Eight years ago I was back in L.A. with some friends. It was Memorial Day weekend, we were in various stages of completing college, and we were on a road trip to my hometown. It should have been awesome; in fact, it was crummy for reasons that, to this day, I don't fully understand. The outward and visible signs of which included: tears, vomit, willful walkman (discman?) listening, and a close encounter with running out of gas.
That's not the point. The point is, one morning we woke up and I said, "Let's go to the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace." I don't know where that came from. I was not a history major; I was not a politics buff; I was not even really a collector of historical kitsch (although for late '90s Berkeley students a certain low level avidity for historical kitsch was par for the course -- I certainly wasn't innocent of those impulses).
I don't know how to describe what happened to me that day. It's not as though it really changed me. I know a little more about Nixon now than I did then -- I finally sat down and read All The President's Men, but I never made it through the copy of the excerpted tape transcripts that I picked up, or the biography of Pat. I had already seen the Oliver Stone movie, so there was that. Basically, I'm saying that my Nixon knowledge continued to reside in that file of glib namechecking that most of my knowledge hangs around in -- I can talk about Republican cloth coats with the best of them. Also I picked up a Nixon mug that I used for years until it broke, and back when I had a car I had a Nixon bumper sticker.
But Nixon really does get to me. I identify with Nixon although we're not really that much alike. He's our first California-born president, and he's the opposite in every way of the California stereotype. He's hairy and ill-postured and not really that sporty. He's grudge-holding and quick to take offense and he has a chip on his shoulder. He's not really an attractive guy, although, especially in his younger years, it's not like he was bad looking. He had to put the full-court press on Pat to get her to go out with him.
One of obvious things that always comes up with Nixon is the Kennedy comparison. Which makes you think about what the good life really consists of. Politics aside, is it more fun to be Kennedy or Nixon? Die young and heroic or old and with a complicated embittering reputation?
I went back to the Nixon library yesterday. I had gone to see the Reagan library earlier this year. The Nixon library seemed a little small, these days. There wasn't as much stuff in the gift store; the cafeteria was a joke. I don't know if that's just a matter of time -- ten years from now maybe the Reagan library will be in similar disrepair.
Look on my works, ye mighty, I guess. Or maybe it's the peculiar and particular sense of slight that Nixon carries with him, in my head at least.