In the shadow of her husband’s boyhood home, former First Lady Pat Nixon was remembered Saturday by relatives and friends as a woman whose uncommon emotional strength and enduring devotion will mark her place in history.
The hourlong morning funeral service, set in the grassy amphitheater of the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace, brought giants of the entertainment industry and an extended political family that included former Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Ronald Reagan.
“This is a time for tears but also a time of smiles and happiness in our hearts,” the Rev. Billy Graham said as he opened the service under a bank of ashen clouds.
Graham, a close Nixon family friend and confidant, joined Gov. Pete Wilson, U.S. Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and family friends in personal eulogies emphasizing Mrs. Nixon’s displays of tenderness at home and along the many campaign trails of the “Dick and Pat partnership.”
The 372 invited guests--some of them White House associates from the Watergate-era--sat in silence on white lawn chairs facing the library’s reflection pool, while an estimated 200 others gathered in the parking lot just outside the grounds to hear the funeral service broadcast over loudspeakers.
The knot of onlookers, many of whom were among the 5,000 who attended a public viewing Friday evening, broke into quiet applause as dignitaries--among them Bob Hope and former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger--arrived by limousine.
Mrs. Nixon died Tuesday of lung cancer, the day after her 53rd wedding anniversary. She was 81.
Many of the invited guests took their places more than an hour before the service’s 10 a.m. scheduled start, when Graham led former President Nixon and the immediate family to their seats near the former First Lady’s rose garden. Upon seeing the assembled crowd, Nixon drew a handkerchief over his mouth and broke into gentle sobs.
The audience stood quietly as six U.S. Marine honor guards placed Mrs. Nixon’s mahogany casket beneath a white canopy, where it was surrounded by flower arrangements of every kind. In the background, the Master Chorale of Orange County performed “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.”
Graham and four eulogists took turns at a podium; their remarks were followed by brief musical interludes by the chorale and the Chapman University Choir. The selections included “For All the Saints Who From Their Labors Rest,” “This Is My Song” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Besides their unyielding praise for the former First Lady, each of the speakers also made general references to the personal hardships Mrs. Nixon endured in childhood and as the wife of a political figure who knew both triumph and profound tragedy.
“Few women in public life have suffered as she has suffered and done it with such grace,” Graham said. “In all the years I knew her, I never heard her say anything unkind about anyone.”
Cynthia Hardin Milligan, a close family friend and daughter of President Nixon’s agriculture secretary Clifford Hardin, said that the former First Lady’s appetite for adventure helped carry her through difficult times.
“It was that sense of adventure which led her to become half of the Dick and Pat partnership that began in California 53 years ago and brought them to heights of fame, power, turmoil, frustration and peace that few have experienced,” she said.
Milligan also spoke of “a woman of substance” who exuded warmth in her family life, where she was not above spending hours playing imaginary games with her grandchildren. Mrs. Nixon, Milligan said, was a perfect fit for the code name given to her by the Secret Service: Starlight.
“I came to know and appreciate Mrs. Nixon in her roles as mother, grandmother, wife and friend,” she said. “She always created an atmosphere of love and beauty in every Nixon home, including the White House.”
Milligan’s tribute was preceded by a eulogy from James D. (Don) Hughes, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who served as a Nixon military aide and accompanied Mrs. Nixon on a 1958 trip to Venezuela during which her car was targeted by anti-American rioters.
During that trip, Hughes told the audience, he was bowled over by the First Lady’s display of courage. He said Mrs. Nixon’s car was met by an angry mob that had been “whipped into a frenzy,” roaring insults and spitting on the motorcade.
“Throughout the ride, I never saw her flinch when the car was hit with various missiles and clubs,” Hughes said. “She remained totally composed, and that alone made it easier for me and the Secret Service. . . . We left Caracas the next day through a tear-gas mist. . . . But we left in the Nixon style, with heads up and all flags flying.”
As a young Nixon political advance man in 1962, Gov. Wilson said Saturday, he was introduced to a woman whose fragile physical appearance belied an inner strength that radiated composure on the campaign trail, where Nixon waged an unsuccessful challenge to unseat then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown.
