Dead Dick

Something happens to you when you visit the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace--something mysterious, unreal, and unwholesome.

Richard Nixon should have hoped that there is no God, because if there is, Nixon didn't appoint Him, and He's not likely to pardon Nixon the way Ford did.

I believe Nixon destroyed the presidency. So, like many, I was aghast at the bizarre outpouring of praise for him on the occasion of his death. Bill Clinton is a Vietnam War protester, a Democrat, and a president whose leadership, like each president since Nixon, has been tremendously weakened by the lack of credibility left by Nixon. But even President Clinton, there in the converted parking lot of the Nixon Library, urged that "the day of judging President Nixon on anything other than his entire life and career come to a close."

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Either the president chose these words carefully, recognizing that there's nothing in Nixon's entire life and career to bring his average up, or something happens to a person at the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace--something mysterious, unreal, and unwholesome.

I drove out there a few days ago. I had this awful feeling that the security people had their eyes on me. It was probably paranoia, but I kept thinking that they had a file on me, like they were expecting me and had a room in the basement where they would strip me naked and force me to don Pat's cloth coat while they brainwashed me. It's silly. I'm sure it was paranoia. Probably.

I don't know why they call the place a library. I guess his papers are on the premises somewhere, but that's not what you see. The first thing you see is the gift shop. You can buy a birdhouse that is a small replica of Richard Nixon's birthplace.

It was a three-soda drive for me, so I hit the ladies' room right away. It was spacious and clean and there was patriotic marching band music playing. I wondered if I'd just happened to come in on the one marching band piece, so I left and came back in a few minutes. Nope. They simply play patriotic marching band music in the ladies' room of the Nixon library.

Once I had walked in and out and in and out of the bathroom, I definitely noticed the volunteer docent's suspicious watch. Quickly, I joined the 20 or so other visitors looking at exhibits in the lobby. There were mostly pictures of Nixon growing up, with printed explanations beneath them like, "The president is in the fourth row back, behind the tree, with no shoes. He was five and already had a keen interest in world affairs."

There was a display case of keys to different cities around the world that had been bestowed upon him. I couldn't help thinking that if only the Democratic headquarters had been located in one of those cities instead of in the Watergate Hotel, they wouldn't have had to break in.

I flipped through a notebook of letters Nixon had received. One was from an 8-year-old who said she thought he was a great man. Well, that certainly lays to rest any controversy surrounding him.

I listened to those tapes of incriminating conversations between Nixon and Haldeman. (The library's copies had a professional announcer explaining away each damning Nixon utterance.)

I had to wait for the next showing of the 28-minute movie on Nixon's career, "Never Give Up." In the movie, Nixon looks right into the camera and tells you, with his sagging face and dusty old eyebrows, that they tried and tried to keep him down, but they couldn't and that you shouldn't let them keep you down either. I hadn't felt that uplifted since I was in the ladies' room.

After the movie I asked the older couple behind me if they were Nixon fans. They said they'd just brought some out-of-town relatives to see the library. They seemed uncomfortable, so I dropped it. I popped my questions to several more visitors, all of whom quietly denied being Nixon fans.

I asked the guy who helps organize the library's special events if he was a Nixon fan. "It's not part of the job description," he answered. I got the same answer from a guard. Clearly they've had a staff meeting on this topic.

The visitor's guide claimed to be "Presented by Polly's Tasty Foods & Pies," so I drove to Polly's and asked the woman there what Polly's Tasty Foods & Pies has to do with Nixon. She said they had an "arrangement" with the library. An arrangement? I saw "All the President's Men" and Polly wasn't mentioned at all. Why so hush-hush? An "arrangement" and an extra napkin was all I got out of this woman. She wouldn't say she supported Nixon, either.

Where did all those casket-side supporters come from? The woman in the Nixon Library gift shop said there were 24-hour vigils by some. I spoke to people in another coffee shop and a dry cleaner's, and no one told me they were fans of Nixon, but they all answered in that same guarded tone.

These must be members of the silent majority Nixon used to refer to. They probably meet at Polly's. How do they identify themselves to one another? If I had ordered the fresh hickle-berry pie would they have embraced me warmly and taken me in the back to show me videos of Nixon eating pie?

Nixon's support is stealth. You could be living with one of them and not know it.

Letters to Paula

Regina Cozzi, e-mail: Which lemming starts the mass suicide? Is there a lemming leader?

A: The lemming trait you mention is so bizarre, I would have thought there'd be volumes written about it, but the books I found gave a lot more ink to lemurs, who are certainly cute but clearly not as complex and emotionally tortured. Perhaps this suicidal mood is caused by constantly playing second fiddle to lemurs to begin with.

What I have found is that lemmings, described as volelike (is there no end to their degradation?), have a tremendous rise in their population every four years or so. As their food supply dwindles, however, they scamper off in search of more. There are so many that the lemmings scampering in the rear can't see beyond the lemmings scampering in the middle and sometimes drive the whole group off a cliff or into a river.

In a way, it is the lack of lemming leadership that causes their problem. That and the fact that they're very bad message takers.

When I went to the president's inauguration a couple of years ago, the crowd was so big that, as we were leaving, a few hundred of us walked into a fence and had to wait for a gardener to come cut it down. The same basic principles were at work.

Daniel Watts, e-mail: Whoever thought of putting alcohol, tobacco, and firearms under the same jurisdiction? I mean, here in North Carolina it may be a way of life, but I'm well traveled enough to know that it spells danger elsewhere.

A: I've always thought that was a strange grouping, too. There's a place called Aldridge's Beef and Ice Cream in upstate New York. I know it's silly, but I'd just rather not think about the fact that beef and ice cream come from the same place.

The origins of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms date back to 1791, so it may have been the brainchild of Strom Thurmond.

What this seemingly eclectic group has in common are taxes. First they taxed alcohol. Then they prohibited it, and the alcohol salespeople became bootleggers and gangsters. I guess the guys who used to collect taxes on alcohol had some free time on their hands, so they put them in charge of firearms. In 1951 tobacco tax duties were thrown into the mix.

What I can't figure out is why they aren't in alphabetical order.

Chuck Reiter, Pasadena, Calif.: Which type of pingpong paddle do you prefer (the fancy foam-filled expensive ones or the Joe six-pack Kmart specials that come with the table) and why?

A: Chuck, I have owned a number of fancy paddles, but now I play the second-greatest game in the world with the kind that has a single layer of rubber, pips out. I like how it sounds, I can feel the ball better, and there's something doubly humiliating about losing with a fancy paddle.

I played the pingpong pro at Kutcher's in the Catskills a couple of months ago. He played with his sneaker as a paddle and kicked my butt.