Last night when I logged on, what should I find but a message from John Taylor, the head of the Nixon Library and Birthplace, e-mailing me from a room down the hall from where I’ve been toiling away. You never know who’s reading Slate! Mr. Taylor took issue with my description of the library as “much-maligned,” noting that every scholar who has been here has praised it. So, let me clarify: My whole point is that the library has been unfairly maligned. Because of the rather pronounced pro-Nixon tilt of the museum exhibit, my sense is that people have written off the archives downstairs, which is a shame and a mistake.
Today I’m looking at Nixon’s speeches from his 1946 campaign. The original handwritten notes are here–notes for speeches he delivered before the Kiwanis Clubs and American Legion Posts around his district. Fascinating to read them. All done himself–pre-William Safire and Pat Buchanan, needless to say. Nixon was a master outliner. He always lays out his points in a neatly logical “1,” “2,” “3,” “4,” with his “a,” “b,” “c,” “d,” meticulously beneath them.
It’s hard to stay focused on the substance of the speeches, because they’re so repetitive and, like most political speeches, often banal. He even repeats the jokes. (His favorite is something like “This is one night when the hot air can’t be blamed on politicians!”) My eye wanders to the doodles and random notes. Why, I wonder, did Nixon write “Donner Party” in the margin of this particular speech?
RN loves to talk about the same end-of-World War II issues: inflation, housing, veterans’ benefits. What’s striking is that while those issues are different from today’s, Nixon’s main theme is uncannily contemporary: extolling the virtues of free enterprise and individual initiative, attacking big government, regulations, and taxes. One difference: Back then Nixon often referred to his philosophy not as “conservatism” but as “practical liberalism.”
I leave the archives a little early to get to the Whittier public library. Thank God for small-town public libraries. This one is the only place in the world that carries the Whittier News from 1946, which I need in order to see the coverage of RN’s earliest campaign appearances. (Before heading out here, I asked Columbia University’s Inter-Library Loan office to try to track it down. They struck out.)
Working at the public library couldn’t be more different from the archives. There, I have to sign in and out, wear a visitor’s badge, and put all my belongings in a drawer while I work. Here, nobody even asks why I have traveled 3,000 miles to come to their library. I’m not even sure the teen-age girls who bring me the microfilm have heard of Richard Nixon. (I’d better be careful. They may be reading Slate too.) I sit at the microfilm reader amid rows of videos. “I found Welcome to the Dollhouse!” an 10-year-old excitedly tells her friend.