Nixon Felt at Home in San Clemente

Times Staff Writer

It sits on a bluff above one of the best surfing spots in the world, with a view that can reach 60 miles to San Clemente Island on a clear day. It’s so isolated that you can barely see the tip of a gazebo or get a peek of some of the Spanish-style buildings from the beach. And the closest you can get to it is a model at the city’s public library.

This house in San Clemente was once Richard Nixon’s Western White House, the place where he would drag his Cabinet and aides for weeks at a time while he conducted affairs of state and met leaders such as Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev and South Vietnamese leader Nguyen Van Thieu.

San Clemente was once a small city at the southern tip of Orange County that few people had heard of. If they had driven through on the way to San Diego, maybe they had seen signs on the freeway.

Then, in 1969, Nixon moved in. Suddenly San Clemente was on the map, and signs at the city limits announced, “Home of the Western White House.”

Although he had grown up in Southern California and had represented the state in the House and the Senate, Nixon was living in New York when he was elected president in 1968.

Shortly after the election, presidential assistant John Ehrlichman turned to Fred Divel, a 19-year-old campaign aide from San Clemente, and asked him to scout around for a home for Nixon on the coast.

Divel, now 56, focused on the nearly 30-acre estate owned by the daughter of Henry Hamilton Cotton, one of the early developers of San Clemente and once the Democratic Party’s national finance chairman.

Franklin Roosevelt had been a guest at the estate several times and played poker in the gazebo-like card room that still stands at the top of the bluff.

Divel presented the idea to Ehrlichman, complete with aerial photos. “The next thing you know, [Nixon] was checking out the swallows at San Juan Capistrano,” Divel said.

Presidential Partiality

The area was a favorite of Nixon’s, and he had proposed to his future wife, Pat, while sitting in his Oldsmobile on a cliff above nearby Dana Point.

Nixon bought the 10-room home and renamed it La Casa Pacifica. He had the tennis court scooped out and a swimming pool built in its place, with a barrier to protect against the wind. A group called Orange County Golfing Friends of the President paid for a seven-hole course.

The location made for easy travel from Washington. Nixon would fly into El Toro Marine base, take a helicopter to the nearby Coast Guard station and ride a golf cart to the house.

The Nixons were sometimes seen around town, buying beach chairs at a hardware store or when the president bought his wife candy for Valentine’s Day, said Al Ehlow, a former police chief. The president liked to eat the taco-enchilada-chile relleno combination at El Adobe restaurant in San Juan Capistrano.

Occasionally the president got rambunctious. One time, Ehlow said, Nixon and his close friend Bebe Rebozo jumped into Rebozo’s car and drove to the nearby Camp Pendleton Marine base without telling the Secret Service, sending the agents scrambling to find him.

The Western White House was a boon to local business. When Nixon would show up — and he stayed for as long as a month — an entourage of Secret Service agents, advisors and Cabinet officers would accompany him, renting 60 hotel rooms, eating in local restaurants and shopping in local stores. The White House press office and reporters covering the president would rent 70 rooms at the Surf and Sand Hotel in Laguna Beach.

When Nixon bought La Casa Pacifica, he put out a brief statement saying he put $100,000 down and owed a $240,000 mortgage. But like so much of Nixon’s presidency, the truth turned out to be quite different.

The Truth Comes Out

As congressional investigators and the Watergate special prosecutor were examining everything Nixon, reporters began asking questions about the purchase. They would ask. The White House would offer some details. They would ask again. The White House would provide a few more details.

It turned out that the sale was a more complicated transaction that involved Nixon receiving a $450,000 loan from his millionaire friend Robert Abplanalp to buy the estate and adjacent property. Later, an investment company formed by Abplanalp and Rebozo bought most of the property from Nixon, leaving the president with 5.9 acres, but effectively giving him control of the entire acreage.

In addition, a congressional committee investigating government spending on Nixon’s properties found that at least $66,614 of the money spent on the house should have been paid for by the president, according to “Nightmare,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer J. Anthony Lukas.

When Nixon resigned in 1974, leaving Washington with that famous wave before lifting off, La Casa Pacifica became his permanent home. The day Nixon left office, Ehlow quickly drove to the city limits. By the time he got there, the signs touting the Western White House were gone. They ended up in the city yard.

In 1979, Richard and Pat Nixon decided to move to New York to be closer to their children and grandchildren. La Casa Pacifica was sold to a partnership of developers: George Argyros, Donald Kohl and Gavin Herbert, chairman of Allergan.

Herbert, who became friends with Nixon after he resigned, ended up with the house and the surrounding 5 acres. Houses were built on 1- and 2-acre lots carved out of the rest of the property, including on the golf course.

Herbert, owner of Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar, said that while Nixon was president, Herbert and a group of volunteers would help with the landscaping. Pat worked in the garden every day, he said. She especially like the rose garden.

The house was remodeled about five years ago, and about 25% of it was torn down and rebuilt, Herbert said. But these days, the only way to get a good look at the house is at the library — unless you can get past the guard shack for the gated community below the property.

“People still ask us … all the time, ‘Why can’t we see the Western White House?’ ” said Pat Bowman, co-curator of the San Clemente Historical Society Museum. She may tell them the best spot to catch a peek of it, but that’s all you can get: a peek.