WASHINGTON – It was a long and moving goodbye to the 40th president.
The day of tributes and tear-filled farewells began in Washington at the National Cathedral and ended at sunset on the West Coast as President Ronald Wilson Reagan was laid to rest at his presidential library in California’s Simi Valley.
Michael Reagan, the late president’s eldest son told about being adopted by Reagan, who never mentioned that fact to him, and of their family life. He recounted how after the onset of Alzheimer’s, his father eventually came to only recognize him as the man who hugged him.
And Michael Reagan told of advice his father gave him when he decided to marry.
“He sent me a letter about marriage and how important it was to be faithful to the woman you love. With a P.S.: ‘You’ll never get in trouble if you say I love you at least once a day.’ I’m sure he told Nancy every day ‘I love you,’” he said.
Daughter Patti Davis said that in her father’s last moment, “when he opened his eyes, eyes that had not opened for many, many days, and looked at my mother, he showed us that neither disease nor death can conquer love.”
“He is home now. He is free,” said his son, Ron Reagan. “In his final letter to the American people, Dad wrote, `I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life.’ This evening, he has arrived.”
The flag-draped casket, accompanied by former first lady Nancy Reagan, arrived at the Library following a flight from Washington and a 25-mile motorcade from the Navy’s Point Mugu air station.
The flag that draped the casket was removed, folded and presented to her by Navy Capt. James A. Symonds, commander of the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, over which the banner had flown at the time of the former president’s death.
Clutching the flag, she stepped to the casket, placed her head on the lid and cried as her children rushed to comfort her. Unwilling to leave, she kissed and rubbed the casket. “I love you,” she said quietly.
Ron, Nancy, Patti, Michael Reagan
The service earlier at Washington National Cathedral featured eulogies by former President George H.W. Bush and the current president. Attending the service were dozens of world leaders, the four living ex-presidents and lifelong friends.
“Ronald Reagan belongs to the ages now,” President Bush said in his eulogy, “but we preferred it when he belonged to us.”
“His politics had a freshness and optimism that won converts from every class and every nation — and ultimately from the very heart of the evil empire,” said former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in taped remarks presented at the funeral. Thatcher, who has given up public speaking after a series of small strokes, sat next to Mikhail Gorbachev, who led that Soviet “empire” and eventually became Reagan’s friend.
President Bush and his father brought smiles to the funeral service by recalling Reagan’s wisecracks. The elder George Bush, in his eulogy for the man he served as vice president, remembered when Reagan was asked how a meeting went with South African Bishop Desmond Tutu. “So-so,” Reagan said.
Mrs. Reagan laughed. Her daughter Patti Davis laughed harder and longer. They exchanged glances with each cherished recollection. Reagan’s other surviving children, Ron and Michael, also were by her side. Reagan’s daughter Maureen, from his first marriage, died from cancer in 2001.
The elder Bush said Reagan was beloved because he was “strong and gentle.”
“I learned more from Ronald Reagan than from anyone I encountered in all my years of public life,” Bush said, his voice breaking with emotion.
American guns around the world fired in Reagan’s honor – 21-gun salutes at the stroke of noon local time at U.S. military bases, at dusk, another worldwide round of 50-gun salutes.
Hundreds of mourners also attended the California burial service, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, actor Tom Selleck, Bo Derek and singer Wayne Newton.
Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, a good friend of the Reagans, remembered the former president in his eulogy as possessing “a rare and prized gift called leadership.”
“Ronald Reagan does not enter history tentatively – he does so with certainty and panache,” said Mulroney, who shared Irish ancestry with Reagan and once sang “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” with him on stage. “At home and on the world stage, his were not the pallid etchings of a timorous politician. They were the bold strokes of a confident and accomplished leader.”
Reagan died last Saturday at 93 from pneumonia complicated by the Alzheimer’s disease that had progressively clouded his mind. He told the world in 1994, five years after ending his two-term presidency, that he had Alzheimer’s.
Delivering the homily, Danforth read from the Sermon on the Mount, Reagan’s favorite biblical theme.
