Presidential legacies can be complicated. But for Richard Nixon, it often boils down to one word: Watergate.
That word was uttered just once at Wednesday’s centennial birthday gala for the 37th president.
“Phone calls started coming in to me, and I’m sure other folks, from the offspring of the old jackal pack asking ‘What are your thoughts on Watergate?’” said former adviser Pat Buchanan. “My great regret is that the old man is not here tonight so I can tell him my thoughts on his old tormentors. In the words of Nick Carraway to the Great Gatsby: ‘They were a rotten crowd, sir. You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.’ Nixon, now more than ever!”
Thirty-nine years after the scandal that ended his presidency, Nixon’s family, staffers, and friends gathered for what would have been his 100th birthday at the Mayflower Hotel — site of his inaugural balls in 1969 and 1973. The night was a curious mix of family reunion (with birdhouse replicas of his Yorba Linda birthplace as decor), defiant pep rally and time capsule (old campaign posters and old campaign staffers). “There’s a wax museum in there,” teased one former staffer walking into the party.
Some of the 400 guests are household names: Buchanan, Henry Kissinger, Tricia Nixon Cox, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, Brent Scowcroft, Elizabeth Dole, Fred Thompson, Haley Barbour. But most were the behind-the-scenes folks who knew and worked with Nixon during his five years in the White House.
The dinner, hosted by the Nixon Foundation, is part of a year-long attempt to shift the focus of Nixon’s presidency from Watergate to his domestic and foreign policies. “In turbulent times,” Tricia told the crowd, “peace in the world and justice at home were the twin pillars of my father’s initiatives.” Above the stage, the motto for the centennial: “Patriot. President. Peacemaker.” Ben Stein clearly got the talking points, rising from his seat to praise his former boss for ending the war in Vietnam: “I will never turn my back on Richard Nixon, the peacemaker!”
Kissinger, of course, highlighted the administration’s successes overseas, especially its efforts to open relations with China and nuclear negotiations with the Soviet Union. Others cited Nixon’s push for school desegregation and his successful campaign to win over Southern Democrats. “He will always be associated with Watergate,” Barbour told us. “But I think as we go along, there are a lot of things for which he’ll be recognized for doing the right way.”
Starting right here. “No one could ask for more than the kind of enduring friendship and enduring loyalty that this group represents,” said Fred Malek, who’s heading a $25 million campaign to refurbish and modernize Nixon’s presidential library in Yorba Linda. “We all knew in our hearts that we worked for a great president who had great accomplishments.”
There were a few inside jokes and lighthearted moments: A feeble effort by the crowd to sing “Happy Birthday” was interrupted by a video of Nixon leading the song at a White House celebration. And the centennial cake? A huge edible version of — what else? — the Yorba Linda homestead.
The night ended on a poignant note. “Sometimes I’m asked what it was like for my family to defend my father during the embattled moments in the White House,” said his younger daughter, Julie. “And my response is simple: He was the best father in the world. He loved his country. And he made us proud. Happy birthday, R.N.”
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