by Jonathan Corral
photography by German Jimenez
Driving onto the property at the Richard M. Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, Calif., visitors are welcomed by a lush fountain spewing mist into the air. A staircase leads up to elegant glass doors that mark the entrance, through which sits an enormous Presidential seal in the middle of the walkway.
Inside the library, exhibits range from the Nixon tapes to the pistol Elvis Presley presented to the former President. The library, which opened in March 1994, plays host to 6.2 million pages of records in its archives. The collection contains 19,000 still photographs, 150 original reels of film, 900 audio recordings of Nixon speeches (1950-1968), 3,500 books, and assorted collections of original political cartoons, campaign posters and political collectibles.
The core collection of the Richard Nixon Archives contains his campaign files (1946-1968); Congressional and Senatorial Work files (1947-1952); Foreign Correspondence Files (1947-1968); special files for the Vice Presidential Period, including those for Dwight D. Eisenhower, Herbert Hoover, J. Edgar Hoover, Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King; and the Richard Nixon Post-Presidential Papers (August 1974-April 1994).
But no official Presidential Papers (1969-1974). Nixon’s official Presidential documents sit in waiting at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. Because of this, the Nixon Library is the only unofficial Presidential Library in the fleet, a distinction Greg Cumming, University of La Verne alumnus and director of archives at the Library, wishes to shed. “Obviously, I want to get Richard Nixon’s Presidential Papers to the library,” he says. “Our goal is to try to get them here within the next year, and whatever they contain, little by little, everything will come out.”
Missing from the files is key information that led to the demise of Nixon. Who is Deep Throat? John Dean? Where is the lost 18 minutes and 30 seconds of tape, and where are Woodward and Bernstein?
Cumming, a rabid historian, who perpetually delves into and redefines history, has his own theories about Deep Throat. The Library even has on office bet over the identity. “Deep Throat must be Fred Fielding or a combination of sources,” Cumming says. “But Fielding was Dean’s deputy in the White House Counsel’s office.” Cumming says Dean enters the equation as well. “First of all, follow John Dean both prior and subsequent to the Watergate break in,” he says. “Richard Nixon was not involved in the planning of the break-in nor did he have any prior knowledge; next, Dean did not inform Richard Nixon of the cover-up until March 1973.”
The 1986 graduate of ULV is a modern-day hard worker. Graduating with a degree in history, Cumming has paved his way through life with hard work, dedication and, he says, a little bit of luck.
“I work hard, I married smart, and I am really lucky,” Cumming says. “Also, without ULV, I wouldn’t be who I am today.”
Cumming credits his journey into the field of history to ULV History Professor Stephen Sayles, who aided him in landing his first job at the Ronald Reagan Library, where he spent 14 years as second in command in charge of archives. “Dr. Sayles inspired me to pursue a career in the field of history,” Cumming says. “He also influenced me a lot in other areas of life and remains one of my closest friends.”
Professor-student relationships rarely go far beyond the classroom, but in the case of Sayles and Cumming, it became a great friendship with the utmost respect for one another and their families.
“I see him as a loving, caring person that I trust my life with,” says Sayles’ wife Barbara. “He is just a really good friend; he’s professional, personable, lovable, and I trust my son with him. That means a lot.”
Greg Cumming is loyal to the University of La Verne for many different reasons. Whether it was friends, girlfriends or academics, he wishes he could have stayed. “I have to admit I was a self-proclaimed history geek, and I do not think it is a stretch to say I was a better student than an athlete,” Cumming says. “Quite frankly, if I could figure out a way to receive a salary for attending classes, I would never have left ULV.”
“Greg is just so loyal to this place and any opportunity he has to draw people here, he does,” Barbara Sayles says. “He desperately wants to set up internships and get kids in there and give them the same opportunity that he had.”
With all the accolades he receives and the recognition he deserves, Greg Cumming looks at the bigger picture and takes pride in many other things in his life. “I am most proud of my family,” Cumming says. “I enjoy work and everything I do, but I receive my greatest satisfaction from being a father and a husband. They are my motivation to be a better person, someone they can be proud of.”
