The titans of Nixon’s age gathered again today, on an unseasonably cold and gray afternoon, and now they were white-haired or balding, their steel was rusting, their skin had begun to sag, their eyesight was failing. They were invited to contemplate where power leads.
“John Donne once said that there is a democracy about death,” the Rev. Billy Graham told the mourners at Richard M. Nixon’s funeral. Then, quoting the poet, he continued: “It comes equally to us all and makes us all equal when it comes.”
And here, the great evangelist diverged for a moment from his text to make the point perfectly clear. “We too are going to die,” Graham intoned, “and we are going to have to face Almighty God.”
Coming from Graham, the words were especially poignant. He is the only American who claims the place of honor in our solemn national ceremonies, even above the sitting president. And once he was the vivid, virile lion of God, with a voice like Gabriel’s trumpet. Now he is a frail old man who struggles to his feet.
The senior men of the Nixon administration looked quite old: George P. Shultz, the all-purpose Cabinet secretary; the disgraced vice president Spiro T. Agnew, who emerged from his long seclusion clearly stooped; the foreign policy guru Henry A. Kissinger, who seemed small and somehow vulnerable.
And the junior men look very senior: Nixon chief of staff Alexander M. Haig Jr., resembling a retiree at the yacht club; political legman Lyn Nofziger, still looking like an unmade bed but now your grandfather’s unmade bed; muscle man Charles W. Colson, his crew cut replaced by a thinning gray thatch. G. Gordon Liddy, with his bullet head, looked the least changed of all.
“Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid,” Graham said.
They arrived full of the old sangfroid, smiling and glad-handing for as much as an hour before the service began. Nixon’s men and many of the other dignitaries worked the crowd like a precinct caucus; surely Nixon, the best pol of his era, would have approved. As a Marine band played Bach’s ineffable hymn, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour pumped hands with a broad grin on his face, and nearby David R. Gergen, the perennial presidential adviser, worked a row of mourners like a rope line.
And in the beginning, perhaps, the event reminded them of just another political event. A very small number of people attended, compared to the number who no doubt wished to honor Nixon, but even among the exclusive group, the crowd was separated by various shades of lapel pin. Purple was the best, the regal color -- bearers of purple buttons could go right up to the front rows, where generals mixed with corporate titans and international arms dealers mingled with movie stars.
The band had shifted to “God of Our Fathers” when the congressional delegation arrived, and this ignited another flurry of politicking. A number of people had dusted off old Nixon campaign buttons, which they displayed proudly as they milled among old friends. Nixon speechwriter Patrick J. Buchanan caught sight of an old friend and stepped lively to meet him, while nearby White House Chief of Staff Thomas F. “Mack” McLarty chatted amiably with Colson. (They call McLarty “Mack the Nice.” No one ever called Colson “nice” when he served Nixon; Colson was the one who offered to run down his grandmother. But that was a long time ago.)
It is possible to pinpoint to the instant when the mood of a political rally evaporated. It was when Kissinger, almost invisible behind the bulky presidential lectern, quoted Shakespeare in speaking of Nixon: “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”
And that great rumbling Kissinger voice -- which once spoke of war and nations and nuclear strategy as if all these things were mere entertainments, mere exercise to tone his Atlas-like muscles -- cracked into a sob.
The sky darkened just then. The sun gave up its hours-long struggle to penetrate the clouds. The day turned cold, and after the shock of hearing Kissinger cry, moments later Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) was crying too.
It was appropriate, perhaps, that the funeral of the first U.S. president from California should be held on a parking lot, across the street from a strip mall. The Nixon Library and Birthplace stands on the spot where Nixon’s parents raised a mail-order house nearly a century ago.
This was the frontier then; now it is just another cookie-cutter suburb. Tough people settled this place -- “Chinatown” tough. They diverted vast rivers, crushed powerful unions, and made this remote land of dry winds, hard ground, earthquakes, fires, droughts into the great postwar city. Richard Nixon was one of them, and he went farther than any of them: He remade the country through his unstinting use and abuse of power; some say he remolded the world.
But none of that kept him from the leveling end that awaits even the most vigorous and clever wielders of power. The cannon boomed; the rifles popped, the polished wooden coffin sank into the wet ground. Chilled, the mourners hastened across the green grass to a gathering where canapes were served by uniformed staff.
And though their smiles returned, the end of power lay before them, down the path, beneath the trees, under the ground.