My summer started with a visit to the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, in Yorba Linda, California. This was the final research trip for my forthcoming monograph – Poverty Wars in Mississippi – for which I have, quite literally, travelled across the US. Over the past 5 years, I’ve visited archives in Georgia, Mississippi and Texas, before ending up on the West Coast. For me, archival research has been characterised by a few things: long haul flights, bright sunshine, exceptionally brisk air-conditioning, long hours photographing thousands of documents and warm Southern hospitality. For this trip, the only difference was the Californian – not Deep South – hospitality, and it proved to be just as welcoming.My primary objective in visiting the Nixon Library was to photograph the documents of the Office of Economic Opportunity during the Nixon administration. I’ve discovered some great material – from wry, handwritten comments by Richard Nixon on newspaper coverage, to surprises about OEO policy. Under President Nixon, the war on poverty was quietly undermined and the OEO – the agency created by his predecessor to coordinate antipoverty efforts – was dismantled. But the demise of the war on poverty was slow and unsteady: memos between Nixon and his aides reveal that more thought went into whether to change the name of the OEO – and to what – than how to get rid of it altogether in the early years of the administration.
Unfortunately, the Nixon Presidential Museum was closed for the $25 million renovation that is taking place – the new museum is due to be opened in fall 2016, including a new Watergate exhibit, which I was sorry to miss. Despite this – and the closure of Nixon’s helicopter, due to the 100F+ heat – there was plenty to see at the library. The library was built at the location of Richard Nixon’s birthplace (pictured) and his home for the first decade of his life: a pretty but basic wooden house built by his family, who grew lemons on the surrounding land.
After two tiring but productive weeks in the Nixon Library, I had taken over 17,000 photographs and opted to spend my last full day at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Still somewhat naïve about LA traffic, I assumed that a one day visit to the Reagan Library was totally feasible. As it turned out, I had failed to anticipate the joys of the I-210: at 9am, three hours after setting off, I was still miles from Simi Valley. The trip was definitely worthwhile, though. Once I (finally) arrived, the exceptionally kind archivists expedited my introduction and within 15 minutes I was making my way through yet more files – this time, from Reagan’s tenure as Governor of California between 1967 and 1975. Great finds from these papers included campaign material demonstrating Reagan’s fight against welfare from the earliest days of his career. In a speech given in the late 1960s to the Women’s National Press Club entitled ‘Because It’s Right’, Reagan enumerated the dangers of welfare in perpetuating ‘poverty for the recipients of welfare’ and institutionalising ‘their poverty into a kind of permanent degradation’. This is familiar rhetoric: heard from Reagan in the 1980s, as he launched his war on welfare, and from Mississippi Republicans in the 1960s fighting the war on poverty. But the most interesting part of the trip was not to be found in the reading room. The Reagan Museum was spectacular – possibly the most impressive Presidential Museum I’ve visited, (despite my fondness for the LBJ Library and Museum). Although perhaps lacking in objectivity, the grandeur and scale of the museum cannot be faulted, from the opportunity to walk through Reagan’s Air Force One (pictured) and Marine One, to the section of the Berlin Wall standing in the beautiful grounds.