Nixon remembered as a visionary on his 100th birthday

Ageing acolytes lauded Richard Nixon as a statesman and global visionary Wednesday, marking the late ex-president's 100th birthday with barely a whisper of the Watergate scandal that felled him.

"It is my honor to propose a toast to Richard Nixon, patriot, president and above all, peacemaker," said Henry Kissinger, foreign policy right-hand man to Nixon, the father of modern US-China relations.

Nixon's centenary passed with little fanfare in Washington, where modern-day divisions dominate the news, and where Nixon is remembered for paranoia and abuses of power which, in 1974, made him the only president ever to resign.

But at a gala dinner in Washington's ornate Mayflower Hotel, blocks from the White House that Nixon left in disgrace, veteran aides gathered in the latest step of a long effort to rehabilitate the "old man" for history.

"What a time it was, and what a man he was," said former Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan, who lauded the 37th president for bringing Americans home from Vietnam and coaxing Maoist China out from the chill of diplomatic isolation.

The event was a cross between a roast, a wake and an inaugural ball, as red, white and blue balloons festooned the room, and guests seeking vindication for Nixon munched on cookies bearing the presidential seal.

In one surreal moment, the crowd sang "Happy Birthday Mr President" as a screen showed archive footage of a mischievous Nixon playing along on a piano in the White House.

Nixon, a Republican, died in 1994 at the age of 81, leaving a conflicted legacy that will never shed his transgressions -- despite unarguable foreign policy successes that grow in stature over time.

Kissinger, in what is now a rare public appearance, said Nixon had left a foreign policy framework that survived for decades after he left office, including pathbreaking nuclear arms control treaties with the Soviet Union.

"On numerous occasions, I witnessed Richard Nixon making decisions against the advice sometimes of the majority of people around him and certainly in the face of enormous media opposition," said the 89-year-old former secretary of state and national security adviser.

"You need courage to be willing to walk a lonely path," Kissinger said, at times seemingly also cementing for posterity his own key, and sometimes controversial role in tumultuous late 20th century events.

Among the crowd at what may have been the last major meeting of Nixon alumni, was Hubert Perry, 99, who played football with Nixon on his high school team.

Nixon's daughters, Tricia and Julie, and surviving senior staff members reminisced about the good times, and gently ribbed their former boss, but the shadow of Watergate hung over the evening mostly unspoken.

Buchanan was the only one to hint at anger over the scandal, implying, in the words of Nick Carraway from F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel "The Great Gatsby" that Nixon was a better man than his tormentors.

"They're a rotten crowd, you're worth the whole damn bunch put together," Buchanan said.

Nixon, who served president Dwight Eisenhower as vice president, and pulled off several political comebacks after losing a disputed election to president John Kennedy in 1960, finally won the White House in 1968.

He won a landslide re-election in 1972 but was undone by a cover-up of a burglary by re-election campaign operatives at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building in Washington.

Were it not for the scandal, he may have been remembered as one of the most successful US presidents thanks to his achievements abroad.

In retirement, Nixon waged a partially successful campaign for redemption, acting as a secret, informal adviser to several successive presidents, hopscotching the globe to meet key leaders, including in Russia and China.

Later this year, The Nixon Foundation, which is organizing the 100th anniversary celebrations, will host a trip to China to mark the ex-president's historic visit to Beijing and meetings with communist leader Mao Zedong in 1972.

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