He came to Florida not just because California was too far, but because he loved it.
The only President born in California, Richard Nixon had a lifelong enjoyment of warm climates and life near the ocean. In fact, despite their differences, Nixon drew as much sustenance from the sea as did his House colleague and 1960 presidential election rival John F. Kennedy.
Nixon was born in the Orange County, California farming community of Yorba Linda, in 1913, and was raised in the county’s inland city of Whittier, where he attended high school and college.
Once he had the chance to leave the Golden State, at age 21, Nixon was eager to begin exploring the country and then the wider world.
California, however, always called Nixon back, whether while attending Duke Law School in North Carolina, serving in naval posts across the country and in the Asian Pacific during World War II, or living on New York’s Fifth Avenue as a lawyer.
After winning the presidency in 1968, he bought the Spanish style estate he dubbed La Casa Pacifica, in San Clemente, California with its sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean. The home is separated from the Orange County beach by a rise of thick vegetation kept lush by the ocean mist. Making the cross-country trip from Washington on Air Force One, however, proved too time-consuming and costly for the President to take short, frequent weekend trips to California. Using it as what he called a “Western White House,” he hosted a state dinner as well as conducted his presidential duties from an office there, but only executive business for lengthy stays of a week or more. He was also conscious of the cost to the government of transporting and housing the necessary executive staff there for too long.
Despite the charges made against Nixon in 1973, during the Watergate scandal investigation, that the government paid for home and landscape improvements to his personal property, it was actually the U.S. Secret Service, a division of the Treasury Department, which ordered the changes. The agency insisted on standards of security that required new ground lighting, electrical movement detection, impenetrable gates, and state-of-the-art communication technology.
And so, it became far more practical for the President and Mrs. Nixon their daughters Julie and Tricia, and sons-in-law David Eisenhower, and Edward Cox, to make the shorter three-hour flight down the eastern seaboard to their other seaside house, in Key Biscayne, Florida, one of the outlying areas of Miami Beach’s island region.
Used most frequently during the winter months for long weekends, Nixon dubbed it his “Winter White House.”
The Nixons had actually bought the Florida home shortly before purchasing their California home, before the 1968 election had been won.
Since the early 1950s, Nixon had frequenty spent his family vacation over the Christmas holiday at Key Biscayne.
He also went there on his own for short weekend trips, finding escape from Washington in the solitude of deep-sea fishing or companionship of golf. (see yesterday’s article, Miami Golf and UFOs? Why Jackie Gleason Campaigned for Nixon and a Shocking Allegation)
In fact, Nixon was unwinding at the old Key Biscayne Hotel just a week after losing the 1960 presidential election to JFK when the new president-elect, staying at his parents’ winter home in nearby Palm Beach, came to confer with the outgoing Vice President there.
And just like Kennedy and his father Joe, Nixon was an avid regular at Joe’s Stone Crabs, a popular seafood restaurant in Miami.
Shortly thereafter, Nixon’s growing friendship with Key Biscayne Bank founder and president Bebe Rebozo and his subsequent facilitating of Nixon’s eventual purchase of the Winter White House, near one owned by Rebozo, was a subject in a recent, controversial critique of the President. Based on one journalist’s analysis, he concluded that the Cuban-American banker regularly transacted business with underworld figures in the region.
The author’s more sensationalized conclusion that the President’s depth of emotional friendship with Rebozo went beyond his reliance on their confidential companionship to further intimacy. Despite the long and intense research apparently conducted for his book, no definitive and evidential documentation seems to support what is, ultimately, a speculative and subjective opinion. One glaring fact which strongly belies it was Rebozo’s intensely close relationship and even familial confidentiality which existed between him and Nixon’s wife and daughters.
Another shadow more publicly overt hung over the otherwise sunny Florida spot, a variation on the San Clemente charges that federal funds were used to improve the Nixon property. Specifically, the charge focused on the creation of a relatively modest concrete helicopter landing pad on the compound property.
The press at the time suggested it had been constructed at the direct order of the President.
In truth, Nixon was just fine being driven to the isolated point on what was technically a small peninsula.
He was known to especially enjoy the drive from Miami International Airport to Key Biscayne because of the warm reception that many loyal as well as non-partisan local residents always welcomed him with when he came to town and they had notice of his imminent arrival.
The controversial Key Biscayne, actually, had also been built by order of the Secret Service. Responsible for ensuring the safer and more secure transportation of the President, they preferred that he arrive at and depart from his home by air, rather than be driven in and out of the small community along a well-known route, on publicly-accessible roadways.
Since Nixon rarely spent more than a week at his Key Biscayne house, he was able to schedule meetings with a minimum of senior staff members who always typically accompanied him everywhere.
Occasionally, foreign and military advisors came to brief the President in Key Biscayne on time-sensitive international issues, but he generally made it clear that if it could wait until his return to Washington – it should wait.
