Orange County: where scandal lives on

Moment in history ... Richard Nixon meets Elvis Presley.
Moment in history ... Richard Nixon meets Elvis Presley. 

IT WAS 40 years ago today that five men broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office complex, sparking the scandal that eventually undid president Richard Nixon.

Yorba Linda, a moneyed suburb of Orange County near Los Angeles, is a long way from Washington DC yet it's home to a thoroughly absorbing view of Nixon's life and death, and all that came between.

To be honest, the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum sounded a bit dull to me, but a friend in the Orange County insisted it was interesting, and he was right. The library's archive draws the scholarly crowd but it's the museum that attracts the regular folk.

The museum is built around Nixon's birthplace - a modest farmhouse his parents built from a kit. Back then, it was encircled by citrus groves. These days the view from the front door takes in Army One - the helicopter that lifted Nixon from the White House lawn post-resignation.

A volunteer guide clutching one of Nixon's books (there's a selection of his works in the gift shop) ushers us onto the aircraft. He's aware what others think of Nixon. One time, he and his wife went to visit the Roosevelt Library and Museum in New York state (there are 13 presidential libraries throughout the US) and were surprised when the attendant handed them free passes without asking for ID.

These days the view from the front door takes in Army One.

"He said, 'I figure you must be telling the truth - why would you say you're a volunteer at the Richard Nixon Library when you could have picked any of the others,"' the guide recalls, laughing.

Behind the farmhouse lie the graves of Nixon and wife Pat, and the museum. The vast warren of rooms explores different facets of Nixon's reign: space exploration, his visit to China, meeting Elvis and so on. There's a recreation of the White House's East Room, which has hosted wedding parties and vigils for assassinated presidents; a selection of gifts (including an opalised snail shell from Australia that's so stunning I wish we could ask for it back); and White House plates and place cards. Much is made of daughter Tricia's 1971 wedding in the White House rose garden; ditto for Pat's international goodwill efforts. After all that spin, it's almost a shock to finally encounter the Watergate Gallery.

The $US500,000 gallery opened last year, complete with architectural models that light up to show where microphones were hidden around White House furniture and in telephones. It replaces Nixon's own perspective on the scandal, which had been ridiculed as a whitewash. The National Archives, which in 2007 took control of the library from the private Richard Nixon Foundation, oversaw the creation of this new, expanded gallery.

Surprisingly, for a museum dedicated to a Republican, a Democrat is allowed the final word. "May the day of judging president Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close," says Bill Clinton, in a quote sprawled prominently above the exit. Yet Clinton's another president who's known disgrace - the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Arkansas includes that woman in the infamous blue dress.

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