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President Richard M. Nixon at the White House, 1969.

., Associated Press

Nixon: A legacy of 'light and shadow'

  • Article by: MICHAEL MELLO
  • Orange County Register
  • January 7, 2013 - 8:42 PM

YORBA LINDA, CALIF. - For five years, he was known as the leader of the Free World.

But for the first several years of his life, Richard Milhous Nixon had a more modest title: farm boy.

Wednesday will mark the date, 100 years ago, of a winter day so cold that Hannah Nixon was advised it would be better to bear her fifth son at home than risk traveling to a hospital. That was the day the man who would become the 37th president of the United States was born in a small, kit-constructed home surrounded by citrus trees.

The small home is now one of the most popular exhibits at the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum here, but it was Nixon's home for just a few scant years before failed crops forced his family to Whittier.

He remembered his roots

Still, even as he rose through the highest ranks of American government, Nixon remembered his roots. Referring to his parents in his 1968 Republican National Convention acceptance speech, Nixon described his father as a man "who had to go to work before he finished the sixth grade, sacrificed everything he had so that his sons could go to college."

"People who knew my father, they knew throughout his life he was a very forward-looking person," said Richard Nixon's older daughter, Tricia Nixon Cox. "But his childhood in Orange County meant very much to him. He grew up in a very close-knit and loving family."

Nixon was a staunch anti-Communist and a fierce debater with a love of foreign lands. Some of his first travels were from his home in Whittier to the farmers markets in downtown Los Angeles.

He made the daily drives at 4 a.m. each day, enough time to wash the newly purchased produce and set it up at his parents' combination gasoline station and grocery store before heading off for the day's classes at high school.

He could pick up any fruit, Nixon Cox said: "He could tell you within hours of when it would be perfect. He spent his high school years doing that."

Looking back now, it's easy to see how some of the pieces of Nixon's character showed themselves in those early years. Visitors to the Nixon home today find old issues of his favorite reading material, National Geographic, in the living room.

"He was always interested in seeing the world and seeing how other countries fit into the whole world," Nixon Cox said.

In 1927, he was one of the stars on the Fullerton Union High School debate team.

"We were all encouraged to do what we enjoy," said Ed Nixon, the former president's youngest brother. "Dick was always interested in debate, and my father encouraged that."

Lifelong Whittier resident Hubert Perry attended high school and Whittier College with Nixon.

"He was six months older than me and a lot smarter. I never caught up with him," Perry, 99, joked. Even then, "You knew he was going to do something worthwhile, because he was smarter than anyone else."

It was Perry's father, H.L. Perry, who wrote to Nixon to ask him to run for Congress upon his return from naval service after World War II. A mere six years later, Nixon had risen through the ranks of the U.S. Senate to be vice president.

"He jumped up much faster than other people in the political scheme," said Perry, who remained friends with Nixon throughout the years. "That's because he was articulate and was a scholar of politics."

Friends and foes alike agree that one of Nixon's defining traits was his stubbornness. Maybe that's what kept him from giving up after losing the presidential election to John F. Kennedy in 1960. Two years later, he lost the California governor's race to Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, the father of current Gov. Jerry Brown.

Following the latter, Nixon gave a famous speech where he announced, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore."

Defeated Humphrey in '68

But in 1968, Nixon beat Vice President Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota to win the Oval Office, carrying California in the victory.

Most see Nixon's efforts to help normalize relations with China, the world's largest country, as the pinnacle of his political career.

There seems to be no easy answer to how future generations will view the 37th president, who is the only president to resign the office. The Watergate scandal brought down his presidency on Aug. 9, 1974.

"He leaves a very complex legacy," said Tim Naftali, a presidential scholar. "Richard Nixon's legacy will always be a mixture of light and shadow."

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