Tributes abound but little mention of Watergate
Aging acolytes lauded Richard Nixon as a statesman and global visionary, marking the late US president's 100th birthday on Wednesday with barely a whisper of the Watergate scandal that toppled him.
"It is my honor to propose a toast to Richard Nixon: patriot, president and above all, peacemaker," said Henry Kissinger, foreign policy right-hand man to Nixon, the father of modern US-China relations.
Dr Henry Kissinger, 89, who was secretary of state under Richard Nixon, addresses the Nixon Centennial Birthday Celebration in Washington on Wednesday. [Photo/Agencies]
Nixon's centenary passed with little fanfare in Washington, where modern-day divisions dominate the news, and where Nixon is remembered for paranoia and abuses of power that in 1974 made him the only US president to resign.
But at a gala dinner in Washington's Mayflower Hotel, blocks from the White House, which Nixon left in disgrace, veteran aides gathered for the latest move in a long series of steps to try to rehabilitate the "old man" for history.
"What a time it was, and what a man he was," said former Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan, who lauded the 37th president for bringing US soldiers home from Vietnam and helping China break diplomatic isolation.
Red, white and blue balloons festooned the room as guests seeking vindication for Nixon munched on cookies bearing the presidential seal.
In one surreal moment, the crowd sang Happy Birthday Mr President as a screen showed archive footage of a mischievous Nixon playing a piano in the White House.
Nixon, a Republican, died in 1994 at the age of 81, leaving a conflicted legacy that will never shed his transgressions, despite foreign policy successes that grow in stature over time.
Kissinger, in a rare public appearance, said Nixon left a foreign policy framework that had survived, including groundbreaking nuclear arms control treaties with the former Soviet Union.
"On numerous occasions, I witnessed Richard Nixon making decisions against the advice sometimes of the majority of people around him and certainly in the face of enormous media opposition," said the 89-year-old former secretary of state and national security adviser.
Among the crowd at what may have been the last major gathering of Nixon alumni was Hubert Perry, 99, who played football with Nixon on his high school team.
Nixon's daughters, Tricia and Julie, and surviving senior staff members reminisced about the good times and gently ribbed their former boss, but the shadow of Watergate hung over the evening mostly unspoken.
Buchanan was the only one to hint at anger over the Watergate scandal, implying, in the words of Nick Carraway from F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby that Nixon was a better man than his tormentors.
"They're a rotten crowd. You're worth the whole damn bunch put together," Buchanan said in tribute.
Nixon, who served president Dwight Eisenhower as vice-president, and pulled off several political comebacks after losing a disputed election to John F. Kennedy in 1960, finally won the White House in 1968.
He won a landslide re-election in 1972, but was undone by the coverup of a burglary by re-election campaign operatives at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building in Washing-ton.
Were it not for the scandal, he may have been remembered as one of the most successful presidents of the United States, thanks to his achievements abroad.
During his retirement, Nixon waged a partially successful campaign for his own redemption, acting as a secret, informal adviser to several successive presidents and traveling around the globe to meet key leaders, including those in Russia and China.
Later this year, The Nixon Foundation, which is organizing the 100th anniversary celebrations, will host a trip to China to mark the former president's historic visit to Beijing and his meetings with Mao Zedong in 1972.