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NIXON LIBRARY : THE LIBRARY : Controversy Dogs Creation, Content

July 17, 1990|JOHN NEEDHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Richard M. Nixon witnessed, changed and created history in one of the most tumultuous careers in American politics before the Watergate scandal forced him to resign the highest office in the land 16 years ago. Now, in the latest of his Phoenix-like ascensions, Nixon returns in triumph to Yorba Linda to open his presidential museum next door to his birthplace.

The dedication will be filled with pomp, ceremony and the strains of "Hail to the Chief." A presidential phalanx will start with George Bush and extend through Republican former Presidents Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. Nixon's wife, Pat, will make a rare public appearance. His children, Tricia and Julie, will be on hand.

The ceremonies in the county where Nixon was born, where he ruled the nation from his Western White House, and where he returned after being forced from the presidency in 1974 one step ahead of impeachment, come during what is shaping up as a banner year in the rehabilitation of the 37th President.

In March, Nixon strode the halls of Congress to acclaim. In April, he stared out from the cover of Time for what the magazine says was the 66th time. He chatted on a television talk show. He watched his book "In the Arena," the latest volume in his memoirs, hit the bestseller lists.

Yet this is Richard Nixon after all, a man whose White House once kept an "enemies list," who used the Internal Revenue Service to investigate his opponents, whose tenure was marked by divisiveness over Vietnam, Spiro Agnew, Watergate.

So it comes as no surprise that the quest for a library site was marked by the rancor that Nixon has engendered over the years, most of all during Watergate, the "cancer on the presidency" that drove him from office and so tore apart the nation that many recalled W.B. Yeats' line that "the center cannot hold."

Soon after Nixon became President on Jan. 20, 1969, the city of San Clemente, home to the Western White House and the beach where Nixon walked in wing-tipped shoes, proclaimed itself ready to house his museum and library.

Whittier College also put in a bid for the collection of its most famous alumnus. Cal State Fullerton said there were two good sites in Orange County for the papers and artifacts. Then came the poison of Watergate, and enthusiasm dimmed:

* Duke University, where Nixon graduated from law school, considered hosting the library, but many teachers were bitterly opposed. The faculty senate voted unanimously to "categorically reject the creation of any museum or memorial designed to foster the glorification of the former President as part of a Nixon presidential library" on or next to the campus. Even the executive committee of the university's board of trustees, which voted 9 to 2 to cede land for a library site to the federal government, stipulated that the facility be limited to 150,000 square feet and have "strict limitations on the space to be set aside for museum purposes." The opposition eventually helped persuade Duke to withdraw its offer.

* UC Irvine was a possibility, but the faculty there was divided as well, and the Nixon backers pulled out after the university's academic senate attached what Nixon's supporters called "totally unacceptable" conditions to the library offer. The conditions included limiting exhibits to educational displays that would occupy no more than 5% of the building and banning those "dealing with the private lives of Mr. Nixon and his family." Nixon would also have been forced to yield all claims to control over his presidential papers and tapes and allow establishment of an oversight committee with at least 40% university representation. The committee would have controlled the nature of exhibits and privately funded activities at the library.

* San Clemente re-entered the bidding and reached a tentative agreement with Nixon that city officials said ensured that there would be no "slanted view favorable to Mr. Nixon" in the library's documents. But when the matter dragged on and on, Nixon picked Yorba Linda.

The choice was serendipitous. The house where Nixon was born still stands, and museum-goers will be able to visit it, gazing at the piano on which he learned to play, the beds where he slept with his brothers, even the family cookbook.

"Our main draw will be to politically and historically curious individuals," said Hugh Hewitt, executive director of the Richard M. Nixon Library.

The museum will function as "another niche in the tourism market" of Orange County, Hewitt said, appealing to people wanting to spend a day at Disneyland and a half-day at the Nixon museum.

Hewitt estimated the cost of the building, which has the library in the basement and the museum on the ground floor of the single-story, Spanish-style building, at $21 million. The money was raised by a nonprofit foundation, and library backers are trying to raise another $10 million to set up an endowment to pay for operating costs.

The library will not open until 1991, after an archivist and a curator are hired.

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