It was a poignant celebration for Republican grandees: they gathered to rehabilitate an outcast, a leader history deemed unfit for the White House, only to grapple with a potential brand new one.
The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum reopened on Friday after a $15m overhaul, drawing family, friends, allies and a brass band to honour the 37th president, but it was a potential 45th president and his scandals, not Watergate, who hovered over the event.
After almost half a century, it was time to put Nixon’s dirty tricks and cover-up into perspective, they agreed, but the seemingly hourly allegations and revelations about Donald Trump split the gathering into factions who either excused or reviled the Republican nominee.
Given the chance, Nixon, who resigned in 1974, halfway through his second term, and died in 1994, would have voted for Trump, surmised the late president’s grandson, Christopher Nixon Cox. “He always supported the Republican ticket. I think he’d go straight down the line Republican.”
Jeffrey Donfeld, a veteran official who served in Nixon’s administration, disagreed. “He’d be absolutely disgusted by this current campaign. Look at Richard Nixon’s private behaviour and Donald Trump’s – you can’t make a comparison.” His wife, Noelle, nodded. On election day she will support all other Republican candidates, she said, but not Trump.
It was a day of strange synchronicity.
While guides led visitors, including Henry Kissinger, through renovated exhibits at the complex in Yorba Linda, a Republican bastion in southern California, another woman came forward at a press conference in Beverly Hills, 50 miles to the north, to accuse Trump of groping.
While visitors mulled a framed Nixon quote – “America has suffered from a fever of words. We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another” – the airwaves throbbed with a fresh fever of shouting.
While the library’s new Watergate exhibit admitted “dirty tricks and political espionage”, Trump denied any wrongdoing and claimed he was being set up by the “lies and smears” of Democrats and their media allies, an old Nixonian defence.
While clandestine White House recordings laid bare the duplicity of a man dubbed “tricky Dick”, Trump reeled froma leaked tape and Hillary Clinton squirmed over emails released by Wikileaks, allegedly via Russian intelligence.
Lois Lundberg, chairman emeritus of Orange County’s Republican party, and a friend of Nixon, said he would have been “blown away” by the current election’s toxicity. “He’d be terribly shocked and confused, as so many of us are.”
Lundberg, 85, said Nixon was honourable, decent and a statesman, notwithstanding Watergate. “It was such a minor thing compared to what’s going on now in the political world.” Whatever Trump’s faults, Lundberg said, she would vote for him. “I can’t desert my party.”
In this corner of California, a beleaguered Republican redoubt amid state-wide Democratic domination, others echoed that loyalty. “I’ll support Trump because of the appointments he’ll make,” said Michael Antonovich, 74, who served Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush.
He accused the media of turning gossip into news and shuddered at the prospect of Hillary Clinton – “so, so corrupt, a career politician with a shady past” – appointing supreme court justices.
John Van Viegen, 66, a volunteer at the library, railed at fellow Republicans who have renounced Trump. “I may not like some of the things he says, but how do you not support the candidate?”
An apt question for Kissinger. Nixon’s foreign policy architect said in a statement last month he would not support either major party candidate, in order to focus on working across party lines to improve America’s standing in the world.
When the Guardian asked the 93-year-old to elaborate, library staff bustled him away before he could answer.
Pete Wilson, 82, a former California governor, said this election would have stumped Nixon. “I think, like the rest of us, he would have been utterly baffled.” Wilson faulted the Trump campaign’s ground operation but did not elaborate on the candidate.
Tyson Kelly, 28, in contrast, gave a blunt assessment. “Donald Trump is an abomination. Absolutely the worst human being.” Kelly, however, was one of the few non-Republicans. He was there, with a union-jack t-shirt, as part of the evening’s entertainment, playing in a Beatles tribute band, Liverpool Legends.
From humble roots in Yorba Linda, Nixon rose to become Dwight Eisenhower’s vice-president. He narrowly lost the presidency to John Kennedy in 1960, and then lost a bid to be California’s governor, but bounced back in 1968 to win the White House. He escalated, then ended, the war in Vietnam and opened relations with Mao’s China. A landslide re-election in 1972 gave way to Watergate, when spying on political foes, and covering it up, forced his resignation. In his final years, he clawed back respect as an éminence grise, but never escaped the shadow of disgrace.
The library opened in 1990 with fanfare and controversy. Historians called it a whitewash, with one scholar dubbing it another California theme park whose reality level was “slightly better than Disneyland”.
It was only in 2007 that it joined the official presidential library system, leading to an overhaul of the exhibits to give a more rounded portrait of a troubled presidency. The renovated version unveiled on Friday included nearly 70 new exhibits. The unflinching Watergate section was first unveiled in 2011.
Nixon could be coarse in private but was also a policy wonk and, by today’s GOP standards, progressive in some areas. He created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed Title IX, advancing gender equality.
Some framed quotes sound closer to Clinton than Trump: “We seek an open world, a world in which no people, great or small, will live in angry isolation.”
If polls indicating a Trump defeat are accurate, however, the businessman may yet channel other Nixon quotes. In 1962, after losing California’s gubernatorial election, Nixon waxed petulant: “You don’t have Nixon to kick around any more, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”
And in 1974, upon leaving the White House, he pledged greatness despite defeat. “We think that when we lose an election, we think that when we suffer a defeat, that all is ended,” he said. “Not true. It is only a beginning, always. The young must know it, the old must know it.
“It must always sustain us, because the greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes and you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes, because only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.”