Former first lady Pat Nixon was eulogized at a memorial service Saturday as a woman who stood by her husband with loyalty and dignity throughout his career, particularly during the Watergate crisis that forced Richard Nixon from office.
The former president was joined by the couple's two daughters, Tricia Nixon Cox and Julie Nixon Eisenhower, and more than 300 dignitaries and friends, including former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, at the solemn hourlong ceremony in the garden of the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace.Mrs. Nixon, who had been seriously ill for several years, died Tuesday of lung cancer at the age of 81. She had stayed out of the public eye after suffering two strokes and battling emphysema from years as a heavy smoker.
Her casket, covered with yellow roses, was wheeled from the library where it had lain in state for a day.
Nixon, her husband of 53 years, broke down in tears several times during the ceremony. Periodically, he wiped his face with a handkerchief.
Pat Nixon was praised by friends and dignitaries as a woman who stood by her husband during the Watergate scandal that forced him to resign from office.
The Rev. Billy Graham, who presided over the ceremony, said few women in public life have suffered as Mrs. Nixon did and "done it with such grace."
California Gov. Pete Wilson said she "radiated dignity, honesty and quiet restraint."
"Her devotion to others never wavered, in good times and in bad," Wilson said.
Wilson recalled how he caught Mrs. Nixon when she collapsedduring a political function in the 1960s. He said he noticed then "what a slight woman she was."
"It struck me as such a paradox that such a strong personality, such a vigorous spirit, could be contained in so delicate a frame," Wilson said.
Others attending the ceremony included Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kan., and Nixon's 1972 presidential opponent, former Sen. George McGovern. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and several ex-White House officials, including H.R. Haldeman, who served as Nixon's chief of staff, and Charles Colson, who served as White House counsel during Watergate, also attended the service.
President Clinton was represented by civil rights leader Vernon Jordan, while former President George Bush's son, Neil, stood in for Bush and his wife.
Also attending were Sens. John Chafee, Orrin Hatch and Mark Hatfield.
"In Washington, D.C., a town where the monuments are tall and the egos even taller . . . she had a rare spirit that dispelled the cynicism and reminded us that compassion need not be legislated," said Dole, who showed visible signs of emotion during the eulogy.
"Of the all the challenges you have faced, enduring the pain and loss of your life partner must be the most difficult," Dole told the former president.
McGovern remembered Mrs. Nixon as "one of the least pretentious public figures" and said she appeared to withstand the pressures of public life.
Pat Nixon made few public appearances even as her husband struggled to redeem his reputation after he was forced to resign from office Aug. 9, 1974, as a result of the Watergate scandal. Many believed her greatest pain was being evicted from the White House, where she had known happiness, then humiliation.
The former president escorted his wife's body back to California Friday. The trip was made on the old Air Force One, a Boeing 707 that President Clinton provided for the occasion, the same plane Nixon flew on his historic trips to China and the former Soviet Union.
A private burial service followed Saturday's ceremony on the library ground. Pat Nixon, an avid gardner, was buried next to her husband's birthplace, near the deep red-burgundy roses that were named for her when she was the nation's first lady.