A century after his birth, Nixon's legacy carries on
YORBA LINDA — 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 in the chill to a hospital. That was the day a small, kit-constructed home surrounded by citrus trees saw the birth of the man who would become the 37th president of the United States.
The small home is now one of the most popular exhibits at the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum here, but it was only Nixon's home for a few scant years before failed crops forced his family to Whittier.
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 younger daughter, Patricia Nixon Cox. "But his childhood in Orange County meant very much to him. He grew up in a very close-knit and loving family."
A staunch anti-communist and a fierce debater with a love of foreign lands, some of Nixon's 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 Birthplace today find old issues of National Geographic in the living room, Nixon's favorite reading material.
"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."
Friends and foes alike agree that one of Richard 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."
But in 1968, Nixon beat Vice President Hubert Humphrey to win the Oval Office, carrying California in the victory.
Nixon had great triumphs in his early years, signing legislation to adopt Title IX, helping women's equality; expand the food stamps program; and preserve clean water.
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.
"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."