David Greenberg

I’ve come to Southern California to research a book about Richard Nixon. Nixon’s story begins here. In 1946, the young Navy veteran went to Washington representing California’s 12th Congressional District and its pro-business, anti-New Deal politics. To understand this early Nixon, I figure, I’ve got to understand his deep roots here. More practically, this is where the Nixon paper trail begins, in two major archives teeming with material.

First day of my trip, a favorable omen. At the car-rental place, no less. It’s one of these lots that leases you an old Ford Festiva–with a crease in the passenger-side door, a temperamental transmission, and no coffee-cup holder–for far less than Hertz or Avis’ obscene rates. (No expense accounts for us in academia.) The place has its charms. The clerk is a flesh-and-blood human being, not a corporate drone. Out of real curiosity, he asks me why I’m here. Nixon’s name makes his eyes light up. “I have a picture of Nixon!” he exults. “Follow me.”

I expect a standard presidential portrait but tag along anyway, hoping to ingratiate myself so he’ll allot me some extra mileage (plus free air conditioning). In his back office, he proudly points to a once-famous poster that hangs on the far wall. Bearing a picture of a youngish Nixon, it asks, in big letters: “Would you buy a used car from this man?” Everyone here, it seems, has a Nixon story. His presence still haunts the highways and back roads of California’s Southland.

These are the roads I’ll be crisscrossing during the coming weeks as I shuttle from one Nixon archive to the next, scooping up as much as I can in my limited time. A brief explanation is needed: Unlike with other chief executives, there’s no single presidential library that contains all of Nixon’s papers. You can’t, as with FDR or JFK, go to Hyde Park or Boston for one-stop shopping. RN’s holdings are spread across the country, at three different sites.

Well known to aficionados of the Nixon tapes is the National Archives annex in College Park, Md., which houses the Presidential Papers. It’s a vital collection, but one of no immediate use to me as I examine Nixon’s early career. To look at Nixon as candidate, congressman, senator, and vice president, you need to consult the Pre-Presidential Papers.

That’s where the next problem comes in. Thanks to arrangements no doubt devised for the express purpose of infuriating scholars, the documents pertaining to Nixon’s early career are subdivided between two archives in the greater Los Angeles area, which have no connection to each other. The picturesque town of Laguna Niguel contains the publicly run, and much-ignored, Federal Records Center of the National Archives. Meanwhile, in Nixon’s native Yorba Linda lies the privately run, and much-maligned, Richard M. Nixon Library and Birthplace. Each has reams of material. Each requires long days and multiple visits.

This, then, is why I’m so glad to have finagled those extra miles on the old banged-up Festiva. I will be seeing a lot of Nixon’s old terrain.