RICHARD NIXON is to be buried in Yorba Linda, Calif., tomorrow, and President Clinton has declared the day one of national mourning.
This is not in the American tradition. We don't "do" national days of mourning. Even Memorial Day, which is in fact our national day of mourning, is usually marked more by department store sales than by sorrow and solemnity. Clinton didn't close government offices in tribute to House Speaker Tip O'Neill or Justice Thurgood Marshall or Gen. Matthew Ridgway, each a towering figure and a hero to millions.
Richard Nixon waves farewell outside the White House as he boards a helicopter, Aug. 9, 1974
So why Nixon? Who, family and friends aside, will grieve the death of the most disgraced president of the century? Whence this extraordinary mark of respect from Clinton, who came to political maturity vehemently resisting the policies Nixon stood for (and whose wife entered the practice of law toiling for the committee that sought Nixon's impeachment)?
On the day Nixon was elected president in 1968, I saw the inside of a voting booth for the first time. I was 9 years old. My father took me with him when he went to vote early on Election Day; he let me pull the lever for his candidate -- Hubert H. Humphrey.
At the breakfast table later, my mother -- whose most-admired president was and still is Harry Truman -- told me she would be voting for Nixon.
The Jacoby household, like the country that year, was split. By 1972 the breach was healed. Dad joined Mom in voting for a Republican. That vote picked up by Nixon in South Euclid, Ohio, was one of more than 17 million he shifted between the two elections. Somewhere in an attic, I probably still have the "Democrats for Nixon" poster I acquired in 1972. The phrase says everything that is relevant to understanding Nixon's great political triumph -- building his 43 percent victory of 1968 into a 49-state landslide in 1972.
I was only 15 when Nixon resigned, too young to have been moved by the passions he stirred in so many. My generation never shared or fully understood the intense emotional bond he forged with so many middle Americans -- the "silent majority" for whom he was a kindred spirit. That bond is alluded to, a bit ironically, in the title of Tom Wicker's recent biography of Nixon, "One of Us."
Nor do 35-and-unders empathize with the raw hatred Nixon inspired on the left. This wasn't just ideological fury, like the bitter opposition Ronald Reagan would generate among his foes in the 1980s. The wrath of Nixon's enemies was something visceral. In certain circles it hasn't faded.
As the former president lay dying last week, one of my older colleagues was told by a friend: "I don't know how much Nixon is feeling right now, but I just hope he is in intense pain." These are the people who will be celebrating at "Nixon's Dead!" parties tomorrow. (Sadly, that isn't a joke.)
The conventional wisdom is that Nixon will go down in history as a great foreign policy president, whose tenure in office was marred by the Watergate scandal. That misses the essence of the Nixon phenomenon.
On foreign and domestic issues, Nixon's legacy was muddled at best. He was no hero to conservatives, who opposed his policies on everything from detente and the embrace of China to price controls and the expansion of welfare. His was not an ideological presidency, and no paradigm shifts took place on Nixon's watch.
No -- Nixon loomed so large because he was a national emotional catalyst, a psychological lightening rod. Something there was about him that made people's blood run hot, that fired tirades and demonstrations and counterdemonstrations, that inflamed and was inflamed by a great national agitation.
What happened to Nixon has happened to few men or women in our history: He passed from being merely a political figure to being a part of American culture itself. The term "Nixonian"; the phrase "I am not a crook"; the classic impersonation with arms outstretched, jowls shaking and fingers making the V-for-victory -- these are symbols every American grasps.
He was, in a way, the Continental Divide of the American character. Where you stood on Nixon telegraphed where you stood on the upheavals that were shaking the United States. Nixon was a point of definition for tens of millions of Americans -- not just controversial, he was genuinely divisive. The admiration of his followers fueled the animosity of his enemies; the zealotry of his haters only deepened the veneration of his supporters.
Bill Clinton, the first president to come from the ranks of the Nixon- hating, antiwar '60s left, has the political deftness to know that Nixon's legions have not faded away. There are many of them still, and Nixon's death reminds them that they were cheated out of a president they had elected, a president who was their bulwark against social forces that frightened and disgusted them.
It is they -- the ones for whom Nixon, despite his paranoia and gracelessness, despite the lies about Watergate and the hidden tape recorders, remains "one of us" -- who will be mourning him tomorrow. They deserve respect, even from those of us who don't quite understand how they feel.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)