The door was locked, the name of the room was nowhere to be seen. Only inside was the identity apparent. This was the Nixon Room of the Whittier College library, lined with the glass-encased, political memorabilia of the college's most famous alumnus.
The fact that Stephen Ambrose needed a librarian to help him find the room and then get into it did not go unnoticed by Ambrose. It symbolized the ambivalence with which Nixon is viewed at his alma mater, in his hometown of Whittier--and in Ambrose's mind.
A New Orleans historian who is writing the second volume of his bulky biography of former President Richard M. Nixon, Ambrose says he does not like Nixon, but he has grudgingly come to respect him.
"I moved, I gotta confess, from a total contempt for the man . . . I discovered to my surprise that I found a great deal to admire," Ambrose said last month at the end of a three-week campus stint as a visiting Nixon Scholar.
Former Nixon Aides Brought In
Gray-haired, gravel-voiced and 52, Ambrose is the first Nixon Scholar who actually is a student of Nixon. Unlike other scholars who have lectured under the endowed chair program on subjects as diverse as the solar system or international relations, Ambrose came to Whittier to talk about Nixon and his troubled presidency. Ambrose even brought in former Nixon Administration officials H.R. Haldeman, Robert Finch and Maurice Stans to spin classroom tales of the Nixon years.
He found that his students could use a few Nixon tales. "I suppose I had assumed that just being at Whittier, they would have absorbed something about Nixon. It turned out, precious little. What hit me hardest about the students, many of whom were freshmen, was that they don't know anything about the guy."
But then, as Ambrose noted, the college "certainly doesn't overwhelm their students with the fact" that Nixon was a big man around campus, a well-regarded, frenetically active student leader who attended Whittier in the 1930s on his grandfather's scholarship fund. "There are no buildings named after Nixon. There's a Nixon Room. (But) it doesn't have a name on it."
Ambrose, a professor of modern American history at the University of New Orleans, says today's college students, wherever they are, take a rather benevolent view of Nixon. "They don't see anything so horrible about Watergate."
Indeed, such campus attitudes are contributing to Nixon's national resurgence, said Ambrose, whose first volume of biography, "Nixon: The Education of a Politician 1913-1962," was published last year. "It's the damnedest thing, but it's quite true. The Nixon revival is full-blown now and well under way," Ambrose said.
"We're 15 years away from Watergate now. People are starting to think more about other things that happened in the Nixon Administration. We were all of us blinded by the klieg lights of Watergate for so long. The Nixon Administration needs a much longer look than people have given it. It was in many ways bold and innovative and imaginative."
Praise and Condemnation
Ambrose lauds Nixon for his ability to perceive and sort out the complexities of international events. He praises him for mending relations with China, for his progress in detente. He condemns him for painfully prolonging America's exit from Vietnam. And, Ambrose said, "I'm more and more distressed at his personality. The guy confuses the hell out of me."
Three years ago, when Ambrose was in Whittier researching his book, he received a cold shoulder from many of the Nixon acquaintances he approached. This time, he said, Whittier residents "were coming out of the woodwork to tell me Nixon stories. That all delighted me very much."
He attributes the turnaround to his book, generally regarded by reviewers as an objective examination of Nixon. "Everyone was very complimentary. It was a great feeling to be able to speak critically about Nixon in Whittier and get a positive response from people who have never accepted that he was guilty."
Nixon continues to kindle both pride and shame in Whittier, Ambrose said. "There's naturally the hometown pride. This little burg produced a President of the United States. . . . Yet they're distressed and they're divided, like everyone else in America is divided over Nixon. But, of course, it hurts more here and it runs deeper."
Small Town Atmosphere
A small, closely knit community in Nixon's day, Whittier has amazingly managed to retain that flavor, Ambrose said. "The big surprise to me was what a small town Whittier is and how it maintains itself as a small town in this huge metropolitan area. You could take this town and plop it down in the middle of Wisconsin and it would be right at home. . . . There's amazing continuity in this town."
Nixon's apparent indifference to Whittier still bruises local egos, Ambrose said. "He never came here while he was President, and that hurt. This town would just love to have him come back. Even the ones who are angriest at him."