Considering the timeline accounting for his more than fifty visits to the Winter White House, it was inevitable that the location was also where meetings were convened to deal with the ensuing investigation into the White House staff’s 1972 criminal directive to burglarize the files of Democratic National headquarters and the subsequent inquiry seeking to discover just to what extent the President was involved in the cover-up of it.
Among those who met with Nixon here were his Attorney-General and the later Committee to Re-Elect the President chairman John Mitchell and his White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman. Both men were subsequently found guilty of criminal obstruction of justice.
As the Watergate scandal worsened, the remoteness of the one-level concrete block-wall and stucco Winter White House only seemed to encourage Nixon’s withdrawal from his otherwise highly-accessible interactions with the White House press corps, reinforcing a literal bunker mentality.
Since the Winter White House was never intended to serve as a place for the Nixons to welcome state visitors or entertain guests, Pat Nixon furnished the three-bedroom home in the same minimal style found in other nearby seasonal-use houses, using rattan, bamboo and wicker furniture with tropical-motif and bright-colored cushioning, and floral cotton draperies which kept out the sun over glass-slat windows, opened at upward angles to let cool air to flow through the house. Allegedly, there was also some lime-green indoor-outdoor carpeting, ubiquitous in southern Florida.
Among the private homes of recent Presidents, be it the Reagan Ranch, the Carter home, the Bush family Compound in Maine and Texas ranch and the Ford winter ski house in Vail, Colorado, an exact vision of what the rooms inside the Nixon family’s Florida home looked like is nearly impossible to piece together.
When the President had meetings there with officials on public business and the White House Press Office wanted to distribute pictures of the conferees, White House Photgrapher Ollie Atkins was permitted in to snap a few formal, indoor shots. Only by these are some of the interiors captured for posterity, and then, only in black and white.
One possible reason for the lack of pictures of the rooms may have been First Lady Pat Nixon making the case that some vestige of her family’s personal privacy should not be publicly divulged, having already conceded up for media disclosure information about the family’s finances, items exchanged among them as gifts, and their medical reports.
For Mrs. Nixon, the most consistently joyous times of her tenure as First Lady were those she was able to share in the company of her daughters. When either of the adult children, the married Julie or Tricia (who married in 1971), came to spend a few days with her in Florida, she became exuberantly animated.
Although born in Nevada, Pat Nixon considered California home and had grown up enjoying its beaches and even surfed there in her youth.
Similarly, it was the natural environment of Florida, its salt water swimming, sunshine and indigenous landscaping of hibiscus plants and royal palms where she seemed to find her most, natural pleasure.
As the Watergate scandal further engulfed the Administration, however, the First Lady found the President’s inclination to isolate while in Florida to make life there nearly as confining as it was in the White House. During her earlier times in Florida, she’d relished just walking the beach shoreline with her shoes off or exploring Miami with her daughters. At one point, when first living at the Winter White House, she had even helped care for a cat which apparently came onto the property looking for food and attention; whether it was a family pet is unclear.
Her longest-term and most trusted friends, however, were not in Florida but still in California. She may have also had a slightly wistful association with the beach in Florida. As her daughter recalled, during the family’s vacation there over the 1967 holiday season, Pat Nixon had sat in resigned silence on the beach, feeling deeply ambivalent about her husband’s decision to launch his second presidential campaign once they returned to New York.
Following Nixon’s resignation from the presidency in August of 1974, he and Pat returned to live in La Casa Pacifica until 1982, when they relocated to New York City and then, subsequently, New Jersey.
Although the former President and First Lady visited Orlando, Florida to take their grandchildren on a trip to Disney World, and stopped in the Miami area on their way to join Rebozo and his wife in the Caribbean, they made no visits back to Key Biscayne.
They sold the Winter White House after the presidency, and new owners built a second story on the simple structure, giving it a grander look. It was torn down in 2004 and a new, modern home built on the site.
Ironically, the one association of the Nixon years which endures in Key Biscayne is the Presidential Helipad that was once criticized as being built for private use on public funds.
The sea birds seem to enjoy it.
Next week, there will be an update of this article with family photographs of the Nixons at their Winter White House in Key Biscayne, Florida, which are all previously unpublished on the Internet. They will initially appear as a separate posting for which subscribers will receive an email update and, subsequently, be integrated into this article.
- Miami Golf and UFOs? Why Jackie Gleason Campaigned for Nixon and a Shocking Allegation (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Super-Seventies Movie! The Nixons & John Wayne, the Gabors, Mary Tyler Moore, Glen Campbell, Lawrence Welk & More! (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Thomas Mallon’s Nixon: Richard Nixon as the object of their affection (lancemannion.typepad.com)
- New book alleges longtime affair between President Richard Nixon and businessman Bebe Rebozo of Key Biscayne (miamiherald.typepad.com)
- Thom Hartmann: Watergate: The Hidden History and the 2012 Elections (huffingtonpost.com)