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California's Presidents -- the Striver and the Star

Nixon, Reagan and their quests for the dream.

June 16, 2004|Patt Morrison | Patt Morrison writes a weekly column for The Times. E-mail:

I like to say there are two kinds of Californians: the ones who are lucky enough to be born here and the ones who are smart enough to move here. Richard Nixon was the former. Ronald Reagan was the latter.

The Reagan rites got me thinking about our two presidents, the homegrown and the import, and thinking too that it was Reagan who wound up with the luck and Nixon who gutted it out on smarts. Which was more truly Californian?

It was Nixon who grew up inhaling the scent of the citrus blossoms outside the screen door of the small mail-ordered house in Yorba Linda, but it was Reagan who was clipped out of Sunset magazine: vigorous, buoyant, unwearyingly optimistic, self-invented and reinvented.

Reagan was at ease on the lens side of a camera, and it helped him to win the presidency. He rode his white horse as if he had been born on a ranch, not above an Illinois store. Reagan hacked at brush and stomped on a rattler and buried his horses and dogs on the hill behind his ranch house.

Nixon was awkward in front of the cameras in a way that once may have cost him the presidency. He looked as if he had been born wearing pinstripes. His stubborn brand of resurrection was flavored more with revenge than reinvention: You will have Nixon to kick around again, and he's going to kick right back.

Nixon took up residence along an exquisite expanse of California beach, but he strolled it, famously, in black wingtips. And Checkers, the cocker spaniel who probably saved Nixon's political skin, lies buried on Long Island.

Each was ambitious -- Reagan, fortune's darling, with a sunny certainty; Nixon with teeth clenched, the self-made man who bankrolled his first campaign with his poker winnings. In Hollywood, where Reagan wanted to shine, everyone was an outsider. In Washington and New York, where Nixon wished to make his mark, he was the outsider in an insider's game.

Each cultivated his own genius for politics. Nixon did it with his formidable brain, laboring in the Oval Office like a fireman, always on duty. Reagan, adopted son of these dolce far niente latitudes, made the job look effortless.

In the summer of 1937, both men chose California -- Reagan came to Hollywood and Nixon came back to Whittier with his new law degree from Duke University. Nixon had been turned down by the big East Coast law firms; Reagan was about to join America's film aristocracy. It's fanciful, I know, but I like to think of them riding the same train west by happenstance, two future presidents, strangers to each other, taking for the first and last time the same route to power.

When they did meet, it was in 1947, in Washington. Nixon was a green congressman and Reagan was a movie star and a star witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Reagan answered questions; Nixon asked none.

Nixon was less than a year away from making headlines as the capital's next Great Red Hunter. Reagan's path to power lay further off, and on the opposite coast. Their trajectories would eventually cross, Reagan's ascendant as Nixon's sank.

Reagan, who began political life as a Roosevelt Democrat, a labor leader and a governor who legalized abortion, morphed into the ideological icon of moral conservatism; champion of school prayer and missile defense, tax cuts and deregulation; foe of abortion, the Voting Rights Act, dictators in designer glasses.

Nixon, the steadfast Republican, scourge of Commies, thawed Red China and created the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He signed Title IX, ended the draft and gave the vote to 18-year-olds, and liked the idea of a national minimum income.

Each now lies a couple of hours' drive from the other, near the place where his California life began -- Nixon a few yards from the little frame house, Reagan on a hill within sight of where his Hollywood pals filmed "Fort Apache" and "Gunsmoke."

As to their claims on California's contested territory, it has to be a tossup. Reagan made himself into the golden boy, all sunlight and Stetsons and swimming pools. Nixon inhabited the other state, where not all miners strike it rich and not all actors make it big, but where you outwit and outwait the other guys, and if they wind up not loving you, they sure as Sherman Oaks won't forget you.

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