President Nixon opened his memoirs with a simple sentence: “I was born in a house my father built.” Today we can look back at this little house and still imagine a young boy sitting by the window of the attic he shared with his three brothers, looking out to a world he could then himself only imagine. From those humble roots, as from so many humble beginnings in this country, grew the force of a driving dream. A dream that led to the remarkable journey that ends here today, where it all began beside the same tiny home, mail-ordered from back East, near this towering pepper tree, which back then was a mere seedling.
President Nixon’s journey across the American landscapes mirrored that of his entire nation in this remarkable century. His life was bound up with the striving of our whole people, with our crises and our triumphs.
When he became President, he took on challenges here at home on matters from cancer research to environmental protection, putting the power of the Federal Government where Republicans and Democrats had neglected to put it in the past, and in foreign policy. He came to the Presidency at a time in our history when Americans were tempted to say we had had enough of the world. Instead, he knew we had to reach out to old friends and old enemies alike. He would not allow America to quit the world.
Remarkably, he wrote nine of his ten books after he left the Presidency, working his way back into the arena he so loved by writing and thinking and engaging us in his dialogue. For the past year, even in the final weeks of his life, he gave me his wise counsel, especially with regard to Russia. One thing in particular left a profound impression on me. Though this man was in his ninth decade, he had an incredibly sharp and vigorous and rigorous mind. As a public man, he always seemed to believe the greatest sin was remaining passive in the face of challenges, and he never stopped living by that creed. He gave of himself with intelligence and energy and devotion to duty, and his entire country owes him a debt of gratitude for that service.
Oh, yes, he knew great controversy amid defeat as well as victory. He made mistakes, and they, like his accomplishments, are a part of his life and record. But the enduring lesson of Richard Nixon is that he never gave up being part of the action and passion of his times. He said many times that unless a person has a goal, a new mountain to climb, his spirit will die. Well, based on our last phone conversation and the letter he wrote me just a month ago, I can say that his spirit was very much alive to the very end.
That is a great tribute to him, to his wonderful wife, Pat, to his children and to his grandchildren, whose love he so depended on and whose love he returned in full measure. Today is a day for his family, his friends, and his nation to remember President Nixon’s life in totality. To them, let us say: may the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close.
May we heed his call to maintain the will and the wisdom to build on America’s greatest gift, its freedom, and to lead a world full of difficulty to the just and lasting peace he dreamed of.
As it is written in the words of a hymn I heard in my church last Sunday, “Grant that I may realize that the trifling of life creates differences, but that in the higher things we are all one.” In the twilight of his life, President Nixon knew that lesson well. It is, I feel, certainly a fate he would want us all to keep.
And so, on behalf of all four former Presidents who are here – President Ford, President Carter, President Reagan, President Bush – and on behalf of a grateful nation, we bid farewell to Richard Milhous Nixon.