Richard M. Nixon dedicated his presidential library Thursday to the ringing applause of his three Republican successors and 50,000 spectators, proclaiming his belief in the American Dream but not mentioning the Watergate scandal that drove him from office 16 years ago.
Three brass bands played, red-suited trumpeters heralded the arrival of the Presidents and organizers sent red, white and blue balloons aloft at the end of the 2 1/2-hour ceremony.
"Nothing we have ever seen matches this moment--to be welcomed home again," Nixon said.
As he did in his latest book, "In the Arena," he spoke about the theme of struggle and the role it has played in his life from his childhood in Yorba Linda to his political victories and tragedies.
"I believe in the American Dream because I have seen it come true in my own life," he said. "You will suffer disappointments in your life and sometimes you will be discouraged.
"It is sad to lose," he continued. "But the greatest sadness is to travel through life without knowing either victory or defeat."
The gathering on the open-air stage marked the first conclave of four Presidents in nine years and the first time ever that four American Presidents attended a public event.
President Bush and Nixon were joined by Gerald R. Ford, Nixon's successor, and Ronald Reagan, Bush's predecessor. Each man was accompanied by his wife. Only Democrat Jimmy Carter did not attend, citing a prior commitment.
Seated in the sweltering audience were a "Who's Who" of the Nixon years and later Republican administrations, including four former secretaries of state--Henry Kissinger, William Rogers, George P. Shultz and Alexander Haig. The four drew hordes of autograph seekers and photographers as they sat nearly shoulder to shoulder.
The gathering in this small Orange County city--as well as a dinner in Nixon's honor in Century City on Thursday night--also attracted protesters against government policy on Central America, and on behalf of the homeless, AIDS research and the environment. A small number briefly interrupted Bush's Yorba Linda speech honoring Nixon, but there were no arrests.
The Century City demonstration was louder, and larger, and Los Angeles police made some arrests, but there was no violence.
Mixing with former colleagues in the special VIP section were H.R. Haldeman, chief of staff in the Nixon White House, and Maurice Stans, former secretary of commerce. Haldeman was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury in the Watergate break-in and cover-up. Stans pleaded guilty to violating election laws covering contributions to Nixon's reelection campaign in 1972.
Each President spoke, but only Bush said the W word--Watergate. He told the crowd that museum-goers "will hear of Horatio Alger and Alger Hiss. Of (Nixon's) book, 'Six Crises,' and the seventh crisis, Watergate."
Bush was among those who broke with Nixon's defenders in the last days of the Nixon presidency. After the revelation of the final "smoking gun" tape showing that Nixon had tried to use the CIA to block the FBI's investigation of Watergate, Bush hand-delivered a letter to the White House saying: "I would now ill-serve a President, whose massive accomplishments I will always respect, and whose family I love, if I did not give you my judgment . . . resignation is best for this country, best for this President."
It was the same tape that virtually assured that the House of Representatives would vote for impeachment. Two days later, Nixon became the first President to resign.
On Feb. 29, 1974, Nixon was named an unindicted co-conspirator in a sealed indictment by the special Watergate grand jury. The news did not become public until June of that year.
Thursday's library dedication was widely viewed as a milestone in Nixon's political rehabilitation.
The $21-million presidential library, the first in California, is next door to the simple wooden farmhouse his father built from a kit several years before Nixon was born in 1913. Bush hailed Nixon as "the quintessence of middle America," a man who spoke loudly and eloquently for the "silent majority from Dallas to Davenport, Syracuse to Silver City."
Bush recalled the highlights of Nixon's presidency, citing his trip to China, ending more than two decades of U.S.-China bitterness, and his peace efforts in the Middle East. He added: "Who can forget how in Moscow, Richard Nixon signed the first agreement to limit strategic nuclear arms--giving new hope to the world for a lasting peace?
"Finally and most importantly, I would say to visitors: Richard Nixon helped change the course not only of America but of the entire world," Bush said.
The President said future generations will remember Nixon most "for dedicating his life to the greatest cause offered any President--the cause of peace among nations."
Reagan joked about Nixon's rocky relationship with the media: "Much has been written and said about Richard Nixon; some of it has even been true," he said.
"It will come as no surprise to anyone here that there will always be a good deal of debate about Richard Nixon," Reagan said. "Generally speaking, people in public life who take bold steps, who make tough decisions and who show great courage, generate controversy."
Reagan called Nixon a patriot and praised his contributions in foreign policy.
"Richard Nixon is a man who understands the world," Reagan said, "a man whose foreign policy was universally acknowledged as brilliant. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say the world is a better place--a safer place--because of Richard Nixon."
Ford recalled going to Congress for the first time in 1949 and meeting Nixon, who had been elected two years earlier to the lower house but was "already renowned as the nemesis of Alger Hiss," the alleged State Department spy for the Soviet Union who was convicted of perjury.
The Hiss case started Nixon's quick rise to power, which saw him become a U.S. senator in 1950 and vice president in 1952.
Referring to the wave of democracy sweeping across eastern Europe, Ford credited the four Presidents and the American people, but especially Nixon.
William E. Simon, Nixon's former treasury secretary and president of the library foundation, spoke most bluntly about Nixon's decades-long battles with the news media. Simon said Nixon's accomplishments came "despite . . . the unrelenting hostility of the national media."
The four Presidents toured the house where Nixon was born, and which has been restored and given a brand-new look. It contains the piano he played and the bed in which he was born. The four also toured the museum, the only presidential museum financed and operated entirely by private funds.
Police and library officials said the crowd of 50,000 included dozens who camped out overnight on the sidewalks on Yorba Linda Boulevard, site of the building, to ensure a place near the front of the line.
Thousands more began arriving as early as 4 a.m., many of them wearing "Nixon's No. 1" T-shirts. Others wore hats shaped like elephants--the Republican Party symbol--carted video cameras and waved American flags.
In Century City, 1,500 Nixon friends and admirers gathered inside the Century Plaza, while outside the hotel, more than 300 protesters crowded Avenue of the Stars for a loud demonstration.
Representing an array of causes, they chanted "Stop GOP Death Squads" and decried malathion spraying and antiabortion legislation. Placards included "Republican Leaders Fail People With AIDS" and "Stop the U.S. War in El Salvador." Fourteen people, including Ted Hayes, an advocate for the homeless, were arrested for trespassing and failure to disperse. The demonstration ended shortly after 8 p.m.
Reaction among the arriving dinner guests was mixed. George Tassios, a Los Angeles engineer, said the protesters should be sprayed with water cannons filled with indelible ink. But Buck Johns, an Orange County developer and GOP fund-raiser, was more sanguine. "That's fun," he said. "It's America."
Times staff writers David Lauter, Tony Marcano, Maria Newman, Eric Lichtblau, Ralph Frammolino, Ted Johnson, Tammerlin Drummond, Marla Cone, David Reyes, Matt Lait, Jim Newton, Bill Billiter, Ann Conway, Lanie Jones, and Sonni Efron, and correspondents Laura Michaelis, Jon Nalick and Shannon Sands contributed to this story.