YORBA LINDA, Calif. -- Four living presidents attended a rare gathering Thursday to dedicate the Richard M. Nixon library and museum and to honor the only man to resign the presidency.
President Bush and former presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan all lavished praise on Nixon at the morning dedication ceremony as about 150 protesters outside the library grounds carried signs reading 'Still Tricky Dick' and 'Don't honor a crook' and taunted Bush during his speech.
The event, which drew a crowd estimated at 50,000, marked the first time four presidents and their wives had assembled for a public ceremony. Jimmy Carter, the only living Democratic president, was invited to participate but declined.
Ford, the first of the four to speak, reminisced about his years with Nixon in Congress, a friendship dating back to 1949.
He also recalled events leading to the emergence of democracies in Eastern Europe, praising Nixon and the other Republican presidents on the platform for their contributions.
'You, Dick Nixon, have the gratitude of men and women everywhere who cherish peace with liberty,' he said.
Ford said Nixon's return to Yorba Linda, his boyhood hometown, illustrates 'you can come home again.'
Reagan called Nixon a patriot and praised his contributions in foreign policy.
'Richard Nixon is a man who understands the world,' Reagan said, 'a man whose foreign policy was universally acknowledged as brilliant. I don't think it's an exagerration to say the world is a better place -- a safer place -- because of Richard Nixon.'
When Bush rose to speak, he was interrupted by shouts from protesters demonstrating on a wide range of issues, including abortion rights, AIDS, government funding for the arts and U.S. involvement in Central America.
'I'm not sure if it's you or me that attracted this noise over here,' Bush said to Reagan, 'but I remember as vice president you had your share of this type of attention.'
In his introduction of Nixon, Bush praised him as a man of intellect, loyalty, compassion and controversy -- 'the quintessence of middle America' -- who spoke loudly and eloquently for the 'silent majority from Dallas to Davenport, Syracuse to Siler City.'
'Finally and most importantly, I would say to visitors: Richard Nixon helped changed the course not only of America but of the entire world,' Bush said.
Recalling the creation of revenue sharing, the end of the draft, new achievements in space exploration and establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, Bush said, 'All of this Richard Nixon did. Yet future generations will remember him most for dedicating his life to the greatest cause offered any president -- the cause of peace among nations.'
All three praised former First Lady Pat Nixon, with Reagan calling her a 'true unsung hero of the Nixon administration.'
Nixon, his voice often choked with emotion, expressed gratitude for the comments of the other three presidents, noting it was the first time in his 44 years in public life he had been introduced by a U.S. president.
'Nothing we have ever seen matches this moment -- to be welcomed home again,' he said.
He said visitors to the museum 'will see the life of a great nation -- 77 years of it, ... and you will see great leaders of the world.'
'I hope you will remember, seeing the past is interesting, but it is important only so far as it points the way to a better future,' Nixon added.
He recalled that, as a boy, the sound of train whistles inspired him to dream of travel, but he never expected to visit more than 80 countries.
'In my travels, I have found some people who like us, some people who envy us and some people who hate us,' Nixon said. '(But without America), peace and freedom would not survive in the world.'
Nixon said in his lifetime, more people were killed in wars than in all wars before. He said the 20th century most likely will be remembered as a century of war, but encouraged future leaders to make sure the 21st century is one of peace.
Although he did not refer directly to his resignation from office, Nixon did say, 'It is sad to lose, but the greater sadness is to travel through life without knowing either victory or defeat.'
x x x or defeat.'
Although the event was heavily attended by Republicans, none of the speeches carried a partisan tone. Only a few references were made to Nixon's troubles in office and his past disdain for the news media's coverage of his administration.
In a light moment at the beginning of his address, Reagan said, 'A lot of things have been said about Richard Nixon and some of them are true.'
Nixon, wearing a gray pinstripe suit, and his wife Pat, in a pale mint green suit, arrived early to attend a private breakfast with supporters before escorting Bush, Ford and Reagan through the new library.
A number of dignitaries and former Nixon aides also toured the museum before the ceremony, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and presidential press secretary Ron Ziegler.
Kissinger told reporters that Nixon has learned the lesson of Watergate, but he said the scandal was blown out of proportion when compared to Nixon's achievements.
'He has recognized he made mistakes, but (Watergate) was a blip in the panoply of history,' he said.
Kissinger, a major contributor to the privately funded museum, was among the 3,000 invited guests to attend the dedication, including a group of museum benefactors and longtime Nixon friends and supporters that included actor Chuck Norris, Nixon chief of staff Alexander Haig and an assortment of California Republican elected officials.
Ziegler, press secretary in the Nixon administration during the Watergate years, said the museum is 'an excellent balance' of American political history of the 1960s and 70s.
'Not only do you get a sense of Richard Nixon, but also what happened in American politics during that time,' he said.
Nixon's first vice president, Spiro Agnew, was not on hand for the event, nor were Watergate conspirators G. Gordon Liddy, John Dean or John Ehrlichman. However, H.R. Haldeman and Maurice Stans, two other convicted Watergate participants, did attend.
One protester whose taunts during Bush's speech escalated into a shoving match with others in the audience was escorted out by police.
Other protesters representing a wide range of concerns gathered across the street from the library. They carried signs reading 'Art is not a crime,' an apparent reference to obscenity restrictions attached to National Endowment for the Arts grants, and 'Stop the GOP death squads,' a protest against U.S. involvement in Central America.
Security for the event was so tight that some 40,000 people -- including reporters, photographers and members of the Marine Corps marching band -- passed through metal detectors before being admitted.
Nixon returned to his boyhood hometown for the first time in 68 years on Wednesday. He and his wife, two daughters and grandchildren took a private preview tour of the Richard M. Nixon Library and Birthplace.
Thursday's ceremony capped a busy year of heightened visibility in which Nixon published a best-selling book, 'In the Arena,' was cheered in the halls of the U.S. Capitol, toured China and appeared on the April cover of Time magazine.
Nixon was born in the three-room wood-frame house adjacent to the museum on Jan. 9, 1913. He had not seen it since moving away in 1922.
Dwarfed by the sleek new presidential library next door, the little white house is nevertheless considered a prominent feature of the $21 million project, which will be opened to the public beginning Friday.
Displays inside the museum will chronicle Nixon's political career, including his vice presidency under Dwight Eisenhower and his triumphs in foreign policy.
The museum, however, does not turn its back on the turmoils of his administration, including the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal that led him to resign on Aug. 9, 1974.
The library portion of the museum, not scheduled to open until 1991, will house copies of Nixon's presidential papers and his personal diaries, including the famous White House tapes of his Oval Office conversations on the unfolding Watergate scandal.