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Week of mourning for Reagan culminates

By HIL ANDERSON, UPI Western Region Editor   |   June 11, 2004 at 11:41 PM
LOS ANGELES, June 11 (UPI) -- The long and somber week that followed President Reagan's death at the age of 93 ended Friday evening as the flag-draped casket of the nation's 40th president was brought to its final resting place in his beloved Southern California hills.

The Reagan family bid a final and personal farewell to the political icon in a ceremony at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley that was conducted only a matter of hours after the nation's formal state funeral at the National Cathedral in Washington.

"We have come from sea to shining sea to this soil he loved so much and where his body will remain," the Rev. Michael H. Wenning said as more than 700 family members and long-time associates from the worlds of business, entertainment and politics looked on in respectful silence.

The ceremony was carried out under a brilliant sun that slowly descended toward the waters of the Pacific visible from the hilltop venue in the brush-covered hills north of Los Angeles and not far from the famous Santa Barbara ranch that was his retreat during his presidency.

It was there, so close to the ranch that was their second home that the Reagan family spoke publicly for the first time since he died last Saturday at age 93 after a long, brutal and eventually losing battle with the ravages of Alzheimer's disease.

"I don't know why Alzheimer's was allowed to steal so much of our father before releasing him into the arms of death," daughter Patti Davis told the solemn audience, most dressed in black with their graying heads bathed in the light of the gradually setting sun.

"When he opened his eyes one last time and looked at my mother," Davis continued, "he showed us that neither disease nor death can conquer love."

Reagan's son, Ronald Prescott Reagan, said his dad had the admirable quality of treating everyone with equal respect be they "shopkeeper or doorman, or king or queen."

"As big as he was," the younger Reagan said, "He never tried to make anyone feel small."

Reagan's widow, Nancy, did not speak as the ceremony that ended a grueling week of grief mixed with the strict timetables of the military funeral proceedings that began on Monday when she arrived at the Santa Monica funeral home on the sturdy arm of her now-familiar escort, Maj. Gen. Galen Jackman, commander of the Washington Military District.

The diminutive 82-year-old former first lady, dressed in black with a gold necklace and matching earrings, watched quietly as the casket was carried by an honor guard of military enlisted men following a kilted Scottish bagpiper to a white marble podium at the spot of eternal rest, which a family spokesman had earlier described as "overlooking the ocean and under the oak trees."

Wenning publicly thanked Mrs. Reagan for being by the president's side for so long, particularly in the tough final years of her husband's final decline.

"Yours was truly a glorious friendship based on mutual love and respect, and we thank you for it," he said.

The toll on Mrs. Reagan became painfully evident at the end when she tearfully leaned against the casket while Davis and son Michael Reagan comforted her; the only sounds heard were the furious clicking of press corps cameras.

When Navy Capt. James A. Symonds, the white-gloved commander of the newly commissioned aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, presented Mrs. Reagan with the flag from the casket, it was the final act in a pageant of emotion and pageantry the reached its high point earlier Friday

In one of the largest ceremonies of its kind in the past half a century, four statesmen, including President Bush and his father, former President George H.W. Bush, eulogized one of the nation's most popular presidents, a man who oversaw the fall of the Soviet empire and a reinvigoration of national pride.

"Our 40th president wore his title lightly, and it fit like a white Stetson," President Bush said in his eulogy of his predecessor. "In the end, through his belief in our country and his love for our country, he became an enduring symbol of our country."

"We have lost a great president, a great American, and a great man," former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said in her eulogy, which was taped in advance due to her own failing health.

All five living presidents -- both Bushes along with Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton -- attended the funeral at the Cathedral, which was filled to capacity.

"Politics can be cruel, uncivil," George H.W. Bush said. "Our friend was strong and gentle. Once, he called America hopeful, big-hearted, idealistic, daring, decent and fair. That was America and, yes, our friend."

The former president became choked up when he related what he had learned while working as vice president under Reagan during his two terms in office.

"I learned more from Ronald Reagan than from anyone I encountered in all my years of public life. I learned kindness -- we all did," he said with a smile.

"And I learned decency -- the whole world did," he later added.

One element of Reagan's legacy, his hard-line stance against the Soviet Union, which he called an "Evil Empire," was mentioned often Friday as former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev looked on from the packed pews.

Thatcher, who was present Friday in Washington and in California, spoke in her eulogy about Reagan's achievements in the years both leaders were in office.

"Others hoped, at best, for an uneasy cohabitation with the Soviet Union," she said. "He won the Cold War, not only without firing a shot, but also by inviting enemies out of their fortresses and turning them into friends."

The incumbent President Bush also addressed the final showdown with the Soviets, which many Reagan admirers believe will be Reagan's greatest achievement when reviewed by historians.

President Bush said: "When he saw evil camped across the horizon, he called that evil by its name. There were no doubters in the shipyards and churches and secret labor meetings where brave men and women began to hear the creaking and rumbling of a collapsing empire."

"And there were no doubters among those who swung hammers at the hated wall that was the first and hardest blow that had been struck by President Ronald Reagan," he said, referring to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The confluence of Reagan's economic and military polices -- which involved bankrupting the Soviet Union through the arms race -- created a decade of unprecedented growth, but also a record budget deficit. But the speakers at the cathedral focused as much on Reagan's personality as on his policies.

"Ronald Reagan was a president who inspired his nation and transformed the world," said former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

"He possessed a rare and prized gift called leadership -- that ineffable and 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."

The ceremony went almost exactly according to schedule, with the procession leaving the Capitol at 10:30 a.m. to begin its four-mile journey to the National Cathedral.

Reagan's body originally was laid in repose at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, where the family held a private ceremony Monday. More than 100,000 visitors streamed in to pay their respects, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

The body was transported to Washington Wednesday where it lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda. More than 104,000 people filed past Reagan's flag-draped coffin over the next two days, Wednesday and Thursday, with a wait time running from 45 minutes to five hours, a spokeswoman with the Capitol Police told United Press International.

Hundreds of onlookers gathered to watch the procession to the Cathedral, just as they did when it traveled to the Capitol. But most onlookers turned out despite the rain to honor the president.

Juan Carlos Ginarte said he had been paying his respects to the president since Thursday night when he waited seven hours overnight at the Capitol to view Reagan's body, after which he headed to the National Cathedral.

"Ronald Reagan can be criticized for many things, but he did stimulate the economy with tax cuts as well as confront enemies head on," Ginarte pointed out respectfully.

President Bush returned to Washington late Thursday from Sea Island, Ga., where he had hosted the G8 summit. His first stop on returning was the Capitol where he and the first lady paid their respects.

Bush had declared Friday to be a national day of mourning. Most government offices around the nation were closed and flags remained at half-staff as they had throughout the week.

(With reporting by Marie Horrigan in Washington)

(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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