The body of Richard Milhous Nixon was scarcely in the ground when the struggle for control of his legacy had begun. It was April 28, 1994. His grieving daughters and their husbands were bound from the El Toro Marine base to New York on the plane that once served as their father's Air Force One.
They were a comfortable foursome that had practically grown up together: Tricia and Julie--inseparable in youth, maids of honor at each other's weddings--and the sons-in-law who melted seamlessly into the Nixon clan, feeding the patriarch's hunger for political discourse at every Christmas gathering.
The disgraced former president had spent his final years polishing his tarnished image as his daughters retreated to their separate lives. On the day he was buried at the presidential library in Yorba Linda, his funeral appeared to be a national rite of forgiveness. Every living president lined up to mourn him. He was hailed as a statesman. The nine-acre library and birthplace memorialize his rise from country lawyer to the commander in chief.
But that day on the plane, the dark forces that haunted Nixon in life seemed to reach beyond the grave. Somewhere between the two coasts, Edward Cox, Tricia's New York attorney husband, brought up a plan to ensure the Nixon library would be tightly controlled by the family rather than by hired hands.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 25, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Nixon children--Former President Nixon was 81 when he died in 1994. The wrong age was given in a story in Tuesday's Section A about his daughters.
While the subject might have seemed innocuous enough, Cox had touched a nerve that would bitterly divide the Nixon sisters as they struggled to sort out how much of their father's legacy belonged to history and how much belonged to them.
Years of mudslinging, perceived slights and betrayals followed that cross-country journey home, and finally, a pair of lawsuits filed earlier this year pitted one sister against the other. Today, they do not speak. The library their father hoped the sisters would co-direct showcases Julie and shuns Tricia, who tells friends she has not been invited there in five years.
This gardened place the exiled president worked so hard to build is better known for wedding parties than for serious research. It still does not house his presidential papers. And two lawsuits are pending over a $19-million bequest from his dearest friend.
"It's beyond tragic. I couldn't imagine facing the old man in this situation," Kenneth L. Khachigian, a Nixon confidant for decades, said of the rift. "He would be crestfallen."
For most of their lives, Nixon's daughters were bonded by love and crises. Now in their 50s, their common goal is a library that preserves the positive legacy of their father's presidency, from relations with China to detente with Russia. Yet, they disagree about how that should be managed--and by whom.
Friends and family believe the sisters' loyalty was undermined by a defiant library director, sons-in-law with career ambitions, Nixon disciples eager to claim their piece of one president's legacy--all pointing to each other in a riot of blame.
But like so many sibling rivalries, this rift may have its roots in the personalities of two very different women, mirror opposites in youth, linked by devotion to their famously troubled father.
The tale of their struggle is purely Nixonian: a man whose obsession with political power undermined his presidential vision. Now his daughters' battle for control is jeopardizing his legacy. And their shared desire to put the Nixon scandals in proportion to the Nixon successes has resurrected some of the ugliness they sought to bury.
Daughters Stand by Father With Love
They were model little girls in starched coats and hats, one blond and round-faced, the other dark-haired and angular. Their father may have been Dwight D. Eisenhower's vice president, but Pat Nixon made sure her daughters knew how to grocery shop and use a steam iron.
Whatever the public thought of Nixon, his children reflected a loving father whose daughters stood by him in triumph and shame. When campus protesters painted him a heartless warmonger, Tricia recast him as father of the bride and shifted the nation's eyes to her Lenox china pattern and her Rose Garden wedding. When the shame of Watergate engulfed him three years later, a defiant Julie defended him to the world.
They attended prestigious private schools and were the centerpiece of the Washington social scene, but they paid the inevitable price. As a sophomore at liberal Smith College in Massachusetts, Julie participated in a mock Republican convention where no one would volunteer to play her father and students jeered at the mention of his name.
"It was hell on Earth for me," she wrote in her published diary. Threatened protests kept her from her graduation. And the stigma of Watergate kept her from running for office in Pennsylvania. Still, she remained one of his most ardent public defenders.