Thursday, September 1, 2011

 LOS ANGELES — “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser,” Richard Nixon’s football coach at Whittier College in California was fond of saying.

The motto, which is featured in one of the first displays in the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif., comes as something of an “a-ha” moment, an accessible explanation for decisions that led to the lone presidential resignation in American history.

Nixon was nothing if not a bad loser. And he wasn’t the most secure, gracious winner to walk the White House either.

Eighty miles apart in the Los Angeles area — and universes away in terms of style — stand the Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan presidential libraries.

One has to battle the L.A. traffic on Interstate Highways 5 and 405, but it is possible to fully tour both remarkable facilities in a 24-hour period.

Entering the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum is like jumping into a gray suit, or walking the beach in black dress shoes, as the former president famously did. Visitors to the Nixon library go there in much the same spirit they crack an 800-page biography. No fast-food history or flash here. A new Watergate exhibit is expected to open soon, however, on site in Yorba Linda, which may change the dynamics somewhat.

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library, perched for panoramic views in Simi Valley, Calif., is a Hollywood production of the first order. Simi Valley, where the Reagan library was only recently updated in connection with the 100th anniversary of The Gipper’s birthday with breathtaking audio-visual technology, draws political pilgrims, who pay almost religious homage to the patron saint of modern conservatism (with apologies to Barry Goldwater).

There was a smattering of tourists in Yorba Linda, once a rural California community (Nixon was born in a farmhouse there in 1913) that is now swept up in the greater L.A. area. Reagan’s library was jammed to the point where staff had to funnel gaggles of people through various exhibits.

At the beginning of the Simi Valley tour, the Reagan Library shows a 3-minute high-definition video. Of the dozens of visitors moving through the museum with me, many of them actually stood and cheered after the video. Others were crying at various points in the museum. As Tom Hanks famously said in “A League of Their Own,” there is no crying in baseball. There was no crying in the Nixon museum.

The centerpiece of the Reagan museum is the Air Force One Pavilion.

With a visit to the Reagan Library, one will step aboard this same Air Force One that flew President Reagan more than 660,000 miles — to 26 foreign countries and 46 states.

This Flying White House, tail number 27000, served seven U.S presidents from 1973 to 2001, including Presidents Nixon, Carter, Ford, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton and George W. Bush. For Ronald Reagan, this was the plane in which he hand-wrote many of his speeches, signed important legislation and even officially started the Daytona 500 NASCAR race via phone.

The only drawback with the Air Force One Pavilion is the aggressiveness with which the library staffers push photos on visitors.

I’ve toured many presidential libraries, and one of the more arresting exhibits in all of them is what the Reagan Library calls the assassination attempt theater. The exhibit is terrifying. You stand in a surround-sound room, bombarded with the noises of gunfire and Secret Service commotion. The theater literally makes you feel as if you’re on the sidewalk outside the Washington Hilton on March 30, 1981, as Reagan is gunned down just weeks into his presidency.

There’s a section on President Reagan’s battle with Alzheimer’s as well, one that includes his wife Nancy’s 1996 speech to the Republican National Convention. It is extraordinarily moving.

“I had no one to exchange memories with, and we had lots of memories,” said Nancy Reagan, who has been a vocal supporter for stem-cell research in the wake of the experience with her husband.

The Reagan folks’ focus, as one can imagine, was heavily on the Cold War. In a classy turn, the museum casts the fight against communism as a bipartisan one — with ample credit being given to President Truman for his administration’s policy of containment and President Kennedy for standing tall in potentially catastrophic moments with the Soviet Union.

A highlight at Simi Valley is the Berlin Wall display.

Visitors are quickly met with a proclamation from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin: “Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns. Why should we let them have ideas?”

As you sit on crates fashioned into seats in the communism-Berlin Wall section of the Reagan Library, you’re bathed in red light and blasted with images from four screens, engulfed with the images of life under communism.

Greatest Reagan quote in the exhibits: “Regimes planted by bayonets do not take root.”

At age 42, I grew up during the Reagan years.

Nixon, on the other hand, is an historical figure, as far as I am concerned.

After spending five hours in the Nixon Library, an obvious question emerges: Would Nixon survive in the modern Republican Party?

Consider:

• Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

• In 1969 Nixon created the Office of Minority Business Enterprise to increase business opportunity. Also that year, he established the “Philadelphia Plan” to increase hiring of minority-owned contractors on big federal projects, and affirmative-action programs setting goals and timetables for minority hiring.

• Nixon in 1972 signed Title IX prohibiting gender bias at colleges and universities receiving federal aid.

A must-see section of the Nixon museum is a full-sized replica of the East Room at the White House. There’s also an exhibit of the Lincoln Sitting Room in the White House’s family quarters as it was decorated during President Nixon’s time in office. This exhibit shows the room where President Nixon made many of his most crucial decisions.

You can also tour the house in which Nixon was born. While there, one of the docents (volunteer tour guides) told me that Nixon’s youngest brother, Edward Nixon, 80, of Seattle, will make visits to the library during regular hours. The staff says such occurrences cause tourists to do double- and even triple-takes because of Edward and President Nixon’s shared physical features.

William Enright, 69, one of the docents and a retired computer programmer from Fullterton, Calif., shows visitors the World Leader Room in which one can walk among life-sized statues of leaders like Winston Churchill and Golda Meir.

Even the most casual follower of American history is familiar with the famous 1960 Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates. But it is not the first time the two men, who entered Congress in the same class, debated publicly. In 1947 Congressmen John Kennedy and Richard Nixon traveled to McKeesport, Pa., where they debated Taft-Hartley legislation that challenged the power of labor unions. Nixon was for it; Kennedy against.

Interestingly, the two men shared a room on a train back to Washington, D.C. They flipped a coin for the lower bunk. Nixon won.

For students of politics and history, visits to these museums offer a chance to pick up fascinating nuggets, much like a child collecting seashells on the beach.

In that regard, the Nixon Library yielded far more for me.

• George Nixon III, President Nixon’s grandfather, was killed in the Battle of Gettysburg.

• In law school at Duke University, Nixon ate a Milky Way candy bar almost every day for breakfast.

• During part of World War II, Nixon was assigned to the Naval Air Station in Ottumwa.

• Nixon became vice president at age 39 — the same age at which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn.