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Richard Nixon versus his mother's memory

January 13, 2009 |  8:43 pm

Who you gonna believe -- Richard Nixon, or his sainted mother?

Nixon said often that she was a saint -- most notably as he was about to depart the White House after resigning the presidency in August 1974.

He also said often, as he began his memoir, "I was born in the house my father built."

So, who’s right?

My colleague, Larry Harnisch, blogged about an event The Times covered reverently 50 years ago, when it was still plumping the career of the vice president. "Yorba Lindans Dedicate Nixon’s Boyhood Home," read the headline. In the body of the story, Nixon’s mother, Hannah -- identified quaintly, as was then the practice, as "Mrs. Frank A. Nixon" -- took mild exception to the notation on the bronze plaque that the small frame house was the birthplace of Richard Milhous Nixon.

"He was born it a hospital," his mother declared. "But we lived here until Richard was 7."

Amazing that Nixon, dead nearly 15 years, can still rouse political passions. Maybe it’s a new generation caught up in the movie "Frost/Nixon."

Harnisch went onto Nixon’s Wikipedia site to duly enter Hannah Nixon’s correction of the record. And not long thereafter, someone changed it back. Someone with the Internet name "Happyme22" undid Harnisch’s change and made the Wikipedia entry read that Nixon was born "in a house his father had built."

Ever since Wikipedia-slanting has become part of political gamesmanship, the site has required that posters on controversial entries register their identities, and "Happyme22" explained his actions thusly: "Mrs. Nixon must be mistaken, because then we are saying that the state of California and the Nixon Library are wrong."

Who do we believe? The "state of California." How? Where? On what evidence? And the Nixon Library, or the woman who actually gave birth?

I found another Times story, published five days after the dedication, a muddled two paragraphs from The Times’ Washington bureau that hustled to reconcile the discrepancy and only made matters more confusing.

The story, dated Jan. 14, 1959, read: "Vice President Nixon says he always has believed he was born in the front bedroom of the white frame house in Yorba Linda … he has understood since childhood that that was his birthplace, Nixon told the Times, backing up his mother, Mrs. Frank A. Nixon, who so recalls. The historical footnote argument arose when it was alleged the vice president really made his debut in a hospital."

Alleged? Is that any way to talk about your mother? And backing her up? Rather, it glibly flipped the facts to make it sound as if poor Mrs. Nixon had said the opposite of what The Times had just quoted her as saying, and saying it in front of a load of newspaper and TV reporters and cameras.

Whoever changed the Wikipedia entry back to the "born in a house his father had built" added this dismissively to his own note of explanation: "it is irrelevant here."

Still, that’s the Nixon story, and a whole lot of people are sticking to it.

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