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FAREWELL TO A PRESIDENT

Reagan-Era Leaders Comfort First Lady

Britain's Thatcher and Soviet foe-turned-ally Gorbachev are among those paying respects.

June 11, 2004|Johanna Neuman and Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — They once commanded power in the world's capitals, at a time when superpower tensions gripped the globe.

Older now and long gone from power, they came Thursday to pay their condolences to former First Lady Nancy Reagan at Blair House, the presidential guest quarters across from the White House. They reminisced about former President Reagan's achievements in Cold War diplomacy and recalled his humor and his principles.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, 78, came first, walking slowly. The woman once called the Iron Lady, whose special relationship with Reagan prompted many an editorial cartoon depicting Ronnie and Maggie, has been so weakened by strokes that her eulogy for today's memorial has been recorded.

It was Thatcher who told Reagan that Mikhail S. Gorbachev was a man "we can do business" with.

Gorbachev, 73, came later in the afternoon to see Mrs. Reagan. At his side was Pavel Palazhchenko, the former Soviet leader's translator at five summits with Reagan -- most famously in Reykjavik, Iceland, where the two were ready to sign a staged elimination of intermediate-range missiles until Reagan refused to abandon his Strategic Defense Initiative. Gorbachev has said that Reagan "kick-started the process which ultimately put an end to the Cold War."

In a leather condolence book, Thatcher quoted from the parable of the talents in Gospel of Matthew: "Well done, thou good and faithful servant." Theirs was the tenacious bond of conservative colleagues, a conviction that military might and economic decentralization were the keys to vibrant democracy, the kind they hoped to bequeath to Gorbachev's Soviet Union.

Missing from the alliance of Cold War titans who came Thursday was Helmut Kohl, the former German chancellor who gave the Reagans a moment of pain in 1985 when he invited the president to lay a wreath at a cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, where Nazi SS troops are buried. The event caused an international storm -- and the Reagans added a stop at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Still, the leaders maintained a strong bond.

Kohl, now 74, had been invited to attend the funeral but was traveling in China.

Yasuhiro Nakasone, 86, came to Blair House and recalled his intimate moments with the 40th president. They called each other Ron and Yasu, and they remained friends once they left office. When the former Japanese prime minister visited Reagan at his library near Simi Valley, Reagan gave him a personal tour of the grounds, showing him the place where he and Nancy would be buried.

He shared that memory Thursday with Mrs. Reagan. He shared this one too: At a diplomatic gathering, chocolate cake was served. Reagan told Nakasone that he had to eat it in a hurry because Mrs. Reagan didn't normally allow him to have such rich desserts.

Brian Mulroney, at 65 years old the junior member of the crowd -- his jaw as movie-actor firm as when he was prime minister of Canada -- recalled teasing Reagan about the Los Angeles Kings, saying the hockey team would not have been a championship contender if it had not imported superstar Wayne Gretzky from Canada.

Well, Reagan told him, that's free trade.

The two were close friends, and Mulroney once ribbed Reagan about the president's popularity. Mulroney had read a newspaper headline saying Reagan's popularity had plummeted to 59%. "So I called the president at Camp David [Md.] and I asked him whether he had seen this," Mulroney recalled in a speech as Reagan was leaving office. "He said, 'Yes,' and he was feeling a little down. I said: 'Ron, I don't know how to break this to you, but 59% is all that Margaret, Helmut and I will get together.' "

Mrs. Reagan, described by Mulroney as "in relatively good shape given the very painful circumstances," spent the day with family and close aides. She visited with the leaders for about 15 minutes each.

Also there Thursday were Nancy Kassebaum Baker, a former Republican senator from Kansas, and her husband, Howard H. Baker Jr. -- a former Tennessee senator, once Republican Senate majority leader and Reagan's chief of staff, and now ambassador to Japan. Kassebaum came out of Blair House with a commemorative box of jelly beans, Reagan's favorite treat.

Kassebaum said she told Mrs. Reagan that "just like President Reagan, she was showing grace and dignity."

Thursday was planned to give Mrs. Reagan an opportunity to recover from the days of emotional outpouring and ceremony since her husband's death Saturday. She had no appointments in the morning. Dinner was at 6:30 p.m. President and First Lady Laura Bush came by before 8 p.m.

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