Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

A Magic Kingdom

The Nixon Library and Disneyland are, in their ways, memorials to a lost dream.

President Nixon Gesturing with His Hand
President Nixon shields the light from his eyes as he answers questions from managing editors at Disney World near Orlando, Florida. The President goes through a series of gestures as he fields the questions. (Bettmann/Getty)

YORBA LINDA—The psychic up the street drives a new Corvette convertible that’s parked uncovered in a spot that barely fits it. It is hot, and every bit of design here seems intended to make even a short walk unthinkable. The little Italian deli recommended by the locals sells “farm to table” sandwiches in a strip mall. At the outset of the day I spent $41.40 on a tube of sunscreen and two bottles of water.

I’d say California is about what I expected.


That’s not exactly true. It is surprisingly nice. The streets are clean, the hills are lovely, the palm trees are an enchanting touch. The heroin needles and human waste are nowhere to be seen. I thought it would be a dystopian hellscape. Granted, this is Orange County.

Day one is the Richard Nixon Presidential Library. It is a small, low building, and I think a little bitterly of the hulking, modernist shrine to JFK that stood next to my high school back in Boston. Of the fifteen presidential libraries, they are the only two I’ve ever seen. And while Jack’s building is flashier, there is a real romance to the Nixon story with which soppy Kennedy revisionism really can’t compete. I am biased, of course, but that’s part of the fun.

The experience starts with a thirteen-minute video featuring youngest brother Ed Nixon, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, aide and TAC founder Pat Buchanan, and a slate of historians lauding the virtues of the 37th president. Mark Updegrove, the former director of the LBJ Library, waxes poetic about the “Shakespearean overtones” to Nixon’s life and career.

The old docent who shows me around is a sincere sort, the kind of guy so committed to The American Idea that he finds it really cool that Kamala Harris now sits at the same desk Nixon used as POTUS. Assembled in one place for the express purpose of propaganda, it is remarkable how weighty the Watergate president’s victories seem.

There is the raw political skill, the stamina and cunning that won a brainy small-town lawyer one of the most impressive electoral records in all of American history. Nixon, as Buchanan notes in the opening video, was by no means a natural politician; but on the campaign trail he could ask after voters’ children by name in small town after small town across his district. (It occurs to me that Ron DeSantis, who is temperamentally a near-exact match for the awkward and bookish Nixon, has not managed the latter’s heroic victory over self.)


There is the domestic agenda: the New Federalism that was dumbed down by later conservative generations and claimed as other men’s victory; the reclamation of American beauty and resources from the ravages of industry; the imposition of law and order after years of crime and rioting; the return of the American people to the first order of priority in the conduct of their government.

Both pale in comparison to Nixon’s presence on the world stage. In a moving eulogy upon the president’s death in 1994, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas predicted that “the second half of the 20th century will be known as the age of Nixon,” describing the erstwhile commander-in-chief as “the largest figure of our time whose influence will be timeless.” There can be no truer description of the man who brought our boys home from Vietnam, who ended the draft, who planted the seeds of victory in the Cold War. Even the opening to China was a masterstroke, made infamous only by its bungling after the enemy forced its architect from power; likewise Nixon’s plans for peace in the all-important Middle East.

There is a picture on the wall of Nixon and Sadat overlooking the pyramids of Giza, and it is hard not to think of a single arc from the first empires, through Alexander and Napoleon, to the acme of American civilization with a boy from Yorba Linda at the helm. To say even that his or America’s influence at this peak spanned the globe would be an understatement: It was under Nixon that man went to the moon—all six times.

Nixon is the only president born in California, and the sense of destiny this last frontiersman bore back to Washington can excite even now the kind of feelings this land must have inspired in a bygone age.

The crown jewel at the library is the president’s actual birthplace: a kit house bought and assembled by Frank Nixon, the president’s father, in the first years of the 20th century.

It is modest, but to those who came of age in the new millennium it is something to be envied. The docent out here is different: gentle, widowed, a retired schoolteacher. She returns, over and over, to the point of how far we’ve come since the days when our working classes could only afford two-bedroom houses on eight-acre plots of land. I do not think she knows—and do not care to tell her—how much things have really changed.

Fifteen feet away, Dick is buried beside his beloved Pat—just above the spot where five presidents, Billy Graham, and thousands of others mourned him at his funeral. Some will object no doubt, but on first impression California seems to be the one unhaunted place in America. In New England, the South, the Rust Belt, the Plains, whole civilizations have been buried since the founding of this country; California is still California.

And then you go to Disneyland.

I admire Walt Disney for the proper reasons: not because he provides excuses and opportunities for the dog moms of the third millennium to indulge in respectable infantilism, but because he was a red-blooded, Red-baiting patriot who produced some of the best pieces of propaganda the American bourgeoisie could ever hope to have.

In Disneyland you see faint remnants of his vision. There are callbacks to the old frontier and images of the ones just opening. Pictures of the hope and peace that drove midcentury America permeate the place. The attraction that welcomes guests from around the world is a model of the ideal Main Street USA. It is charming, but the storefronts for book shops and bakeries give way only to stands that sell mass-produced imitations of their wares, or even cheaper tchotchkes with no connection at all to the facade that draws you in. It is a shadow of an imitation of a fake.

Here the crown jewel is not so noble as the little house Frank Nixon built. It is the Pirates of the Caribbean, the last ride Walt Disney himself oversaw before his death in 1966. Its intricacy is remarkable, with sweeping views and detailed scenes and lifelike animatronics that must have been awe-inspiring two years before even Nixon was elected, and three before men set foot on the moon.

It is just a theme park ride, yes; but it has a real sense of the dark and promising romance of an older New World frontier. It is possible, here, to get lost in the idea that the great hope of the nation of Walt Disney and Richard Nixon—two California giants born to humble means 12 years apart, exalted beside their country in the middle of the American century to the greatest imperial heights ever reached by mortal men—may yet be alive.

Reality hits when you step outside. Crowds and noise and stenches overpower. The souvenir stands are halfway through a blackwashing, classic Ariels for sale alongside new and improved versions; Snow White is soon to follow. Elderly, obese, and just plain lazy, the inheritors of an empire trudge through Tomorrowland on creaking mobility scooters. When the park first opened in the Eisenhower era, Disney and his corporate backers saw a sunny Space Age 30 years away; the very idea is laughable now, and the whimsical futurism of the early vision is far too optimistic for modern eyes.

Make no mistake, the dream is dead here too.