Those folks in other cities who think that LA's version of history and culture consists of Disneyland and beach volleyball - do they know that two of the nation's 13 presidential museums are here in the LA area? That we live in a hotbed of presidential history hosting more presidential libraries than Washington DC and New York City combined? 'Cause they are, and we do. If you haven't yet reached this item on our 100 Things To Do with LA Kids list, we're happy to give you a sneak preview of what awaits at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda.
A century ago, Richard Nixon's father built a small kit house in a citrus grove, and a year later our nation's 37th president was born in it. A hundred years later, the tiny house is at the heart of Orange County's presidential museum. A tour through the home gives kids a peek at how life began for the Greatest Generation, including baths in the kitchen over by the ice box. Another fun bit of history for kids is the presidential helicopter in which President Nixon took his final departure from the White House—peacemaking fingers extended, as some of us may remember. For parents it could be a walk down Memory Lane, but for kids it's just plain cool to investigate the insides of a vintage luxury whirlybird.
The gardens and fountains are lovely to wander, but the primary historical section of the museum lies in the main building, where an interactive tour takes visitors on a journey along Nixon's entire political career. During the drive down, I had prepped my son with my own potted version of Nixon's career, but walking through the museum's exhibits showed me just how much I didn't know about the many highs and lows of Nixon's history. We got to see him campaigning for Congress, for the Senate, for governor, for vice president, and for president. Some of his more famous speeches are played on old-fashioned telephones and vintage black and white TVs, affording plenty of opportunities to point out, "That's what Grandma used to have."
Famous speeches, incidentally, were one of Nixon's specialties—even if not always intentionally. Some of his more well-crafted remarks were famously penned by actor Ben Stein, but the ones we remember best have a wonderful air of going off script: who can forget the not-remotely-prophetic "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore" or the never-to-be-proven "I am not a crook"?
There was, of course, much more to one of the biggest names of the 20th century than a few unfortunate sound bytes. The galleries shed light on a man who believed in peaceful negotiations with the Soviets, who worked toward peace in the Middle East, and who made history by opening negotiations with China. A giant slab of the Berlin Wall offers a great visual to launch a conversation on history that still feels recent to many of us, but seems as distant as the Civil War to our kids. A cozy 1960s sofa invites one to take a rest while watching the 1960 Nixon vs. Kennedy presidential debate - which might grab the attention of kids who watched the presidential debates more recently. And car fanatics can check out the early 70s version of the First Limo.
A fun stop for kids is a room entirely dedicated to our country's Moon landings, all of which took place on Nixon's watch. Neil Armstrong's space suit is here, along with a Moon rock, space food, and the telephone President Nixon used to call Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon.
An in-depth exhibit on the history of presidential campaigns is particularly pertinent during or near a campaign season. If your kids have ever asked "why" about any portion of the long, bizarre process that we drudge through every four years, the answers are probably here.
The last hall of the museum tour addresses the, er, elephant in the room. Even for those of us who lived through those years, the epic Watergate scandal gets a bit murky. The museum does not shy away from it, offering a complete timeline of the break-ins, a giant light-up map of every tape recorder in the White House, and theories about the famously erased sections of tape. Every player involved in the scandal is profiled, and interactive displays allow visitors to hear all of the accused—and Walter Cronkite—weigh in. If you know someone considering a school report on political scandals, the Nixon Museum is an absolute must-see.
Admirably, the museum (if you don't count the gift shop) manages to steer clear of partisanship and stick to President Nixon's role in our country's history. As such, it may well be Southern California's ultimate resource on US history. A troupe of kindergartners is not the audience to bring to the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, but kids from about third grade on should definitely get to see the birthplace and archives of our first Californian—and possibly most notorious—president.
Photo credit: Tim Evanson via flickr