Washington elite forget the past to honour Nixon

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Bijan Kian's eyes narrowed. This was not the time to talk about Watergate. We were standing in the street near the rose garden where Richard Nixon had been buried moments before, ending one of the most turbulent careers in modern political history. 'You must look at his entire life,' he added.

This message, above all, had been the theme of the funeral for the former president, as the United States wrestled with its profound confusion over whether he should be remembered as a villian or a hero. Mr Kian, like the hundreds of other loyal Californian Republicans who went to honour him, knew which version he favoured. 'He was a great man. He understood foreign policy better that any president has ever done in this country. This is not the time to criticise.'

The occasion was the final chapter in Mr Nixon's 20-year quest for rehabilitation after resigning in disgrace. At last, in his death, he seemed to have won. Earlier, more than 40,000 people had trooped past his coffin as it lay in state in his presidential library. At his funeral, Washington's elite set aside the terrible events that marred his career and buried him with full honours.

The ceremony was played out before the four remaining former presidents - Messrs Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush - and Bill Clinton, who as an Oxford student demonstrated against Mr Nixon's policy in Vietnam and whose wife, Hillary, worked for the legal team that tried to impeach him. This might have smacked of hypocrisy, but for the sense that the Clintons' own experience with the Whitewater affair had bought them closer to the man.

'He made mistakes,' Mr Clinton told the 4,000 guests. 'They, like his accomplishments, are part of his life and record. But the enduring lesson of Richard Nixon is that he never gave up.' Throughout, the lies and subterfuge that produced Watergate were never specifically mentioned; the diplomatic break- throughs with China and the Soviet Union, his election victories, and his domestic policy achievements, were - at length.

The 81-year-old Nixon decided against a state funeral in Washington DC, and chose instead the grounds of his presidential library in Yorba Linda, the small Quaker town south of Los Angeles where he was born. Anxious about his place in history to the very end, the location allowed him to cast himself in the role which he coveted most. Gone was the heavy-jowled, manipulative street-fighter, the brooding paranoid who kept a list of his enemies. Onto the stage sprang the small-town Californian grocer's son who lived the American Dream by rising from humble roots to dominate the world arena.

Behind the dias stood the tiny clapboard house which his father bought for dollars 800 ( pounds 550) from a mail order catalogue and assembled on the site of a failed citrus orchard. In front, sat some of Washington's most seasoned political figures from two decades, many of whom well knew how perilous the pursuit of that dream could be, and bore their own scars of scandal.

By far the most surprising of these was the former vice-president Spiro Agnew, who never again spoke to Mr Nixon after the day in 1973 when he was forced to resign, pleading no contest to a charge of tax evasion. Mr Agnew told reporters: 'It is time to put aside 20 years of resentment . . . he was the greatest statesman of our time.'

Amid the foreign dignitaries (including Sir Edward Heath), political stalwarts and family friends, sat G Gordon Liddy, the Watergate burglar. Behind Adnan Khashoggi, the Saudi arms dealer, sat Rosemary Woods, the former president's personal secretary blamed for the mysterious 18-and-a-half minute gap in the Watergate tapes.

Not all were former friends and cronies. Guests also included George McGovern, whom Nixon beat in a landslide victory in 1972 after a bruising and dirty campaign, and Elliot Richardson, the attorney-general who resigned in the 'Saturday Night Massacre' which preceded Nixon's fall.

But the sombre mood appeared to be genuine enough. 'A great man has fallen,' said the Reverend Billy Graham, a friend of Nixon's who presided over the ceremony. The fact that many Americans believe this to be true was never more strongly felt than when Bob Dole, the Senate Republican leader and one of Washington's toughest political hides, took the stage. As he finished his speech and stood down, he was weeping uncontrollably.

(Photograph omitted)