Clinton declares a national day of mourning for Nixon: Republican supporters ignore the Watergate debacle and pay tribute to the 'peacemaker' with flowers and eulogies

PREPARATIONS were under way yesterday for the burial of Richard Nixon in the southern California township where he was born 81 years ago.

The body of the 37th president, who died in a New York hospital on Friday night, is to be flown to California tomorrow. It will lie in state in the lobby of Nixon's Presidential Library at the Los Angeles suburb of Yorba Linda - the one place in America where he could manipulate his role in history without contradiction from the world beyond. The funeral will take place on Wednesday.

President Clinton declared Wednesday a day of national mourning. Flags at government buildings and US embassies around the world will fly at half-mast for 30 days.

Yesterday, as a bright morning sun shone on the suburban sprawl south of Los Angeles, dozens of Nixon's most faithful supporters gathered outside to pay their respects, while workmen erected grandstands for the state funeral.

Although the library and the white wooden farmhouse where Nixon lived as a child was closed, mourners began congregating as soon as news of his death became public. They burnt candles and sang 'America the Beautiful' and left bouquets of flowers bearing valedictory messages.

'Farewell, friend, farewell,' said one; 'You made me proud to be a Republican,' said another. 'Peacemaker, statesman, leader. God bless you,' read a note signed the 'Nixonettes'. Outside the single-storey sandstone museum three flags - the US, Californian and presidential - flew at half-mast.

Many of the visitors were members of the small knot of Republicans who have refused to allow Nixon's presidential performance to be overshadowed by the Watergate debacle. 'He was a good man and a very good president. He did a lot for our country,' said Jean Stevenson. 'He did have some knocks in his presidency, but nobody's perfect.' Nixon will be buried beside his wife Pat in the grounds of the library in a ceremony attended by all four surviving ex-presidents, and dignitaries from around the world. Watergate figures such as domestic affairs adviser John Ehrlichman, who along with the late Bob Haldeman formed the infamous 'Prussian Guard' at the Nixon White House, are also expected to attend.

President Clinton, who sought Nixon's advice on foreign affairs several times, will deliver one of the eulogies. Another will be given by Henry Kissinger, Nixon's Secretary of State.

The service will be led by the evangelist Billy Graham, who conducted the funeral of Mrs Nixon 10 months ago.

For Nixon, California was a place of exile where he fled after his narrow defeat by Kennedy in 1960. And for many Californians, Nixon was an isolated figure who never really fitted in. They are fond of joking that he was seen on the beach wearing a suit; they were less amused when he retired to the East Coast, agreeing with a friend who said that it would be 'more stimulating'.

Nor was there widespread approval when, using private funds, Nixon set up his presidential library, but strictly controlled access to its contents. It became a monument to his obsessive efforts at self-justification, with all the historical distortions that that entailed. Before it opened in 1990, Nixon's aides sought to ban access to the archives from scholars and researchers who were hostile to the former president. Matters worsened when the Los Angeles Times revealed that the 'smoking gun' Watergate tape had been edited to appear less damaging.

Visitors were instead bombarded with an array of films, books and exhibits which celebrated Nixon's other achievements, along with Nixon mugs, ties and pens. Not everyone was convinced. The visitors' book was punctuated with comments accusing him of masterminding another whitewash. When The Independent asked to see it on a recent visit, it had been removed. There was, staff said, no room for the small tome because of 'a visiting exhibition'.

Few occupants of the White House have been as complex, controversial and divisive as Nixon, forced by the Watergate scandal to become the first US president in history to resign. In death however, foes as well as friends have stressed not the shame he brought upon his office, but his foreign- policy achievement, even his progressive record on the environment, welfare, and civil rights.

In his official proclamation of Nixon's death, Mr Clinton spoke of his 'tremendous accomplishments' in international affairs and his 'great many' domestic initiatives. 'He suffered defeats that would have ended most political careers, yet he won stunning victories that many of the world's most popular leaders have failed to attain.'

China's leadership praised Nixon for his 'strategic foresight and political courage' in opening up relations between Washington and Peking, and Boris Yeltsin called him 'one of the greatest politicians in the world'.

Obituary, page 14

Nixon assessed, page 17

(Photograph omitted)

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