David Whiting – the OC Register’s front page columnist – writes about last weeks 20th anniversary reunion at La Casa Pacifica
Men and women who once served “at the pleasure of the president” walk the grounds of Richard Nixon’s Western White House and something unexpected fills the air.
To those on the outside during the Nixon Administration, that word may come as something of a shock. Like him or not, Richard Nixon didn’t easily exude affection in public.
But for those who personally knew Orange County’s most famous son, love is the very reason why they have come together on the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace.
On this warm July evening, an ocean breeze drifts through cypress trees and cools the lawn. Surfers ride golden waves near the beach the President walked. And everywhere there is love for the former commander in chief, love for what these men and women did for their country and love for one another.
Tricia Nixon Cox, now 64, mingles quietly with old friends outside her former home in San Clemente. Blonde hair still long, she wears a white dress and it’s easy to picture her on her father’s arm in 1971 when she entered the White House’s Rose Garden to be married.
Ed Nixon, 80, the only surviving brother of the President, stands poolside. Smiling and nodding near a white linen-covered circular table, the resemblance to his famous sibling is striking. His appearance, like that of Cox, also is a source of warmth for this loyal court in its winter.
But this is not a night for mourning – for theirs is a legacy that will last forever. This is a night to remember, honor and cherish the years of triumph as well as the times forthrightly described by some as depressing and tough.
PRESERVING THE ESTATE
It’s my first visit to the California Mission Revival estate, and much has changed since the days when my father was here in 1969. In those days there were two-dozen acres and you entered through an area manned by the Coast Guard.
Today, you enter through a gated community and stroll through 6.4 acres of carefully maintained gardens – which comes as no surprise when you learn the history.
La Casa Pacifica was originally owned by Democratic backer H. H. Cotton who entertained President Franklin Roosevelt on the property. Nixon bought it in 1969 and in the late 1980s, sold it to Allergan founder and Chairman Emeritus Gavin S. Herbert – who also happens to be a horticulturalist and founder of Rogers Gardens.
Herbert and his wife, Ninetta, greet guests at the end of an oval driveway. Later, Herbert, co-chair of the Orange County chapter to re-elect the President in 1972, reveals the couple has arranged to preserve the site in perpetuity.
I climb a tiled outdoor staircase and walk into what was the President’s study. It’s modest in size, about 15-foot square, but with commanding views of the ocean. A list of guests for a June 23, 1973 reception for Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev is a moment in time: Frank Sinatra, Gene Autry, Clint Eastwood, Bob Hope, Art Linkletter.
But it’s the people here who bring the past to life – with respect and humor.
Ken Khachigian, Orange County attorney, speechwriter for Nixon and President Ronald Reagan and veteran of nine presidential campaigns, addresses the crowd during dinner.
When Brezhnev visited he was to stay in the guest house, Khachigian recounts. But a skunk had moved into the basement. So Trisha Nixon gave up her bedroom for the Soviet premier. In the morning, Pat Nixon spotted a tall blonde stenographer leaving – to the First Lady’s chagrin.
Like the great speeches Khachigian has written – Reagan’s “never again” at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1985 – this one also is mixed with pathos.
“It was sad and difficult for us at the very beginning after he resigned,” Khachigian says, recalling when he returned to San Clemente after Nixon stepped down. But even in exile, Nixon was a leader. “The President said, ‘Don’t get down. Stay upbeat.'”
After helping Nixon with his memoirs, Khachigian served as chief researcher for the Nixon-David Frost interviews – a topic that’s part of the cocktail buzz after the recent movie “Frost/Nixon,” or as it’s referred to this night, “Nixon/Frost.”
“Frank Langella did a good job,” Khachigian allows. Still, he and others are troubled by historical inaccuracies. Coveting Italian shoes? Didn’t happen. Drunken late night phone call to Frost? Didn’t happen.
In that context, perhaps there’s justice that many of the little-known Nixon moments swirling through conversations are the stuff of movies.
Alex Larzlere, retired U.S. Coast Guard captain, commander of five cutters and the first Coast Guard liaison to a president, smiles at the dinner table as his wife, Rita, nudges him to tell a story from his book, “Witness To History: White House Diary of a Military Aide to President Richard Nixon.”
Larzlere recounts the time he was at Camp David in May 1972. Late one morning he got a call from the on-duty officer. Nixon had gotten up during the night and dictated two lengthy memos for a major address. He gave Rose Mary Woods, his soon-to-be famous assistant, two tapes. But the tapes were blank.
“Someone’s going to have to tell the President,” Woods told the duty officer. “And it’s not going to be me.” It was at that moment Larzlere realized who that someone was going to be – the new kid on the block.
Larzlere put on his Camp David jacket and walked to where the President was getting ready to have lunch. He told Nixon there were no recordings of his dictations. “He wasn’t pleased, but he didn’t take it out on me.”
The anecdote is soaked in humorous irony given the role that tape recordings and the name Rose Mary Woods played in the Senate’s Watergate hearings.
But more than anything, Larzlere’s story is soaked in love.
Photo courtesy of Paul Rodriguez of the OC Register: Gavin Herbert and his wife, Nanetta, are the current owners of La Casa Pacifica, the former Western White House of President Richard Nixon.