THE RIGHT PLACE
“I was born in a house my father built.”
--Richard Milhous Nixon
The first words of Richard Nixon’s memoirs signify not just his attachments, but the beginnings of his political character and that of the county in which he was born.
His parents’ story was typical of those who settled here in Orange County’s early years: hard-working, self-reliant people, convinced that its open spaces could provide a better life than they’d known.
Nixon was born in the tiny farm community of Yorba Linda in 1913. Like other county pioneers, his parents had come from the Midwest; his father from Ohio, his Quaker mother from Indiana, both rock-hard conservative Republicans.
Though they moved to Whittier after their farm failed, they had hoped for a lemon ranch that would prosper. It was the kind of romantic, rural environment that attracted settlers here in the generations preceding them, just before Orange County was officially carved out of Los Angeles County in 1889.
In the early days, no one knew to call it Orange, of course. Oranges weren’t even the county’s main crop at the time. But the orange groves were spreading, and politicians with a vision for growth thought the name “Orange” would sound more appealing to potential investors.
That the county would thrive was in little doubt. Land was cheap and plentiful, the sun shined brightly on pristine beaches and fertile fields. And the railroads that came with the turn of the century helped Orange County boom, both in its markets and its population.
The future could be bright for those willing to make something from scratch. It was the era of self-made men and women.
“And everybody knows,” says Cal State Fullerton history professor Harry Jeffrey, “that there’s no one more conservative than the self-made man.”
And so the county’s roots were conservative to the bone. Most Anaheim settlers were Germans with rural, conservative backgrounds. But others who helped establish the county’s political soul were Midwest Republicans and Southern Democrats, also steeped in conservatism.
Settlers in the beginning came in bunches, and the towns sprang up in sporadic fashion as each farming community developed. That’s in great part why Orange County was never united into any large single city, the way the city of Los Angeles dominates Los Angeles County.
Another reason, though, is that the county’s birth came at a time of great inter-city power struggles. In those first years, partisan brouhahas related more to city boundaries than political leanings.
Anaheim was the big loser in the county’s first major power struggle. Santa Ana businessmen led the lobbying in Sacramento for legislative approval to let voters here decide on division from Los Angeles. These lobbyists also set the boundaries, which made Santa Ana more central than Anaheim. When the vote came a few months later to name a county seat, Anaheim residents boycotted, clearing the way for Santa Ana to become the county’s focal point.
Orange was the only other city in existence when the county was formed, and fought bitterly at times with the other two for recognition. It became a pattern; as each new community formed a city, it wanted nothing to do with being annexed by its larger neighbor, though most shared the same political character.
Almost all the early officeholders were conservative Republicans. It may come as a shock to some today, but in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan controlled most city offices in Anaheim. The county did vote for Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, as a backlash against the Depression. But in successive presidential elections, it reverted to supporting Republican candidates.
Nationally, the county became known as a hotbed of archconservative politics. That was partly because it sent firebrand right-winger James B. Utt to Congress, from 1952 until his death in 1970. Utt saw communist conspiracies behind everything from civil rights to rock ‘n’ roll. By the time Utt died, the anti-government John Birch Society was strong enough in Orange County to get its board member John Schmitz elected to Utt’s seat. The John Birch Society, at its peak in the 1960s, boasted 20 chapters in Orange County alone.
“The negative national reputation we were getting was well-deserved,” Jeffrey said. “We were among the most conservative counties in the country.”
But regionally, the county was becoming better known for its growth than its politics. Two key elements came along at the same time in the mid-1950s to spur a building boom--Disneyland and Interstate 5.
Walt Disney dreamed of a major amusement park. So he hired the Stanford Research Institute to study what might be the most profitable place to build it. Its research showed that Southern California’s population center was moving south and east. That would put it at about Anaheim.
With Disneyland and the new freeway, Orange County was suddenly on the map. Its population, at 220,000 in 1950, more than tripled by 1960. Tract housing replaced orange groves and celery fields. Soon major farm owners, such as the Irvine Co. and the C.J. Segerstrom family, realized there were many more millions to be made from development than from farming.
When UC Irvine opened in 1965, it was only part of a larger plan to develop an entire city.
Many from the John Birch Society blamed UC Irvine for depleting the group’s power. As the university grew, it brought an influx of faculty and students who, if not liberal, were at least considerably more moderate, bringing their own influence on county politics. The university, with 33,000 students, has become one of the state’s major institutions, particularly in medicine and research.
It would be President Nixon who would help reshape the nation’s impression of politics and life in Orange County.
Though he talked in political campaigns about his Quaker upbringing in Yorba Linda, his Orange County connection was little more than an asterisk until his presidency.
In 1968, when he won the White House, he and his wife, Pat, bought a beach home in San Clemente they called Casa Pacifica. Their vacation retreats there--and official functions such as visits by Soviet Prime Minister Leonid Brezhnev--brought hordes of mass media, and national attention to what Orange County was like.
