Growing up with the future president

The voice, it’s unmistakable. Posture and gestures, hairline and profile, it’s all completely recognizable — and totally disarming.

When I met him, shook his hand and said “Hello, Mr. Nixon,” it took awhile to get my bearings. Yes, it’s 2009. No, I wasn’t in the presence of the 37th president of the United States.

It was Edward Nixon, the youngest of Richard Nixon’s four brothers and the only one surviving, who visited The Herald on Friday.

A longtime Lynnwood resident, the 78-year-old Nixon has just released a memoir, “The Nixons: A Family Portrait” (Book Publishers Network). Co-authored by Karen Olson, the book is no political tell-all.

Ed Nixon, who along with his brother Don was compelled to testify before the Senate Watergate Committee, shares little in the book about the political scandal that led to President Nixon’s resignation in 1974. “Regarding Watergate, we had no firsthand knowledge of the break-in or anything that followed,” Ed Nixon writes tersely.

Dozens of books have been written about Watergate. Inside the cover of “The Nixons: A Family Portrait” are riveting, personal stories we haven’t read before. Ed Nixon’s memories of a Quaker upbringing in California, where his parents ran a small grocery in Whittier during the Depression, are bittersweet.

One brother, Arthur, died before Ed was born. Another, Harold, died when he was small. Both died from tuberculosis. The book tells of the close bond between young Dick Nixon, a dark, studious boy, and his sunny, spirited older brother, Harold.

Harold’s death, Ed Nixon writes, was life-altering for Richard: “Not only did he lose his best friend, but suddenly he was thrust into the role of eldest son.” Richard Nixon was 17 years older than Ed.

Their parents, he writes, were a study in how “opposites attract.” Frank Nixon, a Methodist who became a Quaker, had “rough Appalachian ways,” little education and strong political views. Hannah Milhous Nixon had gone to college. She was pious, proper and influential in the education of her sons.

Sitting at The Herald, with its view of the USS Abraham Lincoln, Ed Nixon recalled how he came to Seattle after earning a geology degree from Duke University and serving in the U.S. Navy. During his Navy years, he met his wife-to-be. Gay Nixon, now retired, was a math teacher in the Edmonds School District.

In 1960, Ed Nixon worked at the University of Washington as an ROTC instructor. In the mid-1960s, he worked in Washington, D.C., with the Apollo space project. The family later settled in rural Lynn­wood. He had his own company and was an adviser on earth science issues. Daughters Beth and Amy still live in this area.

Their world changed when Richard Nixon, a former congressman and President Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president, won the 1968 presidential race. Those White House years brought highs and lows. The book includes Beth Nixon’s recollections of being teased at school because of her famous and sometimes unpopular uncle.

There were good times, too. Ed and Gay Nixon attended White House state dinners. “Gay and I stayed in the rose-colored Queen’s Bedroom across the hall from the famous Lincoln Bedroom,” he writes.

At Richard Nixon’s funeral in 1994, he chatted with President Bill Clinton and former President George Bush. “It’s a very small club,” he said.

Of all his memories, none were told with more delight than a tale of a long-ago driving trip. “Dick had finished law school, and he ordered a new car — a black Oldsmobile coupe. I was almost 9,” Ed Nixon recalled.

They took a train to Chicago, then traveled to Michigan to pick up the car. With Dick Nixon driving the shiny Olds and little brother Ed in the passenger seat, they drove home on Route 66, stopping in Claremore, Okla., to see the Will Rogers Memorial and in Arizona to see Meteor Crater.

“I became a map reader,” Ed Nixon said. Seeing the crater whetted his interest in geology. Dick Nixon, he said, always pushed him to learn.

Did we talk politics? A little.

He said Richard Nixon was a booster of energy independence way back in 1971. He’s convinced the answers to the nation’s problems lie in private investment. And he sees Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney, rather than “entertainer” Rush Limbaugh, as true leaders of today’s Republican Party.

No fan of the media’s treatment of his brother, he nevertheless believes Richard Nixon’s accomplishments are being recognized.

“Healing has come with patience,” Ed Nixon said. “You see the total life of the man.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460;

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