In 2007, Jim Byron, a 14-year-old history buff from Orange County, Calif., was searching for a summer job when he came across a marketing internship at the Richard Nixon Foundation in nearby Yorba Linda. He applied for the job and accepted an offer — but not because he had any great affinity for Nixon.
“It was just geographical proximity,” says Byron of his introduction to the foundation, which runs the Nixon Library and Museum. “I needed a place to intern and a place to work.”
Fifteen years after taking his first job at the foundation, Byron’s still there. At 17, while still in high school, he took a job in the marketing department; at 22, after graduating from nearby Chapman University with a degree in business administration and a minor in history, he joined the foundation’s staff full time. Last year, at 28, having climbed the institutional ladder to executive vice president, he was elected as the foundation’s president and CEO by a unanimous vote of the board of directors, succeeding conservative bigwig Hugh Hewitt. Over that time, he says, what started as a summer job has developed into a deep interest in Nixon’s life and legacy.
Now, this 29-year-old, who was born in 1993, the year before Nixon died, is the unofficial custodian of the 37th president’s legacy, responsible for applying the “vision of President Richard Nixon to defining issues that face our nation and the world today,” as the foundation’s mission specifies. Sifting through the ash heap of history for contemporary lessons is a challenging task under the best of circumstances, but it is particularly difficult in the case of Nixon, whose heap is larger — and more politically radioactive — than most.
Today, though, Byron’s job is trickier than ever — thanks in large part to Donald Trump. The contest over Nixon’s legacy has heated up once again due to the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, which fell on June 17 — coinciding with the House’s inquiry into the January 6 riots and Trump’s unsuccessful attempts to overturn the 2020 election. With the House hearings looming in the background, the discourse over Nixon’s role in history is increasingly being filtered through the debate over January 6, giving rise to a tidal wave of comparisons between Nixon and Trump.
For the keepers of Nixon’s legacy, these comparisons raise a difficult question: Given Americans’ deeply polarized views of Trump, does the association with the 45th president harm or help Nixon’s memory?
This is, apparently, not a question Byron is eager to answer.
On the phone, Byron gives off what can only be described as extremely strong College Republican vibes — polite, well-spoken and almost painfully earnest in his regard for American political history. Photos of Byron from the Nixon Foundation website show him as a clean-cut 20-something with a crop of curly dark hair, beaming at the camera next to various wrinkled Republican luminaries such as Dick Cheney and Henry Kissinger. In our conversation, he professes a genuine passion for studying the finer points of Nixon’s biography.
“When I started reading about Richard Nixon and his life, I found him just fascinating as an individual,” Byron tells me. “It became clear that he did a lot over the span of a nearly 50-year career to influence my life and, I think, the lives of all Americans.”
It’s an unusually sympathetic take on Nixon, especially coming from a 29-year-old like Byron, whose fellow millennials — if they know Nixon at all — are likely to know him as a symbol of everything that went wrong in American politics during the second half of the 20th century: the shattering of faith in the country’s governing institutions, the realignment of the Republican Party behind an explicitly racist electoral strategy, and the deepening of Cold War-era political repression both at home and abroad.