SAN CLEMENTE — It was the summer of 1973, when the eyes of the nation were glued to the Watergate hearings on television.
And yet, thousands of miles away on the West Coast, Richard Nixon and his family were honoring a rare guest at La Casa Pacifica.
Soviet President Leonid I. Brezhnev had come to the seaside estate for a stay of several days, bringing with him to South County some of the world's most powerful Communists. But in this case, none of the neighbors minded.
Brezhnev came to the Western White House in July, the same month former Nixon aide Alexander P. Butterfield revealed that the President had secretly recorded all of his Oval Office meetings and phone conversations. Hence, the bombshell of the Watergate tapes.
But in the oceanfront tower of La Casa Pacifica, where former President Franklin D. Roosevelt had once played poker, Nixon and Brezhnev engaged in a high-stakes game of diplomatic chess deep into the night. What resulted was the first of a series of agreements aimed at averting nuclear war.
More than any other aspect of La Casa Pacifica, or "peaceful house," it was the tower, friends say, that came to symbolize the 37th President's greatest successes and deepest sorrows.
It was there that he retreated for quiet contemplation and then later for refuge, as shelter from the storm that drove him from office as an unindicted co-conspirator in August, 1974. And it was from there, in days before and after Watergate, that he forged his strongest bonds with the people of Orange County as political soul brother and oceanside neighbor.
For Nixon, "it was a great escape in two different ways," said family friend Pat Hitt of Corona del Mar, a Nixon appointee to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. "Before his resignation, it was a getaway where he could have privacy but still be completely in touch. But after his resignation, it was purely a refuge, and for that matter, a place of healing."
During the time he lived in the sprawling estate--between 1969 and 1980, when he returned to the East Coast--Nixon welcomed to the 24-acre enclave Japanese Premier Eisaku Sato. "First Foreign Leader Ever in San Clemente," the city's newspaper proclaimed. Sato would not be the last.
Nixon later welcomed Soviet dignitaries Anatoly Dobrynin and Andrei Gromyko, South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu and former President Lyndon Johnson, who celebrated his 61st birthday at La Casa Pacifica.
Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Red Skelton, Cesar Romero and the Rev. Billy Graham also dropped in for overnight stays. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger moved in next door, to an estate once owned by the publisher of Surfing magazine. Nixon aides H.R. (Bob) Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman moved nearby.
And so, for a while, San Clemente became the focal point of the ultimate power lunch. La Casa Pacifica quietly emerged as not only \o7 the\f7 high-profile social arena in Southern California but also the setting for some of the most important foreign-policy decisions of the Cold War era.
It was in Nixon's so-called final days, in particular, friends say, that the Western White House came to symbolize much that was positive and compelling about his presidency, while Washington came to depict the stigma of Watergate and his ultimate undoing.
But for the final five years of his time in San Clemente, La Casa Pacifica became a fortress, where sadness was the resident emotion.
"Oh, he was bitter," Hitt said. "Being a human being, he had to be. But he didn't express it, at least not publicly. He didn't go around saying, 'Poor me.' But I know he was bleeding inside. He had to be--he really was had. Certainly, everyone close to him was bitter."
Nixon and his wife, Patricia Ryan Nixon, or Nixon by himself, were often seen walking along the beach, looking at the sand as the sea gulls circled overhead.
"It was quite a therapeutic surrounding for them," said Dorothy Fuller, president of the San Clemente Historical Society and author of an unpublished manuscript on La Casa Pacifica titled "The Western White House Foursome."
"It's just so beautiful and peaceful and medicinal," Fuller said. "It would be a great place for a sanitarium."
Until then, however, La Casa Pacifica was a far different place for Nixon. It was there that he met with special envoy Huang Chen in what led to a meltdown of hostilities between the United States and China.
As author David Halberstam, whose books "The Powers That Be" and "The Fifties" contain numerous references to Nixon, said last week in an interview: "There were positive things--his intelligence, the opening up of China. . . . But he had to have been the only President ever who could go to China without being red-baited by Richard Nixon."
It was at La Casa Pacifica that Nixon welcomed the Skylab astronauts and a reunion of former Vietnam POWs. And it was there that Tom Hayden brought a mob of protesters angry over the Vietnam War.