When Nixon resigned in disgrace in 1974, he made Casa Pacifica his permanent home. He wrote in his memoirs about that last day in office: “This was the nightmare end of a long dream. I had come so far from the little house in Yorba Linda to this great house in Washington.”
Nixon lived at Casa Pacifica another five years, first in exile, then in recovery, before moving east in 1979.
But Nixon’s ties to the county remained strong, and when his supporters sought a site for his presidential library, they settled on acres surrounding his renovated boyhood home. The Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace opened in 1990. Nixon died in 1994, and his funeral on the library grounds would be attended by the sitting president and four former ones.
The Sweet Life Suddenly Sours
Prosperity--expressed in everything from the building of the Nixon Library to the Crystal Cathedral to grand shopping malls--would become linked in the minds of many with life in Orange County.
There were also years of high inflation and market slowdowns, but in the early 1990s the economy was strong and development was again on the move.
But in late 1994, the county supervisors learned too late that they’d been asleep at the wheel.
With almost no oversight, the county’s acclaimed treasurer, Robert L. Citron, had been dealing in high-risk investments on Wall Street. When interest rates did not drop as expected, the county was left with the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy--a $1.6-billion shortfall.
Recovery led to a restructuring of government power. The supervisors, looking for better oversight, for the first time gave broad powers to the county’s top administrator.
Jan Mittermeier, the first woman to hold the job, persuaded them to make her chief executive officer. Though the title was later reduced to county executive officer, Mittermeier today still holds more power than any of her predecessors.
Meanwhile, the county is wrestling with two development issues that have become ensnared in politics and threaten peaceful co-existence between north and south.
One is the scheduled building of an international airport at the old El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, which closed in July. It’s on the books, but a coalition of South County cities and citizen groups is intent on stopping it.
The other is the growth of toll roads throughout South County, which many residents oppose on environmental grounds and because they threaten the quiet suburban existence they value.
Politically, Orange County shed some of its old image in 1996 when a coalition of Latinos, women, other Democrats and moderate Republicans helped Democrat Loretta Sanchez unseat conservative congressional firebrand Robert K. Dornan in the central 46th District. When she defeated him again in 1998, Sanchez perhaps spoke to the end of an era with her parting shot to him: “Adios, Bob Dornan.”
Yet conservatives still dominate the Republican Party, and it may be deep into the new millennium before a Democrat, or even progressive Republican, can come to power in South County or the coastal cities.
And, of course, Orange County will always be the land of Nixon.
Richard Nixon’s biggest fan was his father, Frank. Wrote Nixon: “My success meant to him that everything he had worked for and believed in was true; that in America, with hard work and determination, you can achieve anything.”
Despite his resignation in disgrace, pundits continue to debate Nixon’s place in history. But few dispute that his roots here led to his political successes, if not his excesses.
Contributing to this report was Times librarian Sheila A. Kern.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
1889--Legislation passes in Sacramento Feb. 12 allowing a vote on whether to form a county here. Los Angeles officials cry foul, claiming votes are being bought.
On June 4, polls open at 4:49 a.m. to give farmers time to vote on county formation. Despite heavy opposition from Anaheim, feuding with Santa Ana over the proposed county boundary lines, voters support division from Los Angeles, 2,505 to 499.
1890--A lynching Aug. 20 at the corner of 4th and Sycamore streets spurs the fledgling county into improving law enforcement.
1897--The Irvine Co. donates to the county what was known as the “old picnic grounds,” now Irvine Regional Park.
1900--First cornerstone is laid July 4 for the new county courthouse, made of dark red Arizona sandstone, at Broadway and Santa Ana Boulevard in downtown Santa Ana. The celebration is marred by the death of a balloonist performing for the holiday event.
1913--Richard Milhous Nixon is born Jan. 9 in Yorba Linda.
1917--Santa Ana’s National Guard Company L is ordered into service March 26 and sent to France, 11 days before the U.S. declared war on Germany, making them Orange County’s first World War I troops.
1932--Faced with high unemployment and plunging municipal revenues, the county votes Democratic for president on Nov. 2 for the first time: Franklin Roosevelt gets 23,835 votes; Herbert Hoover 22,623.
1936--Newport Harbor, the county’s first harbor, is dedicated May 23 with a yacht parade that sets out from a telegraphic signal from the White House. The harbor was built as one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Depression-era public works programs.
1940--Grading begins April 5 on the Orange County Airport, the first public airport in the county, later to be renamed John Wayne Airport.
1941--Groundbreaking ceremonies Oct. 23 for the U.S. Air Corps Replacement Training Center, later renamed the Santa Ana Army Base. The old base is now the grounds of Orange Coast College and the Orange County Fairgrounds, both in Costa Mesa.
1943--Dedication March 17 of the El Toro Marine Air Station. Federal officials had been planning the base since just weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
1954--Chapman College moves in September from Los Angeles to downtown Orange, becoming the county’s first four-year institution. In 1991, it becomes known as Chapman University.
1965--UC Irvine opens Oct. 4, in the coastal foothills between Irvine and Newport Beach.
1968--The county celebrates completion Dec. 9 of the final link of the San Diego (405) Freeway.
