A Visit to San Clemente: Death in California
October 31, 1974
Los Angeles — We move down to the Pacific coast highway, through an area of crumbling cliffs and seedy gas stations, and after five miles we pull into the town, past a sign that says “Welcome to San Clemente.” At the Miramar movie house Uptown Saturday Night is playing, but the box office is closed, and the street is deserted. Two police cars are parked on a bluff overlooking the sea, and a blond longhair sits on a bike a few feet away, staring at the pounding surf. The cops are listening to radio signals, with dark visors pulled across their faces. We ask the longhair where Nixon’s house is.
“Go back over to the Freeway, and go two exits,” he says. “The exit says Avenue of the Presidents, or some shit. It’s right down there.”
“What do people think about him around here?”
“Son-of-a-bitch should be in Soledad, that’s what they think.”
Something is dying here. You taste it as you travel south on the San Diego Freeway, through a wilderness of wires and telephone poles and exposed power lines, all of them as transient as people.
Whittier is gone, swallowed up in the sea of air. Yorba Linda has been engulfed. The mountains have vanished. You cannot see streets, only the umber smear, and the poles, and the neon language of Richard Nixon’s America: Arco, Exxon, Barker Bros., Phillips, Steak, Lobster, Mobile, Phillips, Shrimps. There are no verbs. And the nouns speak of things that no longer matter.
We are going to San Clemente, to see where it has all come to an end. But this is California. It spawned Nixon and all the others. Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Kalmbach and the rest of them traveled these highways. They moved through these streets, deserted now, when there were people here, in the ’30s and ’40s. That might be their most enduring revenge, their memory of this place when it was the American paradise.
My children will never see that California; but Nixon people know that they had this place when it was good.
The people who bought Nixon, who fed his campaigns, who purchased his loyalty, all of them have left what Ehrlichman called his “chopmark” on the land. The dying, polluted, ravaged land of Southern California is the work of their collective dark genius. And now there are no children in the streets, no oiled bodies turning in the California sun, no splashing of back-yard pools, no games or gambols. The Nixon generation drove its stake deep down into California’s heart.
So it is no accident that Nixon was from California. He was a master of desecration. And make no mistake: this place has been desecrated. It is impossible anymore even to make the imagination work on what remains, impossible to conjure the days when flocks of giant condors blackened the summer sky, when whales moved in San Diego harbor, when you could ride for 24 hours on a horse and see no living thing. Instead, you are passed on the Freeway by cops in tan uniforms and gold helmets, their faces masked, revving heavy Harleys; and in the other lane troops of Hell’s Angels, masked with hair and dirt, rolling northward, brothers to the faceless cops. No emotion moves either group, not even exhilaration with speed or the conquest of distance. They are their masks.
At Long Beach, the skeletons of the refineries are plastered against an opaque backdrop, the umber smear more tangible now. Philip Marlowe was a cop in Long Beach, in that California of Raymond Chandler that seems so much more real now than the history books. But Long Beach has already said its long goodbye. Pumps move in the earth, but they seem defeated and old, as if knowing that a day’s strain in this exhausted earth cannot match a minute of Arabia. I look to the left and see a wingless C-47 standing alone against the fence of the Long Beach airport. Frank Hawks and Amelia Earhart and Howard Hughes arrived and departed on that old tarmac, in the years between the big wars, when America was young. Now even the wings are gone.
The traffic thins as we pass Costa Mesa, deep in the region of Orange County. The burnt rolling hills of the Irvine Ranch sprawl away to the sea, like a monument to the time when barons carved up the land and drove Mexicans into the slums of the cities. Marine Corps jets circle the base at El Toro, leaving plumes of fuel behind, flags of waste. A few cars pull into the Lion Country Safari, and others set off on the road to Laguna, following the long arc of the road until it enters a gash in the mountains. There are developments everywhere now, with huge signs offering homes that no one can afford to buy: Mission Viejo, Sun Hollow, Laguna Niguel: Baking houses pasted to the sides of hostile hills, with scattered orange groves huddled together as if for protection, and the dirty air pushing on past them all for Mexico.
We pull into San Juan Capistrano. More than 30 years ago, when Nixon and his wife were living over the garage in Fullerton, they would come to San Juan Capistrano, to dine at the El Adobe Inn, on Camino Capistrano and Foster Street. It is a low, flat building, dressed in California Mexican, that style designed by Anglos that resembles cathedrals built by atheists. During the imperial years, Nixon and his retinue would sometimes come here to dine, the poor boy returning in triumph, acting out his mediocre drama.
