There are certain places around America which are always remembered as places where Presidents have gone to get a rest, for a while, from the pressure cooker that Washington can sometimes be….places that bear the personal stamp of a Chief Executive’s personality in a way that is not the case with Camp David, the official Presidential weekend hideaway.
Some of the most famous of these are Warm Springs, Georgia, so closely associated with Franklin D. Roosevelt; Rapidan Camp in the heart of Shenandoah National Park where Herbert Hoover spent many a blissful hour fishing; the Wexford estate in Middleburg, Virginia, where John F. Kennedy enjoyed some of his most serene moments during his final year; the Texas ranches of Lyndon B. Johnson and George W. Bush, so often in the news during their administrations; and of course Rancho del Cielo, which thanks to Ronald Reagan overtook the pea soup at Andersen’s Restaurant as Solvang, California’s leading claim to fame.
During his Presidency Richard Nixon had two such locations to which he would travel when the opportunity arose to leave the District. One, very often used on weekends year-round, was a rented estate on Bay Lane in Key Biscayne, Florida, which was razed nearly a decade ago; it may now be most widely remembered as the place where RN first heard of the Watergate break-in.
The other, of rather greater significance because it was President Nixon’s domicile of record and as such the location where he voted in elections during his Presidency, was La Casa Pacifica, the home located on about 28 acres in San Clemente, in southern Orange County, California, which he bought in 1969 and which served as his, and First Lady Pat Nixon’s, main vacation residence throughout his Presidency, and as his sole residence from August 9, 1974, when he resigned his office, until early 1980, when he and Mrs. Nixon sold it, returned to the East Coast and settled in Manhattan for a time before moving to New Jersey.
La Casa Pacifica is a strikingly elegant mansion surrounded by beautiful grounds leading down to Upper Trestles, one of California’s best-known surfing locations – and very close to San Onofre, which the Beach Boys immortalized in their song “Surfin’ USA.” It was built in the 1920s by Hamilton H. Cotton, a businessman of considerable prominence in Californian Democratic circles; indeed, during the 1930s FDR visited the home during trips to the West Coast.
By 1969, Cotton’s widow was living in the home. In those days San Clemente was a quiet place, somewhat off the beaten track, and easily less familiar to anyone outside Orange County than nearly San Juan Capistrano with its swallows. The town’s best-known resident was probably Lon Chaney Jr., Hollywood’s best-loved werewolf.
All this changed when a White House staffer, assigned to look for the ideal location for RN to relax, found La Casa Pacifica. The President purchased the estate from Mrs. Cotton, and before long the Secret Service had arrived to arrange for a level of security appropriate to the “Western White House,” including the construction of a 1500-foot wall.
For the next five years San Clemente was one of the most talked-about locales in America. The President entertained world leaders there, most memorably Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Demonstrators protesting the Vietnam War would sometimes gather near the gates. RN would conduct the business of the nation in his office and, when it was time to relax, would stroll down the beach and watch the waves with his dog King Timahoe….sometimes in shorts and barefoot, but occasionally in cooler weather, as in this famed photo, wearing slacks and wingtip shoes.
Following President Nixon’s resignation, he settled in San Clemente with a small staff including Ron Ziegler, Marine Col. Jack Brennan, Frank Gannon and Diane Sawyer, where he pursued work on RN: The Memoirs Of Richard Nixon, and was interviewed by the late Sir David Frost for the famous series of syndicated programs (though the interviews were conducted in a nearby house for technical reasons).
Although Richard Nixon left San Clemente 33 years ago, memories of him remain vivid in the town, and in this article by Tetzuya Mizuno of Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun, appearing on the website of the Thai newspaper The Nation, several residents reminisce about those days:
Several times a year, Nixon stayed for periods of a week to a month. He travelled to Casa Pacifica by helicopter after landing at a nearby US Marine Corps base on a presidential plane. Special orders were given to local police to retrieve a black briefcase first in the event that Nixon’s helicopter were to crash. The briefcase contained a code to order the launch of nuclear weapons.
Looking back on those days, former city police chief Albert Ehlow, 75, said, “I remember sitting in my car watching the choppers come over and just praying that they didn’t crash.”
Nixon sometimes ventured into town to shop for items such as tools and sweets. When locals asked him for an autograph, he obliged with a smile, according to Ehlow. “Before Nixon, we were just a stop on the way to San Diego,” Ehlow said. “He put San Clemente on the map.
“We liked him, we liked the way he was running the country.”
Toward the end of the article another San Clementan recalls that era:
Nostalgic for the old days, Jorge Olamendi, 65, a Mexican restaurant owner in the neighbourhood, recalls, “He [Nixon] said, ‘I want the world to someday be in peace.'”
And Richard Nixon’s visits to San Clemente were marked not just by relaxation but by an active effort to bring to the world the peace reflected in the very name of that charming, serene residence.