The Nixon Library tells it all about the biggest scandal

It has become tradition that every American president opens his own library and museum in his home town as a, most often, glowing tribute to his years in the White House. In Los Angeles, there are two such presidential libraries, in completely different parts of the vast city – Ronald Reagan in Simi Valley in the north, and Richard Nixon in Yorba Linda in the south.

It’s possible to visit both in one day, with a little luck with the traffic, by jumping from freeway to freeway,  straight through Los Angeles’ downtown.

The Reagan library, high on a hill — in the middle of nowhere — with sweeping views of the neighborhood and its treeless, sunburned hills, is such a glowing tribute, only bigger and more glowing than usual – with a statue of Reagan as a cowboy, a piece of Berlin Wall, antique cars, and his old plane, Air Force One, as part of it all.

”One man had the courage”…”he fought for freedom”…“he set out to change the nation”… “he refused to surrender…”

Not a bad word. Reagan’s memory is to be cherished. The Iran-contra scandal, for example, now mentioned in passing was not mentioned at all for a long time.

Richard Nixon’s much more modest library in Yorba Linda, the little town where he was born, was also a flattering tribute to his years in the White House, until March this year, when it opened the Watergate Gallery about the biggest presidential scandal in American history — the only one that forced a sitting president to resign. The permanent exhibition, which opened after a long battle and strong opposition from Nixon loyalists, asks the question:

“Why Watergate Matters? Since the 1970s the public and the media have attached the suffix, –gate, to major American political scandals. Why did Watergate sear itself into the public imagination and our history? And what is its legacy for us today? Did public expectation about the use of presidential power change because of Watergate? What, if anything, can it teach us about our rights as citizens and the workings of our Constitution?”

It describes in direct terms, without excuses, how Nixon set the stage that would lead to the Watergate scandal, with Donald Segretti’s “dirty tricks” and the “plumbers” and G. Gordon Liddy, which were followed by the break-in at the Watergate on June 17, 1972, and, ultimately, Nixon’s resignation on August 9, 1974.

“Our long, national nightmare is over,” said his successor Gerald Ford.

The Watergate exhibit has triggered a debate about the purpose of presidential libraries and museums, all run by the National Archives. Nixon Library director Timothy J. Naftali to the New York Times:

”The library has a nonpartisan mission, it’s a nonpartisan federal institution, and it has an obligation to provide exhibits that encourage the study of history”.

The Reagan Library has become a place of pilgrimage for America’s conservatives. They have never made a pilgrimage to Yorba Linda, and will probably never do so. But let us hope that all who are interested in American modern history pay a visit to the Nixon Library. It’s well worth the time.

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Watts Towers are part of Los Angeles’ art treasures

The Watts Towers are one of America’s most remarkable works of art, not only because where they are situated, but also because of how they came about, an old Italian immigrant’s life’s work, threatened many times over, but now formally protected as a National Historic Landmark.

So a tour of Los Angeles’ museums during the ongoing, city-wide exhibits called “Pacific Standard Time” — about L.A. art between 1945 and 1980 — should include a visit to Sabato “Simon” Rodia’s mighty works in Watts, that troubled, largely black, and poor, part of Los Angeles.

The trip south from downtown on the huge 110 freeway towards Long Beach is a journey away from the wealthy and glamorous Los Angeles to another world at East 107th Street, in South Central Los Angeles. There, in 1965, the Watts riots lasted five days killing 34 people, injuring and arresting thousands and damaging and burning down almost a thousand buildings. In 1992, Watts was hit again by riots following the acquittal of white police officers in the beating of Rodney King, resulting in over 50 deaths and a billion dollars in damage.

It is a quiet and almost deserted morning on East 107th Street with the exception of a few visitors, like us, and a couple of police officers, who stand and eat their sandwiches next to their car. The 17 different works of art, the tallest almost 100 feet high, dominate the neighborhood. They are the result of Simon Rodia’s work from 1921 to 1954, next to his little home on the small plot of land he had bought. The towers are surrounded by well-kept, often colorfully decorated small homes.