1974--Nixon returns Aug. 9 to his San Clemente home after resigning the presidency in disgrace.
1990--Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace opens July 19 in Yorba Linda, at the site of the house where Nixon was born. It becomes the only presidential library to operate without government funds.
1994--Government officials make public Dec. 1 that the county’s investment portfolio, close to $2 billion, is in serious trouble. Within days the county files for bankruptcy, which shakes the financial world coast to coast. County Treasurer Robert L. Citron, who acknowledges mismanaging the county’s finances, is forced to resign Dec. 6. He later is sentenced to a year in prison for his role in mishandling county funds.
1996--In a dramatic upset, long-time congressman Robert K. Dornan is defeated by Loretta Sanchez for the 46th District seat.
PEOPLE AND INNOVATIONS
Interstate 5. One of the county’s greatest population jumps came in the mid-1950s, with the building of Interstate 5, which ran the breadth of the county when completed in 1958. People came in droves to buy homes, knowing the freeway would take them efficiently to their jobs in Los Angeles County.
James Kanno, the first Japanese American . to become a city mayor in 1957. Yet just 12 years before, Kanno was living a far different life: Kanno and his family were required to live in an interment camp during World War II, along with thousands of other Americans of Japanese ancestry. Kanno became successful as a real estate broker, won a seat on the Fountain Valley City Council and later became its mayor.
Tony Lam, a Garden Grove restaurant owner, became the first Vietnamese American to hold an elected city office in the county, when he won election to the Westminster City Council in 1992. Though he has angered many Vietnamese Americans for his moderate positions, Lam remains on the council.
Walter Knott made his millions by creating the Knott’s Berry Farm amusement park and internationally marketing its jams and jellies. But to many he was best known as a political deal-maker. Knott was a major contributor to conservative Republican causes, and a nod from Knott could make someone’s political career. On election day, Orange County residents by the hundreds would call Knott’s Berry Farm to find out how Knott thought they should vote on candidates or issues. He become known as “Mr. Republican.”
Theo Lacy. Lacy was the second sheriff in the county, but is credited as the first to establish any real law enforcement. In the case of a stolen horse and buggy, Lacy offered a $25 reward for the thief and another $25 for the return of the horse and buggy. Lacy is one two late sheriffs in this county to have a jail named after him. The Theo Lacy Branch Jail in Orange is scheduled to undergo major expansion. The other is James A. Musick. The South County jail which bears his name was once known as the honor farm.
James B. Utt, who helped Orange County gain a national reputation as a hotbed of archconservatism. “Utt the Nut,” his enemies called him. He was elected to Congress in 1952 and handily won reelection until his death in 1970. Each year Utt introduced a bill to eliminate the federal income tax. He also tried to pass a constitutional amendment which would recognize Jesus Christ as America’s authority figure. He opposed all civil rights legislation, but gained national fame, however, when he argued that rock ‘n roll was a communist plot.
Thomas H. Kuchel, a minority whip in the U.S. Senate, rose higher in office than any other political figure from Orange County except Richard Nixon. Kuchel’s moderate Republican views helped get him elected to the state Assembly in 1936. He was a constant critic of the conservative wing of the party. Appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1952, Kuchel continued to try to make his party more progressive, and angered right-wingers by denouncing James Utt for “fright peddling.” Kuchel won reelection until 1968, when conservatives gained enough clout to oust him in the Republican primary. Right-wing champion Max Rafferty then lost to Democrat Alan Cranston.
The University of California regents hired William Pereira & Associates to seek potential sites for a new campus. Pereira’s report led to the building of UC Irvine. His work so impressed the Irvine Co. that it hired him to develop a master plan for a whole city. UC Irvine opened its doors in 1965 and the planned city on Irvine Co. land has become a model for planned communities worldwide.
William H. Spurgeon, a property owner and small business operator, Spurgeon became a leader in efforts to get a division bill passed in Sacramento that would allow what became Orange County to split from Los Angeles County. Spurgeon was then elected to the first county board of supervisors, and became the first board chairman. Though Spurgeon donated some land and office space to the county, he did receive $8,000 when county officials decided that Spurgeon’s property at Broadway and Santa Ana Boulevard was the best place to build the first county courthouse.
For 89 years, no woman ever served on the Orange County Board of Supervisors. Harriett M. Wieder, a Republican, became the first in 1978. A former mayor of Huntington Beach, Wieder got her start in politics working for then-Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty. During her 16 years on the board, she championed women’s causes and social issues. When she retired in 1994, the county was mired in bankruptcy, tarnishing her final days in office. She also riled party faithful with her support for Democrat Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Loretta Sanchez, who campaigned with a coalition of Latinos and other minorities, narrowly defeated outspoken conservative incumbent Robert K. Dornan for the 46th District congressional seat in 1996. She is Orange County’s first female and first Latina member of Congress. Dornan contests the election--triggering a series of inquiries at the local, state and federal levels--without success. When he tried to win back the seat in 1998, Sanchez defeated him by a wide margin.
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