Nixon’s presence is still here: a glassed panel on the wall, with black-and-white photographs of Nixon, his wife, the owner, other members of the retinue; a framed menu signed in a sprawling, oddly hesitant hand, the signature of someone who was either drinking or distracted. In the dining room, there is a plaque on the back of a chair, announcing that Nixon had dined there.
“Has Nixon been in lately?” I ask the bartender. He is young, with a bushy mustache and a deep tan.
“Not that I know of,” he says. “But hell, I only started working here last month. I really wouldn’t know.”
The bar is long and dark. Two women in their 20s are a few stools down, drinking pink drinks in the darkness.
“I told him I was tired of the whole thing,” one of them says. “He’d just have to straighten out or get out of my life.”
“That’s the only way,” the other one says. “You just have to tell him, Anne.”
Muzak drifts through the bar. There is an old print of Emiliano Zapata facing us, and someone has written “Viva El Adobe” in a balloon coming from the great revolutionary’s mouth.
Plastic bullfighters perform veronicas beside the cash register. We pick up our change, leave a tip for the bartender, and leave. A man with sunglasses is standing against the wall of the foyer, staring at us.
And so we travel down to the place where Nixon is now hiding, out on the very edge of America. The house had cost anywhere from $340,000 to a million, and there were stories that Teamster money had been pumped into it, that Abplanalp wasn’t the only investor, that the house alone and its federally-financed “security improvements” would have sent an ordinary man to jail for years.
The pictures in the magazines showed a Spanish-style home, green gardens, a view of the Pacific, tiles and other things Spanish. All of it buttressed with the furnishings of power: the green helicopters; the Secret Service men with shaved scalps, buttons in their lapels and pistols under the jackets; the limousines and the motorcycle escorts. All of it backdrop for the tv shows filmed in front of the “Western White House,” with Pat’s strained joyless smiles, Brezhnev hugging Chuck Connors and Haldeman standing in icy attendance.
We pulled up to the entrance to the luxurious Cypress Shore development, and a guard came out to stop us. We couldn’t go in without a written invitation. The man’s face was apologetic: but he retained enough of the valet’s habit to make his words tougher than his eyes: “You better just forget it. You better just turn on around.”
Beyond him, stretching out to the cliffs, were other houses in the Spanish style, long green lawns that seemed sprayed into place with an air brush, and long cars shining in driveways. There were no human beings.
And there it was, with great cypresses drooping around it like mournful sentinels, black and impenetrable against the sky. In the foreground, thoroughbred horses grazed in a meadow, and you could hear cicadas, and the distant tumble of the sea. But the Nixon house was silent. A breeze combed the giant trees, and they seemed to lap at the the new air. A helicopter churned overhead, making the puttering sound of an outboard: But nothing moved in the dark area of the house, no human beings, no cars.
Nixon was somewhere in the center of that dark pool, evading subpoenas, with his extorted pardon, his silent wife, Manolo the valet, Ziegler the retainer, knowing that history had already cast its judgment.
As we started to leave, fog began to drift in from the sea, hanging low. You could sense the chill coming from the house, a chill made of conspiracy and felony, a chill that holds tightly to itself, as if there were crimes known in that house that would dim the dark luster of the crimes we already know.
And I could feel death there. It was not simply the death that comes from a moldering court but the death that comes with plague. And I thought of all the characters in Nixon’s novel who were dead: Murray Chotiner, Whittaker Chambers, Dwight Eisenhower, Earl Warren, J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, J. Parnell Thomas, John Rankin, Adlai Stevenson, Harry Truman, Nikita Khrushchev, William Knowland, all of them dead and gone, while Nixon lives on. Helen Gahagan Douglas, Jerry Voorhis, and Alger Hiss survive, touched by his plague, but somehow remaining free of his gift for death.
