YORBA LINDA, CALIF., APRIL 27 -- When last the nation saw them all together, they were men of steel
and bristling crew cuts, titans of their time -- which was a time of
pragmatism and ice water in the veins.
How boldly they talked. How fearless they seemed. They spoke of
fixing their enemies, of running over their own grandmothers if it would
give them an edge. Their goals were the goals of giants: Control of a
nation, victory in the nuclear age, strategic domination of the globe.
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
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
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
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
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
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.