SAN CLEMENTE, Calif. -- San Clemente, Calif., a seaside town where rows of white stucco houses with orange roofs meet the blue waters of the Pacific, offers visitors the illusion of strolling through a tiny Spanish town. Once unknown, the town was suddenly thrust onto the world political stage in the summer of 1969 when then former president Richard Nixon purchased an oceanfront residence there.
Fred Divel, 63, a former Nixon campaign staff member who helped find the residence, said: "Nixon really envied the retreat that the Kennedy family had -- Hyannis Point. It was a private estate, and Kennedy could really relax there, away from [the] public. That's why he [Nixon] liked it at Casa Pacifica [his home] and San Clemente. It was that sort of place."
The quiet coastal town instantly changed after Nixon bought the house. Amid the anti-Vietnam War movement, a large number of demonstrators gathered in the town. Secret Service agents and reporters roamed the streets, and Nixon's residence, built on a 10-hectare estate, became known as the "Western White House."
Nixon actively invited world leaders to his residence there, including then Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, who visited San Clemente in January 1972. Nixon and Sato held urgent talks about the timing of Nixon's visit to China and the reversion of Okinawa to Japan. In 1973, Leonid Brezhnev, then general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, was invited. They discussed the Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War, which was signed by the two nations shortly thereafter.
Brezhnev reportedly stayed in a room that was decorated with floral wallpaper and belonged to Nixon's daughter. Jimmy Byron, 20, a communications and marketing assistant at the Richard Nixon Foundation, explained that the residence was an ideal place to discuss important matters in a comfortable atmosphere. Byron said: "I think it was a diplomatic tactic for Nixon to invite this leader to his home. Casa Pacifica did play a diplomatic role -- home to many major international agreements."
Several times a year, Nixon stayed in the residence for periods of a week to a month. He traveled to Casa Pacifica by helicopter after landing at a nearby Marine base on a presidential plane. Special orders were given to local police to retrieve a black briefcase first in the event that Nixon's helicopter were to crash, as the briefcase contained a code to order the launch of nuclear weapons. Looking back on those days, former city Police Chief Albert Ehlow, 75, said, "I remember sitting in my car watching the choppers come over and just praying that they didn't crash."
Nixon sometimes went into town, shopping for items such as tools and sweets. When locals asked him for an autograph on those occasions, Nixon obliged with a smile, according to Ehlow. "Before Nixon, we were just a stage stop on the way to San Diego," Ehlow said. "He put San Clemente on the map. Before he came here, who ever heard of San Clemente? Nobody. After he resigned, there really wasn't much of a big change in how people thought about him. I didn't see people upset. We were still glad to have him here. We liked him, we liked the way he was running the country."
After the Watergate scandal forced Nixon to resign from the presidency on Aug. 9, 1974, and he returned to San Clemente, a signboard that read, "Welcome Home, Mr. President!" was there waiting for him. Nixon told local residents he was proud to be a Californian like them and that he was glad to be back home again.
Quietude returned to the town which had served as a diplomatic stage for five years, and the beach in front of the residence has become a popular surfing spot. In 1980, Nixon sold the house and moved to New York. The only reminder of the era when the town was under the political spotlight is a street sign near the residence labeled Avenida del Presidente. Many locals still support the former president.
Nostalgic for the old days, Jorge Olamendi, 65, a Mexican restaurant owner in the neighborhood, recalled, "He [Nixon] said, 'I want the world to someday be in peace.'"
After stepping down, Nixon devoted himself to writing his memoirs and books on diplomacy in his seaside study. Even after falling from the apex of power, the former president still had an oceanfront view from which to observe the world.