In a testament to the healing power of time, America on Saturday presented Richard Nixon with a garland of eulogies from old friends and rivals, chiefs of state and average citizens, who remembered the 37th President in terms far more fond than those heard during his stormy political career.
President Clinton declared the day of Nixon’s funeral, Wednesday, “a national day of mourning,” and encouraged Americans to assemble “in their respective places of worship to pay homage” to Nixon’s memory. He also ordered the U.S. flag to be flown at half-staff at all federal buildings, including overseas embassies, for the next 30 days.
There was even what seemed to be a final statement of sorts from Nixon himself: The former President’s family declined to have his body lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington before the funeral service at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda, Calif.
Unaware of the family’s preference, the White House and Congress had been quietly preparing for the ceremony, cleaning the pine platform that had been built for the casket of Abraham Lincoln.
Outpourings of goodwill and grief--many offered by average citizens in calls to radio and television stations--seemed to signal the success of Nixon’s final campaign: He spent the last two decades of his life trying to rehabilitate his reputation by writing, giving speeches, making foreign trips and offering private advice to those who followed him as chief executive.
“Leaders in statecraft and students of international affairs will long look for guidance to President Nixon’s tremendous accomplishments,” Clinton said in his proclamation. “He suffered defeats that would have ended most political careers, yet he won stunning victories that many of the world’s most popular leaders failed to attain.”
The final arrangements for Nixon’s funeral, which the family is coordinating with the White House, were still in flux Saturday.
The Yorba Linda site will hold up to 1,800 people, officials said, and the Nixon family has requested that the White House handle much of the planning for the press and invited guests.
At the family’s request, Clinton will give one of several eulogies during the service. Others will be delivered by Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, Gov. Pete Wilson and former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. The funeral will be officiated by the Rev. Billy Graham.
Former Presidents Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George Bush are planning to attend, according to the White House.
In keeping with protocol, the State Department sent invitations to Nixon’s funeral to all heads of state, but officials said they did not expect to hear back from most of them until Monday.
White House officials said they received indications earlier in the week that Nixon might not want to lie in state in Washington. But they were not told of the family’s final decision until after he died Friday of complications related to a stroke he suffered Monday.
“We were keeping our options open,” said a White House official involved in planning with the Nixon family.
Indeed, the Capitol’s black-velvet-draped catafalque, which has held the coffins of nine presidents, was given a thorough cleaning. The Capitol staff, meanwhile, were hurriedly reviewing the ceremonial procedures they assumed they would be observing.
The catafalque, a pine platform built for Lincoln’s casket, is stored in the tomb that was built to hold the body of George Washington, two floors below the center of the Rotunda. Washington was instead buried at his Mt. Vernon home, and the Capitol tomb was never used.
Many presidents or former presidents have not lain in state, but the practice has become more customary over the years. The caskets of Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, Taft, Kennedy, Hoover, Eisenhower and Johnson were placed there for public viewing.
Other dignitaries have lain in the Rotunda as well, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and the man Nixon defeated in 1968 to become President: Hubert H. Humphrey.
Former Nixon aide David Gergen, now a top adviser to Clinton, speculated that Nixon might have chosen to forgo tradition because he “often thought Congress had tormented him.”
“I just think he sort of wanted to fade away and go back to Yorba Linda,” Gergen said.
Years earlier, Nixon had given up his Secret Service protection. “He didn’t want a lot of the trappings of power,” Gergen said.
Nixon’s death elicited words of sympathy and compassion from many of the prominent figures of his time: “Past differences are now history. I wish him God’s care and peace,” said Connecticut Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., who as a freshman senator was an outspoken critic on the congressional committee that investigated the Watergate scandal that drove Nixon from office.
George S. McGovern, whom Nixon defeated in the 1972 presidential election, told Cable News Network that he thought his former adversary had become “less uptight” and more relaxed in his years after public life.
While most plaudits focus on Nixon’s successes in foreign affairs, “he was pretty good on domestic policy as well,” McGovern said. “We sometimes forget that.”
“During the late ‘60s or 1970s, I headed, for example, the (Senate) Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, and we pushed through a whole series of strong nutritional programs, all of which had the support of President Nixon,” McGovern said.
Daniel Schorr, a former CBS News correspondent who was No. 17 on the “enemies list” that Nixon kept, said Nixon was a good President who could have been recognized as one of the greatest in history if not for the crimes of Watergate.
Radio and TV stations logged hundreds of calls Saturday, largely from people who praised Nixon. One caller to CNN who described herself as “a ‘60s radical” said she had been crying all day in grief for “a worthy adversary.”
Not all of the anger once directed at Nixon has washed away, however. Every so often, a caller objected to the flattering tone of the news coverage and the praise bestowed on the only President to ever resign his office.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said Nixon “never saw the federal government as a sympathetic referee to the struggle of civil rights.” Lewis headed the Atlanta-based Voter Education Project during most of the Nixon Administration.
Clinton, whose wife worked as a staff attorney on the House committee that prepared the articles of impeachment against Nixon, said that during the last 15 months he had developed a close professional friendship with the former President, mostly focused on U.S. policy toward Russia.
The two men exchanged letters and phone calls and had occasional private meetings, he said, and Clinton often offered to have Nixon briefed on policy deliberations. Nixon reciprocated by providing Clinton with eyewitness reports on his foreign travels.
When Pat Nixon, the former President’s wife of 53 years, died last year, Clinton dispatched the plane that had been used as Nixon’s Air Force One to fly her body home to California.
And when Clinton asked, Nixon vigorously lobbied members of Congress on behalf of aid for Russia.
Shortly after Nixon died, Clinton spoke with the former President’s daughters, Tricia Cox and Julie Eisenhower, for “several minutes each” and offered his sympathy and grief, according to a White House official.
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Funeral for a President
Former President Richard Nixon will be buried at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace next to his wife, Pat, who died last year. The public will be able to pay last respects beginning Tuesday.
Nixon’s body arrives: In the afternoon, on Air force One
Public gathering at library: 1 p.m.
Public viewing: 3 p.m. through 11 a.m. Wednesday
Service: For family and friends only at 4 p.m.
Officiant: the Rev. Billy Graham
Eulogists: President Clinton, Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas, California Gov. Pete Wilson
Interment: Private, following services at a location near Mrs. Nixon’s grave
Observances: National day of mourning, all nonessential federal offices closed
Address: 1800 Yorba Linda Blvd., Yorba Linda, 92686
Fax: (714) 528-0544
Information: (714) 993-3393
Sources: Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace