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Up The Road: Richard Nixon, OC’s Most Famous Homeboy

Richard M. Nixon Meeting with Elvis Presley
Richard Nixon and Elvis, The President and The King, 1970.
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Photo by Ollie Atkins, presidential photographer
Photographs of President Nixon and Elvis Presley, 12/21/1970, shot by Nixon's chief photographer, Ollie Atkins. Courtesy National Archives.

While president, Richard Nixon would stroll the beach below the Western White House in San Clemente wearing coat, tie, and wing tips—proving he wasn’t much of a Californian, even if he was born here.

But from the start, Richard Nixon was in tune with his times. He won election to Congress in 1946 by attacking his opponent as a Communist dupe, polishing his Red-baiting rep while on Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. Nixon landed his U.S. Senate seat in 1950 by smearing Helen Gahagan Douglas as “the pink lady.”

Richard Nixon Portrait
Steven R. Green
Digital photograph of original portrait of former President Richard M. Nixon by Norman Rockwell. Oil on canvas, 1968, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

By the 1960s satire started probing this dark turn in American politics. Bob Dylan’s Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues. And The John Birch Society by the Chad Mitchell Trio, both songs from 1962. But who can forget the 1964 Stanley Kubrick film Dr. Strangelove? Not me, because my dad was laughing so loud—he was near tears—the whole family got kicked out of the Senator Theatre. Dad was quite conservative but not humorless.

Those were Nixon’s wilderness years. He lost the presidency to John F. Kennedy in 1960, and then, in 1962, lost the California governor’s race. But Kennedy’s assassination, then Barry Goldwater’s defeat by Lyndon Johnson in 1964, offered the chance to grab again for power. Promising to end the war in Vietnam, Nixon swept into the White House in 1968 and 1972, accompanied by a graceless, imperious, and vindictive political style. Under threat of impeachment due to the Watergate scandal, he resigned in disgrace in 1974.

As for accomplishments: President Nixon did reestablish political ties with China, but had himself worked for 20 years to keep that Red door closed. He bombed Cambodia to hurry the end of the Vietnam War, an “incursion” that “set the Khmer Rouge on the road to murdering a million people,” as Nicholas von Hoffman put it. In 1973, Nixon did end the Vietnam War—a botched retreat, followed by the 1975 fall of Saigon.

At home, Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency, and approved the Endangered Species Act. Former Senator George McGovern, defeated by Nixon in 1972, noted that his domestic policies weren’t really conservative—including support for federal nutrition programs.

But Nixon was the first modern president to nearly destroy the presidency because of his core belief that “When the President does it, that means it is not illegal.” His executive criminality, Watergate, an endless saga of deceit, dishonesty, and denials, followed a bungled burglary of Democrats’ national headquarters.

42468994000_7937f8a3e8_o (1).jpg
Nixon greets Captain John McCain in May 1973, after McCain was released from years of brutal torture as a North Vietnamese POW.

As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said, Nixon was “a strange mixture of calculation, deviousness, idealism, tenderness, tawdriness, courage, and daring,” but a man who wanted to be remembered for his idealism. Less widely quoted from Kissinger: “Think what this man could have done if anyone had ever loved him.”

Up the Road Encourages Responsible, Safe Travel

Here are previous Up the Road episodes that explore why we should travel, why we should travel close to home, and how to travel responsibly in the shadow of COVID-19. Take a listen:

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Kim Weir is the founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project. She researches, writes, and hosts Up the Road, a radio show and mini-podcast about California co-produced by North State Public Radio. Kim got her start as a travel journalist in 1990 with the publication of the first and original Moon Handbooks Northern California, a surprise best-seller. Six other Moon books on California soon followed. She is a member, by invitation, of the venerable Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). Kim earned a BA in environmental studies and analysis, with an emphasis on botany and ecology, and also holds an MFA in creative writing. She lives in Paradise.
Matt Fidler is a producer and sound designer with over 15 years’ experience producing nationally distributed public radio programs. He has worked for shows such as Freakonomics Radio, Selected Shorts, Studio 360, The New Yorker Radio Hour and The Takeaway. In 2017, Matt launched the language podcast Very Bad Words, hitting the #28 spot in the iTunes podcast charts.