“Pat Nixon was a far bigger draw than the incumbent governor they were running against,” Wilson said. “Thousands lined up waiting for her. Children everywhere were drawn to her, whether it was in Africa, California or Moscow. She radiated dignity, quiet strength and wholesome charm.”
Wilson said the demands of Mrs. Nixon’s personal life, in which she nursed her parents through final illnesses and worked as both a telephone operator and a Hollywood extra to fund her education, prepared her for the rigors of public life.
“But in that fragile body,” the governor said, “beat a great, Irish, fighting heart.”
Many common themes connected the words of each eulogist, but it was Senate Minority Leader Dole, the nation’s highest-ranking Republican, who spoke of Mrs. Nixon as a woman who “never forgot where she came from.”
“Washington, D.C., is a town where the monuments are tall and the egos even taller,” Dole said. “Every once in a while, however, there comes along a rare spirit like Pat who dispels the cynicism and reminds us that compassion need not be legislated. It need only be . . . expressed by hugging a child, comforting a victim of a natural disaster or just personally answering a letter from one of the countless real people who turn to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. when all other avenues seem closed.”
At some Washington events, Dole said, Mrs. Nixon would stand in receiving lines for hours, knowing that it would be the only White House visit for some guests.
“As a friend of hers told me this week, ‘Pat Nixon treated everyone like a head of state,’ ” the senator said. “In an age saturated with the false values of celebrity, Pat Nixon was as genuine as those signatures she insisted on signing on her letters.”
Well before the service, as guests arrived from throughout the country, the mood was anything but somber as political figures from the Nixon White House, including H.R. Haldeman, Alexander M. Haig, Kissinger, Charles Colson and Ron Ziegler, briefly mingled.
Former President George Bush was represented by his son Neil, and President Clinton was represented by Vernon E. Jordan Jr., who served as Clinton’s transition chairman.
In the parking lot, meanwhile, mourners and the curious surged against velvet rope barriers, while others climbed on the library fountain to get better camera angles as the sun burned through cloud cover.
Dennis Jana drove from San Diego with his 8-year-old daughter on Friday to leave flowers near Mrs. Nixon’s casket. On Saturday, father and daughter returned and waited outside the library, each holding a framed, autographed picture of Richard Nixon.
“She was the epitome of the American wife who stood by her husband, and we need that image--especially today,” said Jana, who teaches history at National University in San Diego. “She exuded warmth and beauty just by her smile.”
Laura Glynn of San Clemente said she wanted to pay tribute to a woman she feels did not get the recognition she deserved for her accomplishments.
“She restored beauty and class to the White House, and people rarely talk about that, and it just breaks my heart,” Glynn said.
After the service, Nixon and his family gathered in the library’s lobby with other attendees.
The former President called his political friends forward and thanked all of them, singling out former political foe George S. McGovern with special praise for attending. Nixon defeated McGovern in a bitter 1972 presidential campaign.
Then Nixon recalled two difficult times in his life when he doubted his ability to go on. The first was during his 1952 vice presidential campaign before making the so-called “Checkers” speech, in which Nixon had to defend on national television his acceptance of an $18,000 political donation.
Just before going on the air, he said, he had turned to Pat.
“I don’t know how I can get through this,” Nixon said he told his wife.
She had responded firmly: “Yes, you will.”
The second incident he related took place 22 years later, just two months after he resigned the presidency. Nixon had been admitted to Long Beach Memorial Hospital for treatment of a case of phlebitis that nearly took his life. At one point, after being in shock for several days, he had opened his eyes and seen Pat.
“Honey, I may not make it,” he said to his wife. She again responded: “Yes, you will.”
Nixon’s emotional comments Saturday touched the crowd.
“It was very, very beautiful and all about Pat,” said Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove). “She was just a great lady.”
Nixon insisted on shaking hands with everyone, and soon a long receiving line formed. Among the first to leave the reception were comedian Bob Hope and his wife, followed by actor Buddy Ebsen and his wife. The Reagans and Fords left through the basement level.
Eighty minutes after the reception began, the Nixon family walked to the burial site, where Graham conducted a short service and said a prayer before the interment.
A stone grave marker reads: “Patricia Ryan Nixon: 1912-1993.”
Times staff writer Lily Dizon contributed to this report.
* PERSONAL TRIBUTES: Diverse attendees remember the former First Lady. A10