YORBA LINDA, Calif.
For five years, he was known as the leader of the Free World.
But for the first several years of his life, Richard Milhous Nixon had a more modest title: farm boy.
Wednesday will mark the date, 100 years ago, of a winter day so cold that Hannah Nixon was advised it would be better to bear her fifth son at home than risk traveling to a hospital. That was the day a small, kit-constructed home surrounded by citrus trees saw the birth of the man who would become the 37th president of the United States.
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The small home is now one of the most popular exhibits at the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum here, but it was only Nixon’s home for a few scant years before failed crops forced his family to Whittier.
Still, even as he rose through the highest ranks of American government, Nixon remembered his roots.
Referring to his parents in his 1968 Republican National Convention acceptance speech, Nixon described his father as a man “who had to go to work before he finished the sixth grade, sacrificed everything he had so that his sons could go to college.”
“People who knew my father, they knew throughout his life he was a very forward-looking person,” said Richard Nixon’s elderdaughter, Patricia Nixon Cox. “But his childhood in Orange County meant very much to him. He grew up in a very close-knit and loving family.”
A staunch anti-communist and a fierce debater with a love of foreign lands, Nixon began his travels modestly, from his home in Whittier to the farmers markets in downtown Los Angeles.
He made the daily drives at 4 a.m. each day, enough time to wash the newly purchased produce and set it up at his parents’ combination gasoline station and grocery store before heading off for the day’s classes at high school.
He could pick up any fruit, Nixon Cox said: “He could tell you within hours of when it would be perfect. He spent his high-school years doing that.”
Looking back, it’s easy to see how some of the pieces of Nixon’s character showed themselves in those early years.
Visitors to the Nixon Birthplace find old issues of National Geographic in the living room, Nixon’s favorite reading material.
“He was always interested in seeing the world and seeing how other countries fit into the whole world,” Nixon Cox said.
In 1927, he was one of the stars on the Fullerton Union High School debate team.
“We were all encouraged to do what we enjoy,” said Ed Nixon, the former president’s youngest brother. “Dick was always interested in debate, and my father encouraged that.”
Lifelong Whittier resident Hubert Perry attended high school and Whittier College with Nixon.
“He was six months older than me and a lot smarter. I never caught up with him,” Perry, 99, joked. Even then, “You knew he was going to do something worthwhile, because he was smarter than anyone else.”
Perry’s home resembles a shrine to his friend. One bookshelf is stuffed with volumes written by — and about — Nixon and his White House aides. Then there are the photos of Nixon and the letters from him.
It was Perry’s father, H.L. Perry, who wrote to Nixon to ask him to run for Congress upon his return from naval service after World War II. Nixon took the seat from a Democrat who had held it for several terms.
A mere six years later, Nixon had risen through the ranks of the Senate to be vice president.
“He jumped up much faster than other people in the political scheme,” said Perry, who remained friends with Nixon throughout the years. “That’s because he was articulate and was a scholar of politics.”
Friends and foes alike agree t one of Nixon’s defining traits was his stubbornness. Maybe that’s what kept him from giving up after losing the presidential election to John F. Kennedy in 1960. Two years later, he lost the California governor’s race to Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, the father of current Gov. Jerry Brown.
After the latter, Nixon gave a famous speech in which he announced, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”
But in 1968, Nixon beat Vice President Hubert Humphrey to win the Oval Office, carrying California in the victory.
Nixon had great triumphs in his early years, signing legislation to adopt Title IX, helping women’s equality; expand the food-stamps program; and preserve clean water.
Most see Nixon’s efforts to help normalize relations with China, the world’s largest country, as the pinnacle of his political career.
Even now, Ed Nixon, a geologist, gets recognized there because of his name and his resemblance to his brother.
“It’s embarrassing. I’m not going to meet anybody in government or a mayor. I just want to meet with a geologist poking around in a tin mine in Hunan … but they put out the red carpet,” Ed Nixon said. “I’ve been to 40 countries around the world, and Nixon’s name works wonders.”
Nixon Cox said “the twin pillars of my father’s legacy are peace and the victory of free-market capitalism. I think my father’s guiding principles were peace and justice … because without justice, peace is only ephemeral. Everything he did in the international area was to bring about a lasting peace.”
Still, the stain of the cover-up of the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters remains.
“It’s a legacy that will live with honor,” Ed Nixon said. “Richard Nixon did not resign in shame. He died knowing he accomplished what he tried to do. He was cut short, but he did a lot of things that people didn’t think he could do. China was just one of them.”
There seems to be no easy answer to how future generations will view the 37th president.
“He leaves a very complex legacy,” said Tim Naftali, a presidential scholar. “Richard Nixon’s legacy will always be a mixture of light and shadow.”
Naftali was the first director of the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum in 2007 when the federal government took it over from the nonprofit Nixon Foundation. The foundation — a group of Nixon family members and loyalists — built the library and ran it privately for years. Naftali left his post late last year to work full time on writing books.
“There were impulses in his (Nixon’s) approach to public service that ultimately brought him down. The positive achievements, which no one can take away from him, must be put in the context of some very troubling approaches to leadership,” Naftali said. “There are some very troubling aspects to his legacy, and students of the American presidency cannot walk away from them.”
Though Nixon left office in disgrace, every president to succeed him during his lifetime called him for advice, particularly Democrat Bill Clinton.
“Every time I made a visit to his office, there was some conversation going on with the White House,” Ed Nixon said. “The fact he was communicating with his successor means that they respected his experience.”