WASHINGTON -- The nation's three surviving former presidents, making a rare appearance together, helped some of Washington's high and mighty honor retired Adm. H.G. Rickover and help launch his foundation Monday night.
Richard Nixon saluted the 83-year-old Rickover. Jimmy Carter called him a 'superlative' engineer. And Gerald Ford said the father of the nuclear Navy, whose 63-year service as a naval officer was the longest in American history, helped make America more secure.
Carter, who served directly under Rickover in the nuclear submarine program in the early 1950s, described him as 'omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent.'
'He is a superlative engineers. There has never been a finer engineer on the face of the earth,' Carter said.
'Our country in the last 20 years has been more secure because Rickover boats have been a factor in the U.S. Navy,' Ford said. 'We've been able to deter aggression and maintain the peace because of the admiral's contribution to our armed forces.'
It was a rare occasion for the three former presidents to appear together, and they were all drawn by what they said was deep respect and love for a man they said could strike terror and be abrasive.
Nixon recalled selecting Rickover to be his naval aide during his trip to the Soviet Union as vice president, and then pinning the fourth star of a full admiral on Rickover in 1973 while president.
'Then he saluted me, who had only been a lieutenant in the Navy,' Nixon said. With that, Nixon concluded his remarks with a snappy salute to Rickover as the black-tie audience rose to its feet and applauded.
The three former presidents were among about 200 people who attended a $10,000-a-person private reception before joining 500 others at a $1,000-a-plate dinner.
Lynda Bird Robb, daughter of another former president, the late Lyndon B. Johnson, and her husband, Virginia Gov. Charles Robb, also joined in feting the crusty 83-year-old admiral at the formal reception at the Sheraton Washington Hotel.
Rickover, said to be the father of the nuclear submarine, gave credit to the 'many competent and talented individuals' he said should share credit for development of the first nuclear powered ship, Nautilus, and creation of the first nuclear powered plant for civilian use at Shippingport, Pa.
'I do not deserve to be singled out for accolades,' Rickover, who was in uniform, said in remarks prepared for delivery at the dinner.
'I was in the Navy for more than 63 years, longer than any naval officer in our history,' he said. 'Nevertheless, I do not believe I have done enough for my country. I did what I wanted and was paid well for my work. And I obeyed all orders that I agreed with.'
The dinner and reception were arranged to launch the Rickover Foundation, which Rickover hopes will attain funding of $10 million.
The foundation has three goals -- a youth program for outstanding students to study mathematics, science, philosophy and English literature; symposiums and discussions on international energy, and promotion of the international transfer of technology.
Others attending the affair included Alexander Haig, who was White House chief of staff during Nixon's final Watergate days and Secretary of State in the Reagan administration; former Defense Secretary Harold Brown; astronaut Mike Collins; and James Schlesinger, defense secretary under Ford and energy secretary in the Carter administration.
'Rickover worked for me three times. That's what it said on the organization chart -- if you believe that,' Schlesinger remarked to reporters.
There were no high officials present from the Reagan administration, which forced Rickover's retirement last year after 63 years of service.
Of the former presidents, Carter is perhaps the closest to Rickover. He called his autobiography 'Why Not the Best?' after a question the crusty admiral put to him when he was joining the nuclear submarine force in the early 1950s.
The gathering of the three former presidents was not unprecedented: Nixon, Ford and Carter traveled to Egypt together in late 1981 for Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's funeral.