By Tom Marshall
With the midterm elections now just days away, it’s appropriate for us in the San Clemente Historical Society to reflect on when our town was on everyone’s political map.
The newly elected President Richard M. Nixon chose our Spanish Village by the Sea to serve as his Western White House. Unlike more recent Presidents, Nixon, his family and his top staff stayed here for large chunks of time, including several weeks in the summer when Washington, D.C. weather was sweltering.
How Nixon came to choose San Clemente as his base is as interesting as it was improbable.
Soon after taking office in January 1969, Nixon let it be known that he wanted to have a private residence somewhere in Southern California, where he was born and raised. This bit of news perked the interest of local resident Fred Divel. He had the perfect place for Nixon: the blufftop home of the late Hamilton Cotton.
Never mind that Cotton had been the treasurer of the state’s Democratic Party. Never mind also that Divel was not in the real estate business. He was a college student at the time. Oh, and one other thing, the house was not for sale. Cotton’s widow was still living in it.
Despite all these obvious obstacles, Divel pulled it off. He had one thing in his back pocket that others with a similar idea didn’t. He had volunteered on Nixon’s 1968 campaign and got to know Nixon’s top aides, H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman.
A phone call and a couple of pictures later, the two aides presented it to Nixon, who eyeballed the property himself from a helicopter.
Amazingly, a deal was soon struck. Nixon’s supporters picked up the purchase price for all of Cotton’s Point, some of which was sold to developers to cover the cost of the parcel that became the Western White House.
You would think that having the President here would have turned the town of about 15,000 upside down, but it didn’t, according to those who lived here at the time. Nixon usually arrived in town via helicopter, landing on a Camp Pendleton pad next to his property, just a short walk through a gate to his home.
There was a famous scene when Nixon went into a drugstore on Avenida Del Mar to buy a box of chocolates for his wife, Pat. Daughter Julie bought her daughter’s first pair of baby shoes at Sam’s Shoes and got to know owner Sam Tiberi. One time, Tiberi was working behind the counter and noticed his employees staring at someone.
“I turned around, and Julie was there and said, ‘Hi, Sam. Do you know my dad?’ There was the President of the United States standing there. The next thing he saw was Secret Service agents everywhere,” Sam recalled in a Historical Society oral history video.
Ruth DeNault remembers the time Pat came into her hardware store to buy paint for her kitchen. Another time, a customer walked into the barbershop next to DeNault’s. The barber thought he recognized the man, but couldn’t recall him as a customer.
The man said, “I’m John Mitchell, attorney general of the United States.” The barber told DeNault’s husband; it was all he could do to keep his hands from shaking while giving the haircut.
Times were just simpler then. Of course, it all came crashing down five years later when Nixon resigned amid the Watergate scandal. Nixon wanted to locate his Presidential Library here, but the town wasn’t keen on the traffic it would produce, so it ended up in Yorba Linda.
Ironically, the San Clemente site eventually became the Outlets at San Clemente. In 1980, the Nixons moved to New York City to be near their daughters. The house was bought by Nixon supporter Gavin Herbert of Roger’s Gardens. It is currently for sale.
Tom Marshall is a member of the San Clemente Historical Society and a retired journalist.