Would the Sunnylands Summit be Happening had it not been for RN?
RN and PN with Walter and Leonore Annenberg at La Casa Pacifica in 1969.
No it would not, on two counts; first, that it was RN’s diplomatic appointment of Annenberg that began his foreign service and second that it was RN who, of course, opened the U.S. and western world to China. These two points are best encapsulated in an Associated Press article published Wednesday, which said in part: “President Richard Nixon’s own fondness for the property [Sunnylands] should all appeal to the delegation from China, where Nixon is considered a hero for opening the country to the West.”
To the first point: It was President Nixon who appointed Walter Annenberg to the coveted diplomatic post of U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, beginning his public service and diplomatic fortitude.
Walter Annenberg, one of America’s most notable and charitable philanthropists and a leading innovator in — and champion of — media and communication industries, inherited a publishing fortune from his father and built it into an empire, actively running the Philadelphia Inquirer for decades and creating such indelible and influential circulations as TV Guide and Seventeen Magazine. He would serve as RN’s Ambassador to the Court of St. James’ – the formal title given to the Ambassador to Great Britain – throughout the Nixon presidency and his wife, Leonore, was later named by President Reagan as Chief of Protocol.
The Nixons and Annenbergs had been close friends since 1956, and the Nixon family enjoyed vacationing at Sunnylands, the Annenbergs’ sprawling Palm Springs estate, often visiting to capture rare moments of relaxation.
Sunnylands, the grand estate of Walter and Leonore Annenberg, in Rancho Mirage, CA.
In the late 1940s, Annenberg grew fond of the young California congressman and his passionate denunciations of communism, frequently demonstrated in the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. According to Annenberg biographer Christopher Ogden, “Walter realized that from tax policy to Nixon’s anti-communism, he agreed with the [future] vice president on virtually every substantive issue. Equally important, he appreciated that Nixon was not a stuffy, upper-class, Establishment Republican, but a gritty, self-made man who stood up to vilification and attack without cracking.”
Mrs. Annenberg, too, was impressed with Nixon: “She liked the fact that he was a Californian, but she also agreed with his positions, which she had examined closely.” It was Annenberg’s mother, Sadie, who introduced the two couples.
And it went both ways:
Nixon enjoyed both Annenbergs. He appreciated Walter’s blunt candor and the fact that the publisher asked for nothing. He respected Walter’s explanation that he would not be a financial contributor to a politician about whom the Inquirer was writing. Nixon considered Lee informed and exquisite. ‘She never ceases to amaze me with her understanding of how the real world works and by her upbeat, captivating personality,’ he wrote Walter years later. ‘As you can appreciate, I’ve been seated by some pretty sad dogs in my travels over the years. Lee is a thoroughbred in every respect.’ The vice president also appreciated the warmth and backing of Sadie. When the Nixons invited Sadie to a dinner for them in New York, the loyalty of Walter and Lee was sealed. By 1958, Nixon had become so comfortable with the family that he came to Inwood [the Annenberg’s home in Philadelphia] to recuperate after a grueling trip to South America that had ended in Venezuela with leftist mobs assaulting the vice president.
After RN’s loss in 1960, Annenberg sent him supportive editorials and cartoons for his perusal. He gave RN his legal business in California in 1962 and caused a minor scuffle by refusing to allow his ABC affiliates in Pennsylvania to air the documentary “The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon,” which featured commentary by Alger Hiss, RN’s adversary from the HUAC days.
“Hiss was a damned spy,” Annenberg later said. “Even the Russian record shows that. I wasn’t going to let a traitor sit in judgment on a veteran and a senator and a vice president on Veterans Day.”
RN and PN with Lee Annenberg holding their granddaughter Jennie at Sunnylands, 1979.
After Nixon’s triumphant comeback and victory in 1968, Lee and Walter hosted the party faithful at Sunnylands. RN asked Annenberg to be his ambassador to Great Britain — the most coveted of all U.S. diplomatic posts — while finishing up the ninth hole of golf. Annenberg initially balked, protesting that he had never been a diplomat, but RN insisted: “You’ve got to do this for me.”
“Walter was completely Nixon’s choice,” Secretary of State William Rogers said years later. “They were real friends and had a genuine fondness for each other. There was nothing fake about it.”
That’s not to say that Annenberg bought his appointment, as was claimed by the New York Times and widely-read columnist Drew Pearson, among other outlets. Though his paper’s editorials supported the Nixon campaign, the hard news coverage, according to Ogden, was impartial and unbiased, not taking sides for Nixon or Humphrey. And Annenberg did not give any money to his friend’s campaign.
Annenberg’s tenure as Ambassador saw him endear himself to the British people through characteristic hard work, not to mention Lee’s well-known talents for entertaining. She oversaw a million dollar renovation of the dilapidated London ambassadorial residence – all donated by the Annenbergs and none of it funded by taxpayers. They gave generously to other notable patriotic causes, like renovating St. Paul’s Cathedral and Annenberg remains the only U.S. Ambassador to Britain to have been knighted by the Queen.
RN visited Sunnylands for New Year’s 1974, where he wrote his State of the Union Address. The Annenbergs threw him a birthday party, too. Throughout the difficult days of Watergate, Annenberg constantly reminded Nixon of one of his favorite sayings, that “life is ninety-nine rounds.”
RN celebrated his 61st birthday at Sunnylands with the Annenbergs.
The Nixons and Annenbergs remained friends until RN’s death in 1994 and today, the Annenberg Court at the Nixon Library welcomes thousands of visitors each year.
Also, it was President Nixon who opened the U.S. and the Western world to China.
Well known and considered among the most stunning of diplomatic coups, RN’s rapprochement with China in 1972 changed the world over. Popular trivia sites report that the three best known Western names in China are Jesus Christ, Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon.
The Annenbergs joined RN and President and Mrs. Ford at the Nixon Library to mark 25 years since RN’s first inauguration, January 20, 1994.
In 1972, Nixon spent a week with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and other top leaders during what was the first U.S. presidential visit to that country. Nixon called the visit “the week that changed the world.”
The hours they spent together informally led to breakthroughs in formal meetings, said Clayton Dube, executive director of the University of Southern California’s U.S.-China Institute.
Those preparing for this weekend’s summit hope that Nixon’s large footprint at the former Annenberg home will remind the Chinese delegation of that shared history and make the talks productive.
The American and Chinese delegations meet for a day of high-level talks during RN’s historic trip, February 1972.
Jimmy Byron is a Communications and Marketing Assistant at the Nixon Foundation. He is a third-year student at Chapman University.