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4 PRESIDENTS TAKE SURREAL VISIT TO A NOT-SO-DISTANT HISTORIC PAST

SHARE 4 PRESIDENTS TAKE SURREAL VISIT TO A NOT-SO-DISTANT HISTORIC PAST

It was, without question, history on display - part campaign rally, part celebration, with doses of God and country and a single latent theme: the political rehabilitation of Richard Nixon.

Before an overflow crowd of more than 40,000 people sat four men who have shaped the nation's destiny, whose more than 17 years of service in the Oval Office have spanned the best and worst of times for them and the nation.The dedication of the Richard M. Nixon Library and Birthplace was historic for its very being, bringing together four American presidents for the first time since 1981, no less to honor the only one to resign in disgrace.

Bound first by party, the four have shared political kinship as well as personal differences. But they joked comfortably and complimented one another on appearances while posing before a mob of photographers for a picture Johnny Carson had likened the night before as "Mount Rushmore seen through the wrong end of the binoculars."

"I feel as good as the rest of them look," Nixon quipped.

Outside, under a hot sun, they joined in a selective review of more than two decades of history before Orange County Republicans too conservative to ever question, old enough to forgive or too young to even care about the qualities that made Nixon, the 37th president, at once so complex and controversial.

It was, at times, almost a surreal visit to a not-so-distant past, to the quest for "peace with honor" in Vietnam, to defense of "the Silent Majority" and to the "Generation of Peace" that was to have flowed from diplomatic openings to the Soviet Union and China.

Impressario Ron Walker, a veteran of Republican campaigns from Nixon to Reagan, gave it all the looks of a political rally, with flags, balloons, celebrities and even a release of doves to cap the singing of the "Star Spangled Banner."

Imagery aside, it was a fascinating study in human and political dynamics. The four were deferential to one another and even more so to their wives. The good times were remembered, less pleasant memories ignored.

Gerald Ford never alluded to the events behind his ascension to the presidency, just as President Bush left unstated his own agonizing role as chairman of the Republican Party at the time of Nixon's downfall.

Watergate was mentioned only once, by Bush, as the last of Nixon's seven crises. Though the tapes and documents inside the library will offer visitors Nixon's account of what happened and why, he and his guests had no interest in reliving that part of the past during their televised reunion.

"There will always be a great deal of debate about Richard Nixon," Ronald Reagan noted in profound understatement. Underscoring Nixon's own disdain for the way journalists and historians chronicled his 5 1/2 years in office, Reagan mused that "much has been written about Richard Nixon; some of it's even been true."

Gerald Ford, who succeeded Nixon and in short order pardoned him for any crimes he may have committed, said the dedication of the library, adjacent to the small frame house where Nixon was raised, showed that "you can come home again."

Rather than reflect, Nixon chose to wax philosophic, describing interest in the past as important "insofar only as it points the way for a better future."

Over the course of 14 minutes, he urged Americans to give Bush their "wholehearted support" and summed up his various runs for office - House, Senate, governor and president - with almost a devil-may-care attitude that belied a lifetime of intense and sometimes bitter campaigns.

"Won some, lost some," he said matter-of-factly. "All interesting."

Neither defensive nor apologetic, Nixon closed with personal testimony to the strength and durabilty of the American Dream and what sounded much like a political epitaph:

"You will suffer disappointments and sometimes you will be very discouraged," he said. "It is sad to lose, but the greater sadness is to travel through life without knowing either victory or defeat."