He died, but he didn't roll over: The press has been kind. But Nixon planned it that way, says Peter Pringle

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The Independent Online
ONE HITCH spoilt the solemn, measured moment when Richard Nixon's coffin was put on a plane for California. The guard of honour was raised with the coffin on an elevator platform to the freight door of Nixon's old presidential Boeing 707. After sliding the coffin inside, the guard was slowly lowered again, but they had left the door open. 'Don't worry,' said an American friend, 'Nixon will close it.' And the next time we looked the door was closed. 'There you are,' said my friend, 'I told you so. He'll never leave us.'

It has been like that, the death and then the funeral. A totally unreal experience that left Nixon's old image almost unrecognisable. Nixon designed it all, of course, right up to the burial. From the hour of the stroke that killed him, he had plans: a final posthumous presidential campaign that brought him briefly, in death, all those things he had yearned for in life: affection, approval and that most elusive of presidential accolades - he was, they said finally, a statesman.

There were meticulous memos from 'RN'; maybe there were even tapes. For instance, he should not, he instructed, be put on a respirator or given any other extreme means of life support. People admired him for that. Too many Americans are left to pay crushing medical expenses when doctors insist on trying to keep relatives alive. Today, every state has some kind of law allowing either a 'living will' or health-care proxy permitting a trusted family member or attorney to make appropriate decisions.

Nixon also chose not to lie in state in Washington, even though the invitation had been gracefully extended. Instead, he specified a plain wooden coffin and a hole in the ground on the site of the failed citrus orchard where he grew up in Yorba Linda, southern California. He wanted to be 'planted', as he put it, next to his wife, Pat, who died last year.

He could not control who came to the funeral, of course, and although international relations had dominated his presidency, no foreign leaders were due. President Clinton was coming, and five planeloads of senators and congressmen. And Nixon's people turned up, the blue-collar guys with their deck chairs and their children who had written simple poems. Some of the faithful admitted he had been a 'liar and a crook', that he, like others, had made mistakes in the Oval Office. But when the weight of the media forced Nixon out, he did not roll over and die. They admired that.

Even after today Nixon will loom large, for a while at least. The final campaign literature is being printed. Within hours of his death, one news agency was reporting 'considerable demand' to read his last book, Beyond Peace. Harold Evans, president of Random House, rose to the occasion: 'We had agreed on the final text . . . just days before his stroke.' He was rushing copies to the bookstalls.

And no need for a list of media enemies now. His notices reached far beyond civilised insincerity. 'It pains me to say so,' wrote the Washington Post's David Broder, 'but he was for many of us the central political figure of our times . . . And now that he has gone, many of us are experiencing a sense of loss we did not expect to feel.'

In the same paper, the columnist Jim Hoagland said that Nixon had not tried to 'rehabilitate' himself, as his critics charge. 'His endeavour was different, I concluded as I listened to him give several major talks on foreign affairs and read his books in recent years. Nixon set out not to recall his own foreign policy accomplishments, but to enhance them with the non-partisan, constructive, unofficial diplomacy he pursued after resigning the presidency.' Affection born of familiarity, perhaps?

The columnist out of line was Russell Baker of the New York Times. 'They (the media) seemed engaged in a group conspiracy to grant him absolution,' wrote Baker. 'Its post-mortem engagement with Nixon suggests once again that the press's dreadful reputation for bestiality is mostly fraud. Like an old tiger with no teeth, it can gum its way through a vegetarian meal like Whitewater, but serve it a tough customer and it purrs and rolls over.'

So, is America's longing for a hero so deep and widespread after the Cold War that people can turn to the once-disgraced Nixon? If so, then what of Watergate? 'Twenty years have afforded a little merciful distance,' suggested the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Merciful to whom? Nixon, or the mourners?

Maybe it's just the American way of death, so brilliantly written about by Jessica Mitford three decades ago. Shoddy euphemisms take over: coffins are 'caskets'; hearses are 'coaches'; flowers become 'floral tributes', corpses are 'loved ones'. Everyone cries, even the young guardsman had a tear rolling down his cheek.

But let Nixon have the last word. After all, he was at his political best playing on the fears and frustrations of ordinary Americans. 'Above all,' he writes in Beyond Peace, 'America must rediscover its commitment to the pursuit of excellence for its own sake. In the land of liberty, we have sometimes risked making an obsession out of individual freedom without requiring a concomitant sense of individual responsibility. More devastating, the absence of a national challenge

has reduced our sense of common purpose'.

And he wasn't talking about the need for health care reform.