In addition to achieving success at the Nixon Library, Cumming entertains more far-reaching goals, one of which involves a book that delves into the Symbionese Liberation Army. Both Cumming and Sayles, his project partner, speak vaguely but passionately about it.
“We are doing a major piece of work; it’s going to be major,” Sayles said. “I am very pleased with it, and it is going to be a major contribution not only to California history but also to the history of terrorism. I feel good about it, and I have never been this excited about a top thing I have been working on for years.”
The library itself sits on the same piece of property where Richard Nixon grew up. His father built the home in 1912 and planted 10 acres of citrus trees that provided the family income. The house where Nixon was born still stands. Soon, visitors will be allowed to view the piano on which he learned to play, the beds where he slept with his brothers, even the family cookbook.
Inside the Library, a replica of the White House East Room draws many eager visitors. The full size reproduction of the magnificent room is at the center of the library’s expansion. From its crystal chandeliers, golden silk draperies and marble fireplaces, the East Room has been re-created in breathtaking detail, with assistance from White House curators and artisans. Reproductions of the familiar life-sized portraits of George and Martha Washington complete the design. Even Richard’s brother Ed, a caricature of the former president, can be found frequently holding court throughout the library.
One recent exhibit, entitled, “The White House in Miniature,” presented just that. The exhibit is a 70-foot-long by 30-foot-wide model masterpiece that recreates every room and aspect of the President’s residence and offices. Visitors can look up-close at the elegant public and residential rooms, plus the East and West Wings, including the private offices of the President and his staff, all seen on a one-foot scale.
A room of world leaders contains life-sized statues of nine men and one woman whom Nixon deemed as some of the world’s greatest leaders: Charles de Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer, Winston Churchill, Shigeru Yoshida, Anwar Sadat, Golda Meir, Zhou Enlai, Mao Tse-tung, Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev.
In Cumming’s office, tucked into the belly of the Library, sits a University of La Verne football helmet. The scratches and dings on the green-and-orange headpiece symbolize the battered history Nixon has with ULV. The former President broke his two front teeth in a Whittier College game against ULV, according to his brother Ed. He also participated on the debate team and had many debates against the Leopards. In addition to his undergraduate toils here, President Nixon also battled ULV post-presidency. Nixon, the only President to be born in California, was supposed to have his Presiden-tial library, then called the Richard M. Nixon Institute of World Affairs, on the campus of ULV, but it was voted down by the University of La Verne Board of Trustees. A fierce debate went back and forth for months, played out in the pages of the campus newspaper and regional press.
Despite the overall approval from ULV faculty members, who voted 53-45 in favor of the institute, according to a March 1983 edition of the Campus Times, the Board of Trustees joined together on March 5, 1983, and voted 21-16 against the institute being built at ULV.
In a March 5, 1983 Campus Times article, a quote reads, “the only real costs appear to be embarrassment and mental anguish with having the name Richard Nixon.”
This “embarrassment and mental anguish” has survived into the generation of today. Students are programmed to believe in the severe corruption of Richard Nixon and those around him. The words Nixon and Watergate have become profanity in modern politics. One of Cumming’s main goals as director of archives at the Nixon Library is to shed light on the positive aspects of Nixon’s presidency, rather than just the one colossal mistake. Nixon’s most important contribution, according to Cumming, is ending the Vietnam War. In addition, he ended the draft, was the first President to allow 18 year olds to vote, began the war on cancer and opened relations with China. “Everybody always tends to focus on Watergate and the impact that had,” Cumming says. “Richard Nixon is much more than Watergate. Watergate is but one small part of President Nixon’s life.”
But all this relies solely on the release of his Presidential Papers. “And when that happens, that is going to be one of the great achievements in post World War II history without question,” Sayles says. “And with the work Greg has done with the library, it is going to be one of the most prestigious Presidential libraries around.”