February 14th, 2008
01:15 PM ET
10 years ago

Across America with Bob Greene: 'What Awaits the Winner'

Former President Nixon addresses a committee of the Russian Parliament in this file photo.

Former President Nixon addresses a committee of the Russian Parliament in this file photo.

YORBA LINDA, California (CNN) - We were staying in a hotel the next town over, and all through the night I heard train whistles.

In the morning I flipped through the local-attractions guide on top of the desk. One item caught my eye, and suddenly the nearby train whistles became more than a pre-dawn irritation.

I remembered Richard Nixon's famous words about his sleeplessness:

“As a young boy in Yorba Linda, I never thought of becoming President of the United States or even entering politics. My goal was to become a railroad engineer. Sometimes at night I was awakened by the sound of a train whistle and I would dream of the faraway places I wanted to visit someday.”

The hotel-room guidebook said that the Richard Nixon Library, Museum and Birthplace was just a few miles away. That afternoon I stepped away from thoughts of Campaign 2008 and caught a cab over there.

There were few visitors. I heard my own footsteps and then I heard Nixon's voice. It seemed like an illusion, but I turned a corner and found its source.

“I bet the ten dollars - the maximum...” Nixon said.

There was a little theater and no one was in it and he was up on a video screen. I sat down, an audience of one.

An electronic board displayed the question that, at this moment, he was addressing: “What Was Your Greatest Poker Hand?”

Nixon's voice: “…I flipped over the ace…”

I listened for a few minutes, then resumed my exploration. I found his elementary school diploma, and, in a schoolboy's handwriting, an essay he had written about his own life. He had misspelled the heading; he called it his “Autobiorgraphy.”

He wrote: “I was born on January the ninth, nineteen thirteen in the town of Yorba Linda, California. The house that I was born in was a big two story building in the southwest part of town.”

I saw a Valentine's Day card he received in the 1930s from Pat Ryan, whom he would eventually marry. I don't know how many people save such cards, but Nixon had, and here it was. There was a drawing of a girl in a scout uniform, and the message: “If you'll be my Valentine we could hitch-hike to-gether.”

I encountered a man in a blue blazer with an American flag lapel pin, a white shirt, and a Nixon Library tie. He was Philip Harford, 68, a retired local banker who was a volunteer docent. We stood near a chocolate-brown easy chair and ottoman, adjacent to a table with a pair of Nixon's reading glasses resting upside-down. “Those books are his,” Mr. Harford said. There was something by Tolstoy. Mr. Harford leafed through a reference guide, reached the page he was looking for, and informed me: “Tolstoy was his favorite author.”

For one of the candidates caught in the frenzy of the current campaign, a place like this will one day, after all the ambition and all the anguish, be what is left. The victorious person - we don't yet know which one it will be - will be dead, but a building will remain. I found some gifts that some of Nixon's fellow citizens had sent to him: a signed racing helmet from Bobby Unser; a rock painted with Nixon's likeness from a woman in Yoakum, Texas, identified as Mrs. Tom G. Carlisle; an etched silver plate from Liberace. There were keys to cities: Titusville, Florida; Coronado, California; Johnson City, Texas; Akron, Ohio. And a book autographed for him, in 1956, by a senator he seemed to know: “To Dick Nixon, with the highest regards of his friend, Jack Kennedy.”

Out back on an expanse of lawn was the house of his boyhood, from where he had heard the train whistles. Five tourists from Japan and I walked through. The bedroom in which he was born was to the left; in the living room was a piano. He had loved music; he learned to play not only the piano, but the violin, the clarinet, the saxophone and the accordion. His elementary-school-essay description of the house - “a big two story building” - was from a child's perspective; it was in fact tiny and cramped, claustrophobic, constructed by his father from a mail-order kit.

Back in the main museum there was a wall of Time magazine covers - he was on more than 50 of them - and in the gift shop were Richard Nixon signature golf balls, T-shirts featuring a color photo of him bowling, Nixon teddy bears, a Nixon baseball cap with a cardboard tag that said: “Warning: Studies show that wearing this cap can have a powerful effect on the opposite sex.” It was a warm afternoon in Orange County and somewhere in the country candidates were campaigning and as I left a clerk in the gift shop straightened a shelf of presidential shotglasses.

Bob Greene is an award-winning journalist and best-selling author.

Filed under: Bob Greene
soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. Praetorian, Fort Myers, FL

    Good job Bob!!!

    In the end...it is American values that have kept our nation strong and successful.

    Even now, with all the press about recession and such–employment is sustained, earnings are sustained, and there are new opportunities every day to live out the American dream.

    Our founding fathers were in favor of the "least government required to do the job", yet today...you would think from listening to the candidates that one correct choice will fix all the ill's of our modern world.

    The reality is that we are competitor's on a global scale. Many of the nations we compete against do not play fair–and exploit their advantages in cheap labor and unsafe and unethical practices.

    Yet we still win.

    American ideals–have influenced our nation and the world in ways that have never occurred in the history of our planet. There is no reason to believe they will not continue to be a beacon of independant spirit, free enterprise, strong moral values, and equality.

    Yet the candidates rhetoric sounds like we are going to hell in a handbasket–tomorrow.

    Do we really need a government that will solve all the ill's and inequities in a free and capitalistic society? If so, then were do the rewards of extraordinary success come?

    Socialistic attitudes offer a feel good moment–but have little basis in the desire of the American spirit. Pushed towards excellence, achievement, and pursuit of their own wealth dream–American's aren't ready for a nation that completely levels the playing field–that was already tried–and the USSR was unsuccessful and the PRC is becoming less Marxist, and even Cuba is courting "free enterprise" and the entrepeneural spirit.

    The dream that is America–is open to regulation or manipulation by one person as leader. Whoever the leader will eventually be...they still must contend with the vitality and lifeblood of America–or they will be incapable of creating...ugh (dare I say it) "change".

    February 14, 2008 03:27 pm at 3:27 pm |
  2. Marc, WSU

    It seems quite universal that the external influences [forces around us by others] can paint, produce and even remake a person while they live their life. Most people would have expected far less humble beginnings when the name Richard M. Nixon is spoken.

    It's that resistence to succumb to the Will of the Mob that seems virtually impossible to achieve, at such a level required to sit in the White House.

    February 14, 2008 03:42 pm at 3:42 pm |