Surfing in Nixonland ~ Nixon don’t Surf


Thanks for the link, Jer. We used to light driftwood fires on the beach when the wind was onshore to smoke out Nixon’s S.S. boys in their suits behind the palm trees. P. Shelton


I first moved to San Clemente, Calif., in 2007, my last year of graduate school, renting a house in town about a mile up the coast from the so-called Western White House, the beachfront estate Richard Nixon bought in 1969 shortly after winning the presidency. The Nixons called it La Casa Pacifica and lived there through most of the 1970s. I surfed in front of it a lot that first summer, at a spot the locals called Cotton’s, after the original owner of the property, Hamilton H. Cotton, an F.D.R. man as it happened.

Cotton’s was a long, sloping wave that broke left to right over cobblestone. On a big summer swell, it was a serious wave, one of the best-looking I’ve ever seen, with a fast inside section — the stretch closer to shore. The best view of the old Nixon estate was from out on the water. If you turned shoreward on a big day, the swells would lift you up and hold you aloft for a moment, just long enough to catch a glimpse of the inner compound: a classic Spanish-style mansion with a red-tile roof and a pool, all encircled by tall palm trees. Leonid Brezhnev and Henry Kissinger spent time there. There is a priceless photograph of Nixon, apparently trying for a “Kennedys in Hyannis Port” vibe, strolling at the water’s edge … in dress shoes with black socks.

The first time I surfed Cotton’s, the waves were midsize by California standards: five to seven feet, not huge but big enough that the larger “outside” sets roared like jet engines when they broke. Thick, dark lines of swell were steaming in from the west, sufficiently tall that they seemed to alter the ambient light, though this was probably my mind playing tricks. Despite being a fairly experienced surfer, I was ill-equipped. My home break, far to the south in San Diego, was a mellower spot, well suited for a longboard, and even though I knew the intensity of Cotton’s required smaller gear, I’d arrogantly left my shortboard behind, thinking my experience would trump whatever conditions might arise. In truth, the source of my hubris ran deeper: I loathed Orange County, its ultraconservatism, its bland suburbs, its brainless surfers. I’d show them.

My first wave was a disaster. I got a solid start, building up enough speed to match that of the wave, but the wave somehow ran under me and then broke underfoot, and I pitch-poled down the face. It was a total beginner move. Paddling back out, undeterred, I noticed some of the locals were staring at me and my unwieldy board. Their expressions couldn’t have been more clear: What is up with this dude?

Similar expressions no doubt met Richard Nixon when he first set up at the Western White House. His immediate neighbor to the north, some 200 yards from my wipeout, was John Severson, a pioneer of modern surf culture who founded Surfer magazine in 1960. Severson, like most surfers, was deep into the counterculture by the time Nixon arrived in San Clemente. The Beach Boys (whom Severson had never liked), Gidget and beach parties had been replaced by Jimi Hendrix, Eastern mysticism and drugs. Everyone was talking about Vietnam.

“We’d moved on to new territory,” Severson would later recount in “Surf,” his 2014 memoir. “We had to take a stand. It just so happened that my stand was about 50 yards from Richard Nixon, who had become my next-door neighbor in San Clemente. Imagine! Hiya Dick!”

The real trouble at Cotton’s started when the Secret Service decided to outlaw surfing whenever Nixon was in town, nominally for security reasons. It was an odd betrayal by Nixon, who claimed to like surfers, and it incited a minor insurgency. Drew Kampion, an editor at Surfer at the time, tells of one occasion on which a Coast Guard boat was used to herd surfers to shore, where the M.P.s were waiting for them. On particularly bad days, the Marines, it was said, would fire warning shots into the air.

Southern California surf culture is rich with such tales from this period. Growing up in San Diego in the ’80s, I heard stories of Marines confiscating (and even destroying) the boards of surfers sneaking onto the beaches of Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps base just south of the Nixon house. A famous Ron Stoner photograph from the ’60s shows a Marine M.P. wearing a sidearm, storming off the beach with a single-fin shortboard.

Severson soon found himself in hot water over a series of photographs he took of Nixon in La Casa Pacifica that he sold to Life magazine in 1969. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Life photos prompted Nixon to build a six-foot wall around his property. It wasn’t long before the Secret Service took a hard look at the Severson abode. Severson and his friends were convinced it had been bugged. “They knew everything that was going on at that house,” Steve Pezman, who ran Surfer magazine for two decades after Severson, recalls. ”Nixon knew what he had for dinner, how it came out and what he said to his wife in bed.”

~~~  NIXON DON’T SURF  ~~~

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