Sunday, December 4, 2011

Richard Nixon's Fullerton Roots

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called The Town I Live In.

When I attended Fullerton Union High School, I remember hearing that former president Richard Nixon had attended my school. I never thought about it much since then, but as I've been researching the history of Fullerton, this fact seems important. Nixon was from Orange County. He was born in Yorba Linda, attended school in Fullerton and later Whittier, and his personal and political roots are deeply embedded in this place. The $25 million Nixon Library is in Yorba Linda. Nixon's deep connection to Orange County is discussed in some depth in the book The Big Orange: The History of Republican Politics in Orange County since 1950 by Lois Lundberg. Much of Nixon's fundraising and support was tied to Orange County businesses and politicians, like the Lincoln Club. When he was president, he established the "Western White House (Casa Pacifica)" in San Clemente. Richard Nixon, perhaps the most corrupt politician in modern American history, has roots in Fullerton.

Nixon attended Fullerton High School from 1927-1928, his freshman and sophomore years. His years as a student are documented in an Oral History Project conducted by Cal State Fullerton in 1970-71 (when Nixon was president). The project, a series of interviews with students and teachers who knew him as a student, is called "The Richard M. Nixon Project." This document, available in the Local History room of the Fullerton Public Library, is a fascinating read because it shines light both on Nixon the young man, and on the culture of Fullerton in the late 1920s, when he was a student here.

Regarding Nixon's personality as a high-schooler, the consensus from the interviews is that he was "a quiet fellow," a "serious student," not "an easy person to get to know," and yet "an excellent public speaker," and "a tough opponent in a debate."

Irvin Chapman, son of Fullerton's first mayor Charles C. Chapman, came from similar circumstances as Nixon. Both men grew up on farms, somewhat isolated from the community-at-large. Chapman recalls, "A person who comes in from living in a house on an orange ranch or a farm back in those days...has a feeling of being apart from the community...I felt, and I think I kind of basically had a very similar nature to his [Nixon's], reserved and kind of apart from the kids that lived in the town...I think both nature and the environment in which he grew up tended to make him that way, so he was reserved and shy and did not make an effort to get acquainted."

Nixon played violin in the school orchestra, tried football (rather unsuccessfully), and participated in dramatic plays. But his real skill, as a student, was in debate. Chapman recalls, "He was always well-prepared...never could you get a point on him that he wasn't prepared for with a rebuttal in his card file... He had done his research and he knew it." Nixon, the young man, even in high school, "seemed to have a desire that he was going to be someone in politics," said classmate James Grieves, "He was tenacious, very tenacious."

What was the culture of Fullerton like in the 1920s, when Nixon went to school there? Although none of the interviews mentions it, there was a fairly pervasive Ku Klux Klan presence in Fullerton that included Louis Plummer, Superintendent of Fullerton Union High School. Was Nixon, or his family, involved in any of that? I don't know, but he could not have escaped its influence.

Fullerton Union High School, at that time, had a dress code for girls, but not for boys, according to Nixon's former English teacher, Helen Dryer. "If a girl stepped over the line at all," Dryer recalls, "she was called in before the uniform dress board." Regarding boy's clothing, she said, "They could dress, I suppose, as they pleased."

The 1920s was the Prohibition Era and the Fullerton leadership, including Chapman and Plummer, had rather rigid ideas about morality and "good citizenship." Grieves describes a typical school assembly at the high school in those days: "The principal would have something to say, something was bugging them or some corrective measures had to be taken, and then there would probably be a speaker who would talk on various subjects...smoking, drinking, safaris [safaris?]...our sex lectures were always put on for separate audiences, girls one time and fellows the next." I would be VERY interested to hear some of those "sex lectures."

But Fullerton was not completely conservative. For entertainment, students could see films at the Chapman [later called the Fox] theater or vaudeville shows at the Rialto Theater. Another popular weekend activity at the time, according to Nixon's schoolmate Rowe Boyer, was "to congregate on the sidewalk or sit on the car and watch people Saturday night...Everybody would go down on Saturday night and walk up and down the sidewalk, if nothing else."

Some of Nixon's classmates, like Irvin Chapman and James Grieves, continued their relationships with Nixon after high school, as he climbed the ranks of American politics. Chapman and his father Charles had the most interaction with Nixon, as the Chapmans were deeply involved in Republican politics. Irvin recalls a speech that Nixon gave to the Lincoln Club (an elite cadre of Orange County uber-wealthy businessmen who helped bankroll the political careers of Nixon and Reagan). "It was after he had been defeated by Kennedy for President," Chapman recalls, "He seemed to be much more in command of the situation. The speech that he made that night was, I think, probably one of the best ones that I have ever heard him make."

James Grives was an Air Force officer during the early years of the Cold War. He recalls, "My speciality was intelligence...I had the problem of indoctrinating troops in anti-Communist activities. I had worked with the American Legion and the Associated Farmers in this capacity, and I have attended Communist meetings undercover." Grieves and Nixon shared anti-communist zeal: "At that time Dick [Nixon] was heading the national anti-communist move, you know, and was chairman of the House Committee on Un-American activities. That really kicked him off in national politics," Grieves recalls.

Thus, Richard Nixon's roots in Fullerton tie him to perhaps two of the darkest areas of modern national politics: corporate campaign finance, and the Red Scare.


Hannah Nixon with her sons (from left) Richard, Harold, and Donald, around 1927, when Nixon was a student at Fullerton Union High School.

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