The Gospel of Matthew, 5:14-16, reads, “You are the light of the world, a city set on a hill cannot be hid,” a passage that Reagan often quoted to project his view of America as a beacon of freedom and hope.
“If ever we have known a child of light, it was Ronald Reagan,” Danforth said.
Both services reflected Ronald Reagan’s belief in God’s gift of eternal life and his deep Christian faith.
President Bush eulogized Reagan as having been as “firm and straight” as the columns of the cathedral.
“Ronald Reagan believed that everything happens for a reason and that we should strive to know and do the will of God,” Bush said. “He believed that the gentleman always does the kindest thing. He believed that people are basically good and have the right to be free.
“He believed that bigotry and prejudice were the worst things a person could be guilty of. He believed in the golden rule and the power of prayer,” Bush said.
Noting Reagan’s achievements, Bush said he “acted to restore and reward the spirit of enterprise. He was optimistic that liberty would thrive wherever it was planted.”
In a previously recorded message, Mrs. Thatcher said her close friend and political partner during the 1980s faced great challenges such as the Cold War with “almost a lightness of spirit.”
“His politics had a freshness and optimism that won converts from every class and every nation – and ultimately from the very heart of the evil empire,” she said.
Thatcher has given up public speaking because of declining health, but made the trip to Washington to attend the service.
“I have lost a good friend,” she said, who “sought to mend America’s wounded spirit” and “embodied a great cause … the great cause of cheering us all up.”
Thatcher closed with a focus on Reagan’s personal life, founded on his faith in God and centered on his relationship with his wife, Nancy.
“Ronald Reagan’s life was rich not only in public achievement, but also in private happiness. Indeed, his public achievements were rooted in his private happiness. The great turning point of his life was his meeting and marriage with Nancy.
“On that we have the plain testimony of a loving and grateful husband: ‘Nancy came along and saved my soul.’ We share her grief today. But we also share her pride – and the grief and pride of Ronnie’s children.
“For the final years of his life, Ronnie’s mind was clouded by illness. That cloud has now lifted. He is himself again – more himself than at any time on this earth. For we may be sure that the Big Fella Upstairs never forgets those who remember Him. And as the last journey of this faithful pilgrim took him beyond the sunset, and as heaven’s morning broke, I like to think – in the words of Bunyan – that ‘all the trumpets sounded on the other side.’
“We here still move in twilight. But we have one beacon to guide us that Ronald Reagan never had. We have his example. Let us give thanks today for a life that achieved so much for all of God’s children.”
Mulroney, speaking after Thatcher, said “Ronald Reagan was a president who inspired his nation and transformed the world.”
Mulroney said Reagan had “a rare and prized gift called leadership, that ineffable and sometimes magical quality that sets some men and women apart so that millions will follow them as they conjure up grand visions and invite their countrymen to dream big and exciting dreams.”
Reagan’s vice president, the first President Bush, became choked with emotion when he told of Reagan’s impact.
“I learned more from Ronald Reagan than from anyone I encountered in my years in public life,” Bush said.
Bush, who turns 80 tomorrow, said, “Perhaps as important as anything, I learned a lot about humor, a lot about laughter. And, oh, how President Reagan loved a good story.”
Danforth, who became an Episcopal priest after retiring from the Senate, began his message with the words of Jesus from the book of John: “I am the resurrection and the life.”
Preceding the eulogies, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner cited a sermon by John Winthrop in 1630 which invoked the bibical phrase, often repeated by President Reagan, of a “city on a hill.”
Danforth said, “If ever we have known a child of light it was Ronald Reagan. He had no dark side, no scary hidden agenda. What you saw was that sure sign of inner light. He didn’t need to be president to be a complete person. He shined the light, but not on himself.”
After Irish tenor Ronan Tynan sang “Amazing Grace,” Danforth led the congregation in recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.
Reagan’s flag-draped casket was carried to a hearse by members representing each of the armed services. His body was flown to California for the sunset burial at the Reagan Presidential Library overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
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