In 1955, Rodia gave it all away and left Watts, never to return. He died ten years later.  Over the years, his life’s work has been threatened countless times, but the Watts Towers still stand, now formally called “The Watts Towers of Simon Rodia State Historic Park” and managed by the city of Los Angeles’ cultural affairs department in partnership with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). A small art center with a shop and a gallery are also part of the park.

It’s an stunning sight, this remarkable symbol of one man’s dogged efforts to create something beautiful of what he found, rocks, pipes, glass, ceramics, pottery, bottles, tiles, all put together with mortar and steel wires in a huge, colorful mosaic, an example of “folk art” that has become historic.

Rodia, born in the village of Ribottoli 1879, called his creation “Nuestro Pueblo” – our city. “I build the tower people like, everybody come,” he said.

“Pacific Standard Time” — about Los Angeles’ modern art

Los Angeles, today, has world-class museums – that’s easy to forget in the sun on the beaches from Redondo to Malibu.

And right now it’s more exciting than usual to visit the city’s many museums because of a large, joint effort about the Los Angeles art and design scene between 1945 and 1980. Called “Pacific Standard Time,” it involves 60 cultural institutions in Los Angeles and up to Santa Barbara in the north, Palm Springs to the east, and San Diego in the south. What an abundance of exciting and inspiring exhibits about how Los Angeles became a world leader in the arts!

We only managed to visit three of the museums during our recent visit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), The Getty Center, and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). Wish we had more time…

LACMA is just getting better and better since we lived in Los Angeles ten years ago. Enlarged and renovated, it is so pleasant, and the exhibition “California Design, 1930-1965: ‘Living in a Modern Way'” reflects the city’s exciting development in art and design, especially after World War II. Swedish-born Greta Magnusson Grossman, who moved to Los Angeles in 1949 and died there in 1999 and who became a leading name among the city’s architects and designers, participates with three of her designs.  She said once:

”California design is not a superimposed style, but an answer to present conditions…it has developed out of our own preference for living in a modern way.”

One of my favorites is otherwise the mobile home, “Clipper,” from 1936, by Wallace “Wally” M. Bryan, after Pan Am’s Clipper. Has there ever been a more stylish mobile home?

The Getty Center, in the Santa Monica Mountains, is always worth a visit in itself… to take the little tram up the mountain and spend part of the day high above the city among the museums many treasures and gardens followed by lunch in the sun, is a peaceful excursion, away from it all. Getty’s three shows, “Crosscurrents in LA Painting and Sculpture, 1950 – 1970,” “Greetings from LA: Artists and Public 1945-1980,” and “From Start to Finish: De Wain Valentine’s Gray Column” make the visit infinitely more interesting than usual.

And MOCA, in the middle of downtown next to Little Tokyo, with its avantgarde “Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974 – 1981” gives an excellent picture of the frenzied activities in the Los Angeles art scene during those turbulent years, between Richard Nixon’s resignation after the Watergate scandal and the inauguration of Ronald Reagan, the two California presidents. The exhibition takes its name after a song by the local punk band X, about how the California dream and the optimism of the hippie years in the late 60s turned into the disillusioned years after Watergate and Vietnam.

From the beach to LA’s revived downtown

Los Angeles, full of contrasts.

A day on the beach in Malibu in October and a lovely lunch with seared tuna at Paradise Cove, the hidden, little beach with a restaurant up the coast a few miles from Santa Monica.

In the evening, a chamber music concert at Frank Gehry’s magnificent Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, that long forgotten part of the big city that now is coming alive fast. At dusk, in the setting sun, the whole building turns bluish in a marvelous color display, and I experience the same stunning revelation as in Bilbao, Spain, driving into that city and rounding a corner to face that masterpiece by Gehry, the Guggenheim Museum.

A drink before the concert in the garden roof of the concert hall and the surrounding cityscape seems to have nothing to do with what we usually think of Los Angeles.

And after the concert, a delicious hamburger and a beer at Nickel Diner, a fun little art deco place right in the middle of the, by so many, dreaded downtown. Since my last visit here, it’s clear that downtown LA is changing and changing fast, even though the streets later at night are still eerily deserted except for the 700 or so who are camped around City Hall down the street showing that the Occupy Wall Street movement is also alive and well in California, a movement that gets more support from the public than the Tea Party, according to Pew Research Center’s latest poll.