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FAREWELL TO A PRESIDENT

Funeral Calls Rare Meeting of Ex-Presidents Club

Reagan services will mark the first gathering of living former chief executives since 1994.

June 09, 2004|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The death of former President Reagan shrank by one the membership of the nation's most elite political alumni club, and it will result in a rare reunion for a unique bipartisan bunch.

Former Presidents Ford, Carter, George H.W. Bush and Clinton are all expected at Friday's state funeral, renewing a focus on their relationships with Reagan and with each other.

(President George W. Bush also will attend.)

In 1976, Reagan unsuccessfully challenged Ford, then the incumbent, for the Republican presidential nomination; Carter then beat Ford in the general election. In 1980, Reagan beat Bush for the GOP nomination, then considered Ford for the vice presidential spot before naming the elder Bush; the Reagan-Bush team defeated Carter that November. In 1992, Clinton defeated Bush, who had been elected president in 1988.

Friday's funeral will be the first time there has been a gathering of all former living presidents since Richard Nixon's funeral in April 1994 -- one of Reagan's last public appearances. Later that year, he announced he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

Reagan's death Saturday offered a reminder of the contrasting styles of the former Oval Office occupants.

While each issued a statement, Carter -- widely considered to have harbored lingering soreness over his landslide loss to the former actor -- did not address Reagan's death until Sunday, and even then his statement focused on the election defeat.

"I probably know as well as anybody what a formidable communicator and campaigner that President Reagan was," Carter said before teaching Sunday school in Plains, Ga. "It was because of him that I was retired from my last job."

A spokeswoman for Carter said his reaction was delayed "for strictly logistical reasons." On Saturday, he was attending a ceremony at which a nuclear submarine was named for him.

Carter's office released a lengthier -- and almost self-critical -- written statement Monday crediting Reagan for providing "an inspirational voice to America when our people were searching for a clear message of hope and confidence."

In contrast to Carter, the only living two-term president -- Clinton -- offered immediate praise of Reagan, even hitting the television circuit to follow up an effusive written statement.

"Clinton very much admired Reagan and was happy to have the same sort of exuberant American idealism and optimism," said Paul Begala, a top aide in the Clinton White House. "I never heard Bill Clinton utter a cross word about him."

The same could not be said, though, about relations between Clinton and the previous Democrat in the White House. There was some tension when Clinton was president and Carter pursued his own diplomatic goals in places such as Cuba, Haiti and North Korea -- not always in concert with the administration in power.

Still, friends say Clinton seeks to emulate the post-White House life of his fellow Southerner, who chairs the Carter Center, a human rights foundation in Atlanta, and is active in Habitat for Humanity.

"He considers Carter to be one of the great post-presidents," said Ira Leesfield, a Miami lawyer and Clinton friend.

And despite their 1980 rivalry for the vice presidential nod from Reagan, Bush and Ford have built a post-presidential rapport, friends say. Bush visits Ford in Rancho Mirage about twice a year to play golf, said Ford's chief of staff, Penny Circle.

But Ford has had a higher-profile alliance with the man who ousted him from office, joining Carter in a quest to encourage free television time for candidates.

The two are honorary co-chairmen of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, a Washington-based campaign reform group.

Of his 1976 challenge with Reagan, Ford said Tuesday that he never held a grudge. "That was a big, important battle between Gov. Reagan and myself, but it turned out that we became very warm friends," Ford told CNN's "Larry King Live."

Ironically, the Bushes can thank Ford for their political fortunes. In a Detroit hotel room in 1980, Ford told CNN on Tuesday, Reagan asked him to be his running mate.

"I said, 'Governor, I don't want to -- let me think it over in deference to your request,' " Ford said. "We negotiated back and forth, and it was very obvious that it was better for [Bush] to run as the candidate and let me campaign on his behalf."

Bush got the nod as No. 2.

And Bush and Clinton, the two most recent former chief executives, have apparently gotten over a nasty campaign in which Bush branded the Arkansan a "bozo" and Clinton accused the incumbent of coddling dictators.

"I'm very grateful to President Clinton, who, fair and square, saw to it that I have a wonderful private life," Bush said at his presidential library opening in 1997.

That same day, Clinton, then still the president, offered a glimpse into the tie that binds the alumni club.

"It's hard to express ... what it means in a moment of difficulty to be able to call someone who, first of all, knows exactly what you're up against and, secondly, will tell you the truth," Clinton said.

Relations among the four are cordial, associates say. Despite their political differences, the former heads of state stand as symbols of American democracy -- retired ministers for a "secular religion," as Princeton University presidential historian Fred I. Greenstein put it.

"They're in a small fraternity of people who know that their names are going to be in the history books," said Greenstein. "That makes for a solidarity in and of itself."

Times staff writer James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.

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