And so we backed out, away from the dark house, and moved down the road, past the Caballero Motel and The First Church of Christ Scientist, where Haldeman, the Christian Scientist, had gone on many a Sunday, and parked in the lot of the Concordia school, to look at the house from another point of view. A group of kids with a soccer ball was in the center of a field, being addressed by a squat middle-aged coach in a sweat suit. The man was a long way away, but as we stepped out, we could hear his voice ripping the stillness. We could not hear the words, only the hard, brutal, guttural voice, commanding those children, whipping them, demeaning them, assaulting their sensibilities, the voice that says that victory is all, that winning is American, that Vince Lombardi had divined all mortal truth. The kids were as young as 10, and I wondered what had happened to Richard Nixon on fields like these in the long ago, wondered what his father Frank’s black Irish rages had been like, wondered what sort of woman his mother had been, she who had worked so hard at being a saint that she bequeathed the world a monster.
The football coach was still screaming as we moved around the edge of the school for the cliffs. Dry washes cut the cliffs, and there were palm fronds rotting on the edge of the escarpment and gulls circling in the distance. Away off, the Nixon house was silhouetted against the cliff. To our right, on the bench, a group of Hell’s Angels types stood around a wire basket, which was burning orange against the pale sand. And below us, 200 feet straight down, was a railroad.
“I see another child.” Nixon had said, on the night in 1968 when he received the nomination. “He hears the train go by at night and dreams of far away places he would like to go. It seems like an impossible dream.” That was Nixon describing himself as a young boy, lying at night in the house in Yorba Linda, as the Santa Fe railroad ran past in the darkness: the Nixon once described by his aunt Olive as “lying on the lawn, sky-viewing and day-dreaming”: the Nixon who ground his way to escape from Whittier College, the railroad whistles always in his head, the great vast country spread out before him as he stood with his back to the Pacific. And now, in his disgrace, his back to the vast country, he had returned to a place where six times a day, the railroad moves past his great mansion, from San Diego to Los Angeles and back.
We turned back, as a helicopter hovered over the cliffs, watching us from a great height.
We made a few more stops. At the San Clemente Inn, where the Nixon staff people had stayed on the trips to the Western White House, we watched an inning of the World Series, the robots of the Los Angeles team losing to the moustached bravos of Oakland. The bartender was heavyset and blond, a high school athlete gone to seed; he charged a dollar for a bottle of club soda. We didn’t leave a tip.
In the lobby a portrait of Nixon was displayed prominently, and there was another photograph of Nixon with his arm stiffly around Pat, photographed in pastels. He is not looking at his wife. A third photograph shows Nixon and Brezhnev posing at the San Clemente Inn; off to the right, Spiro Agnew sits alone, looking sad.
The fog rolled in hard as we moved slowly out of San Clemente. It blurred the neon signs of Luigi’s Pizza, The Halfway House, Schultze’s Rexall Pharmacy, The Travel Inn, The Chicken Roundup (We Deliver). The places were ugly and dismal in the foggy darkness, the places that you see all over modern California now, the symbols of blight and greed and desecration. Nixon did not build them, but his generation of Californians permitted them, helped to form them and were formed by them. In that house, Nixon is surrounded by the world he made.
In Laguna we went to the Towers Restaurant on the top floor of the Surf and the Sand, where the reporters were housed in the old days; Los Angeles was losing 3–2 now, and through the windows, the fog had thickened into a gray impasto, spread across the edge of the world. We moved on to Newport, where John Wayne lives, where Haldeman went to hide after the fall, where Kalmbach was a powerful member of the community, ruling over the leftover funds from ’68, selling ambassadorships over the phone. We drove up to the Inn, perched on a knoll, and I went into the lobby to make a phone call.
And suddenly all of them were there: the children of Nixon, maybe 30 of them, here for a convention with tight-cut hair, carefully matched sports jackets and trousers, neckties, and the fat-assed walk that marked so many of them when we saw them in court on the way to the can. “I called my wife, Fred, so it’s all clear.” “Goddam, that’s a great steak.” Their skins were shining and pink, shaved as close as razors can go and they smelled of cologne and money.
They moved past me in the lobby with a kind of rehearsed indolence: the eyes gleaming with scores to be made, yachts to buy, land deals to consummate, investments to be undertaken, all of them free, still in command, only set back for the moment, on the make, on the hustle.
And the chill reached into the lobby again, all the way from San Clemente, a reminder that Watergate and the removal of Nixon had changed nothing but the names of the players. I wondered which of them had grown up with railroad whistles in the night, which of them had been beaten into brutality by some football coach on a fall afternoon, which of them would be the carrier of the plague, the bearer of the bacillus. Maybe none. But it was there all right, there in the California darkness. It doesn’t matter much what happens to Nixon now, but his people will almost certainly be back.■