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Exploring California's political landscape.

Visit the haunts of presidents and wannabes around the Golden State

ON THE FIRST FLOOR OF California's capitol, a portrait of Ronald Reagan, the state's 33rd governor and the nation's 40th president, shows him in front of the building--a vision of traditional American political power straight out of central casting: dark suit, avuncular smile, a morning-in-America light shining on him. He looks, well, presidential.

Up on the third floor you can see a portrait of Reagan's successor, two-term governor and three-time presidential candidate Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown. The governor can choose any artist for his portrait, and Brown opted for a Southern California expressionist, Don Bachardy. In Brown's somewhat abstract portrait, he looks worried and as if he needs a shave.

The paintings would seem to reflect how little these two men have in common--ideologically or personally. But both Brown and Reagan tapped into California's long antipolitical political tradition, just as presidential politics moved in that direction.

Unorthodox, perhaps, but California has served as a springboard, a retreat, and sometimes a place of tragedy for notable American political figures. With the election upon us, this month is a good time to visit some reminders of the state's role in recent presidential politics.


Some hundred years ago, British writer Lord Bryce wrote that California voters were ready "to try instant, even if perilous, remedies, for present evils" and that "California politics are peculiar and dangerous."

Peculiar and dangerous aptly described a state where in one year President Gerald Ford survived two assassination attempts, one at the hands of a disciple of Charles Manson. A few years before, in probably the most tragic event in California political history, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated at Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel after winning the 1968 Democratic presidential primary.

The venerable Ambassador, on Wilshire Boulevard, figured in another pivotal postwar political event: facing political disaster during a 1952 finance scandal, vice-presidential nominee Richard Nixon penned his famous Checkers speech in the hotel. That draft is now in the Nixon library in Yorba Linda.

Last year, Reagan's presidential library opened in Simi Valley. In the video that greets visitors, Reagan quotes Franklin D. Roosevelt and says, "History cannot be rewritten by wishful thinking."

But history is all about interpretation, and these library-museums provide clear expressions of how Nixon and Reagan would like history to judge them.


Yorba Linda: The Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Birthplace. This museum symbolizes Nixon's post-Watergate redemption. Here, you can have a conversation by video monitor with the former president and track his political odyssey. His boyhood home is also on the grounds. The library is at 18001 Yorba Linda Boulevard; call (714) 993-3393. Hours are 10 to 5 Mondays through Saturdays, 11 to 5 Sundays. Admission costs $4.95 for ages 12 to 61, $2.95 seniors, and $1 ages 8 through 11.

Simi Valley: The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. "Life is just one grand sweet song, so start the music," reads a quote next to Reagan's picture in his high school yearbook, and it sums up the optimism that carried him to the Oval Office.

Now Reagan has carried the Oval Office back to California--or at least a full-scale reproduction of the room. The museum is also filled with the often stunning visual images that helped define his presidency.

On an outdoor patio, a portion of the Berlin Wall looks out on terrain that recalls writer Andrew Kopkind's 1967 description of Reagan country: "the glassy, grassy flatland suburbs beneath the mountains, where even the palm trees are imported."

The library is at 40 Presidential Drive; call (805) 522-8444. Hours are 10 to 6 Mondays through Saturdays, noon to 6 Sundays through October 24, then to 5. Admission costs $3 for ages 16 through 61, $1 seniors.

Los Angeles: Lucy's El Adobe Cafe. Even if Jerry Brown had been elected president, he probably wouldn't have opened a museum, but this landmark Mexican cafe offers some living history. Brown spent many evenings here in the late 1970s with then-girlfriend Linda Ronstadt. Pictures of stars and pols decorate the room. There's even a $9.50 Jerry Brown special (chicken and rice with bell peppers, onions, and tomatoes). Lucy's is at 5536 Melrose Avenue; call (213) 462-9421.


Governor's Mansion. No building has played a greater role in recent California political mythology than this white 1877 Victorian.

When Ronald Reagan became governor in 1967, he and his family lived here only a few months before moving into a larger house on 45th Street. Reagan backers later financed a sprawling new house along the American River.

Labeling the new mansion a "Taj Mahal," Brown refused to move in in 1975, opting instead for a $250 apartment across from the capitol. There he lived for two terms, with his fabled mattress on the floor.

The old mansion, at 16th and H streets, is open daily for hourly tours starting at 10, with the last at 4. Admission costs $2, $1 for ages 6 through 12.

State Capitol. Restored 10 years ago, the capitol is well worth a visit for both its architecture and history. Tours go to the Senate and Assembly chambers, and pass by the Brown and Reagan portraits as well as those of some other former governors.

Tours are free. Capitol tours run hourly from 9 to 4. Historic tours are also available; call (916) 324-0333.

To see politics in action, take a peek in the center corridor on the third floor, where lobbyists live up to their name. Another good bet is the sixth-floor cafeteria in the morning. If you're interested in attending a legislative session or hearing, stop in the tour office in the basement (Room B-27) for information.

Frank Fat's. A short walk from the capitol, this Chinese restaurant has become famous for its power lunches. The clientele leans toward the Republican side of the aisle, but you're likely to spot members of both parties, plus columnists. We enjoyed the mood and the food, including the traditional banana cream pie. Frank Fats is at 806 L Street; call (916) 442-7092.


It was once said, San Francisco is the only city in the country that would cheer Nikita Khruschev and boo Willie Mays. The Bay Area has long held a reputation for radical politics, with Berkeley at its center.

But events like Berkeley's People's Park riot in 1969 helped solidify Reagan's role as a defender of law and order, while the Bechtel Group, in San Francisco, and Stanford University produced number of key members of his two presidential administrations. Stanford is home to the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, which was founded in 1919 by President Herbert Hoover, a member of the school's first graduating class. Warren Harding fared miserably in the Bay Area: he died at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco in 1923.

Oakland Museum. Always a great spot for California history, the museum has a section devoted to state politics, with an assortment of memorabilia. The museum is at 1000 Oak Street; call (510) 238-3401.

The Potomac, Oakland. Franklin Roosevelt's presidential yacht was once owned by Elvis Presley. Now a National History Landmark, The Potomac will soon be open for tours; call (510) 839-7533.
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Author:Jaffe, Matthew
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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