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Reagan's Inner Circle Setting Stage

Military pomp will add traditional precision to the funeral of the former president who was once considered 'Mr. Hollywood.'

June 09, 2004|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Ronald Reagan will return to Washington for the last time today, surrounded by the inner circle of advisors who helped propel him from the back lots of Hollywood to the world stage of the presidency.

When former First Lady Nancy Reagan descends the steps of a plane carrying Reagan's casket from California, she will be accompanied by Charles Z. Wick -- a lawyer and part of the "kitchen cabinet" that financed Reagan's first run for the governor's office in 1966 -- and Merv Griffin, the entertainer who knew Reagan as an actor and a friend. Both are to serve as honorary pallbearers.

Reagan's funeral on Friday will feature an extensive display of diplomatic names and a military ceremony. But the three-day tribute in Washington is more than a tearful send-off to a president. For those who knew Reagan and worked for him -- and especially for those who made the journey with him from Hollywood to Washington -- it is the last public reunion of an administration that was seen as the epitome of style and substance of its day.

"There is a lot of nostalgia," said Sheila Tate, Mrs. Reagan's press secretary. "It's the end of an era for us. To a man and a woman, you will not find anyone who doesn't feel enormous pride they worked for Ronald Reagan."

As news spread Saturday that Reagan had died at 93, after 10 years with Alzheimer's disease, devotees began phoning, calling, planning. Reagan's band of advance men -- considered by many the gold standard in political events -- began voluntarily converging on Washington to help coordinate the logistics of his funeral, Tate said.

Buffy Cafritz, a Washington hostess, said she started planning a dinner party for the inner circle. In an e-mail to its members, the Reagan Alumni Assn. said there would be a reception Friday at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, not far from the White House, where 10 members of his Cabinet were to take the stage to celebrate his presidency.

For the aides who had devoted themselves to the success of any administration, the death of a president is heart-wrenching.

On Nov. 22, 1963, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Jack Valenti -- then an aide to Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson -- was on Air Force One when Kennedy's body was flown from Dallas to Washington.

"I watched those Kennedy aides in total unfathomable grief, so deep and so penetrating beyond measure," Valenti recalled. "It was totally unexpected. One minute they were in the shadow of the sun. The next, in darkness."

Reagan's Alzheimer's kept him from the company of former aides in his last years. "President Reagan's is a bittersweet departure," said Valenti, who is now president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America. "I know they are filled with nostalgia. There's a great exultation they were part of something."

For those making the trip from California, the events of the next three days will be filled with angst and appreciation. In an interview, Griffin said he thought Mrs. Reagan had invited him to be a pallbearer because, in addition to the Washington crowd, "they wanted to have a friend there." On receiving the invitation, he said he told her, "You've given me the greatest honor of my life, and one of the toughest."

Many Hollywood friends will not be in Washington, but instead will pay their respects at the burial service at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Simi Valley on Friday, said A.C. Lyles, a producer at Paramount and a longtime friend.

"Reagan was the most important figure that ever came from Hollywood," said Lyles, who first met Reagan in 1936. "For years, he was Mr. Hollywood, when he was an actor and when he was president of the Screen Actors' Guild. I told friends in 1958 he would become president of the United States. If you met Elizabeth Taylor when she was young, you knew she would grow up to be beautiful. If you met Ronald Reagan, you knew he was destined to be president."

Among those who served in the Reagan administration, emotion about that era transcends nostalgia. There is a core conviction among the Reagan inner circle that he was a giant in policy and personality, and that history would record both.

Selwa "Lucky" Roosevelt, who served as Reagan's chief of protocol, waxed lyrical about her former boss. "He was just sunshine, never cloudy," she said. "When he walked in the room, you knew you were in the presence of a leader. We feel a very strong bond and a sense of honor that we served this president."

Peter J. Wallison, Reagan's White House counsel, talked about the former president's steadfast belief in principle. "The economy did not surge ahead because of one man's optimism, and the Soviet Union did not collapse from force of personality," he said. "It was his ideas that ultimately account for his success. Reagan said he was not a great communicator, he communicated great things."

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