Nixon Library reboots for a new generation

Students look over an exhibit of wedding gowns from Tricia Nixon's wedding at the White House. The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum had a $15 million renovation and features updated exhibits and interactive displays.(Photo: Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY)

YORBA LINDA, Calif. -- He came to the presidency as a Republican who sought to mend a badly divided nation with fresh ideas that sometimes ran against the grain of his own party.

It’s a plotline that 2016 voters would recognize, but the candidate was Richard Nixon.

Nixon never strayed from controversy when he took office in 1969 and held the job until 1974, when he resigned in disgrace. The presidential library that bear his name has just undergone a  $15-million renovation, transforming it to show how Nixon's life unfolded against the backdrop of tumult of late 20th-century America.

With the formal reopening last month, the museum becomes a video-centric, cutting-edge experience. To a degree they never did before, displays tell the story of a man who rose from a humble California upbringing to attain America's highest office. He saw the dream ripped apart through his own failings and then ultimately came to peace with his life as an author and elder statesman.

Now under the auspices of the National Archives, the Richard Nixon Library and Museum has plenty to offer to both those who reviled or revered the 37th president. The Watergate scandal is given a full airing right along with Nixon's grandest achievements: reopening diplomatic ties to China, the moon landing and protracted efforts to end the Vietnam War.

Michael Ellzey, director of Richard Nixon Presidential Library, stands in the gallery devoted to Nixon's visit to China in the museum in Yorba Linda, Calif. (Photo: Jae C. Hong, AP)

Though sure to appeal to those who lived through the Nixon era, the museum now is a multimedia experience that takes dead aim at attracting a new generation of history buffs: Millennials. The new exhibit marks "an opportunity to educate a whole new generation," says David Ferriero, archivist of the U.S. who was on hand for the opening celebration.

Text-heavy displays have been ditched in favor of video. Guests are constantly invited to try touch screens or other interactive displays. One screen, for instance, invites guests to see where the microphones were situated in each room of the White House as part of a secret eavesdropping system that led to Nixon's Watergate downfall.

Instead of just peering from behind a velvet rope into a remaking of the Oval Office, a fixture in some of the nation's presidential libraries, Nixon's museum invites visitors to wander in and explore. They can stroll across the blue carpeting embossed with the presidential seal -- Nixon was reportedly first to have it -- sit on the facing gold couches or behind Nixon's desk.

Taken as a whole, the exhibits portray Nixon as a complex individual full of contradictions. He was a stalwart Republican, yet had a big hand in founding federal agencies like OSHA and the EPA, entities sometimes taken to task today by conservatives. Nixon built his political career on virulent opposition to communism, yet he became the first sitting president to visit Moscow and open ties to the world's largest communist regime, China. He racked up an enormous re-election victory in 1972 yet was undone by a bungled burglary at the opposing parties' headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington. The man who declared "I've never been a quitter" became the only president to resign from office.

"Everyone has a one-dimensional view of Richard Nixon -- Watergate, resignation and the end," said Craig Hanna, chief creative officer for the Thinkwell Group that helped reimagine the exhibit in its first overhaul since opening in 1990. Yet, he adds, few had any idea that Nixon was as interesting as he was or what a key role he played in a number of events.

Nixon's contradictions are on display from the start. Visitors are ushered into a theater where they view a short film about Nixon's life. As if to say the museum has nothing to hide, the film opens with Watergate and the resignation. Then it circles back to cover the other key events in Nixon's life, from his birth in 1913 in the simple clapboard house on the property to his death in 1994. President Bill Clinton eulogized him, with four ex-presidents in attendance, at the funeral.

The exhibit itself takes the same unusual chronological path. Rather than starting the tour in the birthplace house, visitors dive right into events leading up to Nixon's election to president. It's 1968 and the country is in upheaval. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy have been assassinated. America's cities are shaken by race riots and anti-war demonstrations. Into the vortex steps Nixon in a monumental comeback after previously losing the presidency to John F. Kennedy in 1960 and the California governorship to Edmund G. "Pat" Brown in 1962.

It is only after the Watergate and the resignation that the exhibits returns, almost abruptly, to Nixon's early years in Southern California. There is his service the Navy, early fights for seat in Congress and his two terms as vice president under Dwight Eisenhower. There are the Nixon-Kennedy televised debates and his narrow loss in that election. It follows Nixon into what he described as his "Wilderness Years" when he was forced to take account of himself and forge a comeback. Much the same occurred a decade later after he resigned the presidency.

"Our goal is honesty," says Chris Cox, Nixon's grandson whose mother Tricia Nixon and father Edward Cox were married in the White House. . Now the museum isn't just "better. It's state of the art."

The library is open daily. Admission to the museum is $16 for adults, $12 for seniors, $10 for students and retired military, $6 for children ages 5 to 11 and free for active military; nixonlibrary.gov. 

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