzer Prizes at the Ebell Theatre.
So from here, we’ll likely deviate from a strict perimeter route for a bit. It’s off inland to Joshua Tree National Park for a little less traffic and a little more solitude….