The celebration for what would have been Richard Nixon’s 100th birthday Wednesday night was a schmaltzy, retro party. A selective walk down memory lane and a highly unusual gathering for Washington—everybody was so civilized.
An overflow throng of 400 loyalists and devotees dined on surf and turf in a ballroom filled with flags and balloons at the venerable Mayflower hotel to laud the 37th president, who left office in disgrace.
But for this crowd, there was no Nixon to kick around. They remember “RN,” as they call him, as a statesman, a hero, a peacemaker. Nixon the trickster was nowhere in sight.
Almost everybody from the bad, or good, old days showed up.
Graying, balding, some with canes, some with hearing aids, but ever so happy to reunite and swap tales.
Slides of Nixon’s life flickered on screens scattered around the room. A trio played a series of golden oldies—“Moon River,” “The Isle of Capri,” and “Over the Rainbow.” Masses of red and white roses decorated the tables.
Henry Kissinger held court. “It’s a great evening. Wonderful to be here,” he murmured to a gaggle of enthusiastic admirers.
Former aides Fred Fielding, Fred Malek, Pat Buchanan, and Ben Stein circulated, smiled and worked the room. This was a fundraiser for the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., and they were on the prowl. (During dinner it was announced that $4.5 million was already in the kitty.)
Former senators Elizabeth Dole and Fred Thompson also were spotted among the teased, sprayed hairdos, conservative suits, and country-club ties.
“I’m having a great time,” remarked a former Spiro Agnew aide. “[John] Ehrlichman and [H.R.] Haldeman are not here, but Nixon is coming later. So is Elvis.”
Another Nixon vet toying with her table favor, a replica of the Nixon centennial seal, confessed, “I’m having fun. But I don’t dare tell anyone I’m for Obama.”
In a breathy voice and dressed in a shimmering white sheath, Tricia Nixon Cox kicked off the evening offering reminiscences of her father, outlining his accomplishments, thanking the audience for being an important part of the family’s lives, and noting, “As my father and mother would say, onward and upward.”
She was followed by the Richard Nixon Foundation chairman, Ronald Walker, who dubbed the event “a ballbuster.” “We’re all here,” he crowed.
“We knew him, admired, and loved him and miss him every single day,” he said of the late president.
When Ed Nixon, the president’s younger brother, was introduced, he flashed a lopsided grin and the former president’s famous “V for victory” sign.
“Ehrlichman and Haldeman are not here, but Nixon is coming later. So is Elvis.”
The Rev. Franklin Graham read a letter from his absent father, the Rev. Billy Graham, citing the two men’s close family, friendship to a round of applause.
At which point a birthday cake, a replica of Nixon’s California boyhood home that was built by his father in 1913, appeared, and the crowd sang “Happy Birthday” while an old clip of Nixon playing the tune at the White House piano flashed on the screens.
When Kissinger stepped up to the podium, he praised Nixon’s “character, courage, and vision. That’s what you need in a great leader. You pay the same price of doing something halfway as doing it completely. You might as well do it right. That’s what he believed in.”
Watergate was taboo until Julie Nixon Eisenhower brought it up. In brief remarks, she closed out the evening, slim in black lace and saying the question she was asked most was how she defended her father after that cataclysmic event.
“I say he was the best father in the world, he loved his country, and made us proud.”
The musical trio struck up “God Bless America.” The party was over, and the Nixon crew headed out into the night.