Working in the archives is a game of Beat the Clock. The Nixon Library is open exactly seven hours a day: 8:45 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., minus an hour at lunch, when it closes. My L.A. sojourn is brief, so each hour here counts. I try to arrive right at 8:45 and stay until they throw me out. Once, while working in the Library of Congress, I met the historian David Garrow and after chatting with him I asked if he wanted to join me for lunch. No thanks, he said. Days when he was in the archives, he didn’t like to stop to eat.
Archival research tests your stamina, physical and intellectual. The longer your eyes remain clear and your mind sharp, the more boxes and folders you can see. That’s crucial with hit-or-miss work like this. You can go whole days without finding anything useful, or you can suddenly strike gold. You never know how much time you’ll need.
Today I’m examining the Herman Perry collection. It sounds like a department at Bloomingdale’s. In fact, “Uncle Herman” was a Bank of America branch manager who first recruited Nixon to run for Congress in 1946. His son, Hubert Perry, gave the library his Nixon files. They include a little of everything: strategy memos from that first campaign; newsletters Nixon sent to his constituents after he was elected; exchanges about a proposed dam in Nixon’s district. Historic documents and ephemera, nestled side by side.
Since what I’m looking for is rather vague–anything, basically, that will tell me what the Herman Perrys of Southern California thought of Nixon–I easily get sidetracked. Is this batch of letters about Nixon’s Quaker supporters going to lead anywhere? What about these gossipy tidbits of internecine bickering among his chief aides? I feel constant tension: One moment I’m determined to breeze past the seemingly irrelevant stuff and home in on the material I know I can use; the next moment, I decide I must immerse myself in all the material, however random, hoping to discover some kind of recurring themes that might inspire insights.
When my eyes glaze over after too many memos about RN’s appearance at the Sales Executive Club of Los Angeles, I know I can count on the House Un-American Activities Committee to snap me back to alertness. How can anyone not enjoy finding something like this excerpt from a pamphlet titled, “100 Things You Should Know About Communism and Education”:
1. What is Communism?
A conspiracy to conquer and rule the world by any means, legal or illegal, in peace or in war.
2. Is it aimed at me?
Right between your eyes.
3. What do the Communists want?
To rule your mind and your body from the cradle to the grave.
Overheated period material, I tell myself, good only for a few chuckles. Then again, I think, some of Nixon’s Southern California supporters ate this stuff up. A few folders back, Uncle Herman was barraging RN with requests for HUAC reports on various left-wingers who spoke before the American Friends Service Committee. (“Ruth Benedict … has 13 red-front citations in our files,” read one response.) Maybe this will lead me somewhere after all.
I read on.