`To Us, [Nixon] Is a Hero'

Former president is laid to rest among eulogies, song, and prayer in `Land of Gracious Living'

IN the queues of mourners snaked around the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace this week, those who have come to pay their last respects to America's 37th president are consoling themselves with candles, wreaths, stories, and poetry.

``Today, the road all runners come, shoulder high we bring you home,'' read a Shreveport, La., oil worker from a crumpled volume of A. E. Houseman. ``And set you at your threshold down, townsman of a stiller town.''

From makeshift bleachers and folding chairs in a parking lot carved out of the front yard of Nixon's boyhood homestead, the formal completion of a controversial career has been played out on the world media stage. The eulogies and remembrances of major players have been said and recorded.

But today and in weeks to come, less-scripted gestures and more-personalized goodbyes from commoners will continue.

As one queue folds from Eureka Avenue past the library gift shop toward the grave site, visitors get one last glimpse of the former president in photo incarnations - on the Great Wall of China, shaking hands sheepishly with Elvis, making a pointed remark to Soviet chief Nikita Khrushchev during the 1959 ``kitchen debate,'' and debating President Kennedy.

The pictures and poems spark spontaneous songs, silent prayer, and gentle conversations from those who have come from across the country and across the street to remember the many rises and falls of the only United States president to resign from office.

``He made his mistakes,'' says Sheila Clements, a 10-year resident of this 60,000-strong enclave nestled in rolling hills about 30 miles southeast of Los Angeles. ``But he stood up and faced the consequences.''

``To us, he is a hero,'' says Soth Polin, one of five Cambodians wearing badges reading the ``Khmer Republic'' and carrying a wreath of flowers to place by the grave. ``He helped our country survive for many years before it fell to the communists. After that, he continued to speak out for us.''

One topic of conversation generated by ubiquitous local media has been the influence of this conservative Orange County community on the values and world views of its most-famous native son.

``It was a very strict Quaker [community] where everybody knew everybody,'' says 50-year resident Carol Contreras, lamenting the loss in recent decades of orange groves, farms, and chicken ranches to development. The city was probably less than 3,000 strong when Richard and his four brothers shared an attic in the small clapboard house here. Farming was the way of life, supported by a Pacific Electric Railroad line to Los Angeles, built the year before Richard's birth.

``Teachers embarrassed you if you didn't do your homework,'' says 71-year resident Jim Eichler, whose mother taught at Nixon's elementary school.

According to the Chamber of Commerce's Cecilia O'Neill, the Quakers left in 1964, protesting the encroachment of the area's first liquor store. The city wasn't incorporated until 1967.

Still known on license plates and Rotary billboards as ``The Land of Gracious Living,'' the city is still one where a Main Street barber can leave his door wide open for 15 minutes while he lunches at his mother's restaurant next door.

Informal polls in several corners of the city reveal that 70 to 80 percent think of Nixon as a ``good to great'' man whose accomplishments brought more pride than his resignation brought embarrassment.

``His museum was built without taxpayer money, and he didn't want an expensive state funeral,'' notes Leo Reilly, owner of a 1927-built hardware store. ``He made his trip from basic roots to basic roots.''

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