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FAREWELL TO A PRESIDENT

Reagan Buried at His Library

His children reflect on the father they knew. Earlier in Washington, he is eulogized in a solemn state funeral at the National Cathedral.

June 12, 2004|Faye Fiore, Vicki Kemper and Daryl Kelley | Times Staff Writers

Ronald Wilson Reagan, the nation's 40th president, was buried on a golden Southern California hilltop Friday, after a funeral in Washington National Cathedral attended by hundreds of world leaders, past and present.

The ceremonies ended a week of mourning and majesty that honored the uniquely American figure who was credited with hastening the end of the Cold War. Reagan died June 5 at 93.

A presidential jet delivered his body to California, where the former statesman and showman was laid to rest in a horseshoe-shaped burial site at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library -- shaded by seven oak trees and overlooking a panoramic farm valley, with the Pacific Ocean beyond.

The day began in the gray mist of a Washington drizzle and ended in the glow of a California sunset. Formal tributes in the nation's capital gave way to the more intimate embrace of the Santa Susana Mountains and the tender memories of the children who loved him.

Michael Reagan spoke of his father's gift of Christian faith and his advice on how to have a long and happy marriage: "You'll never get in trouble if you say 'I love you' at least once a day."

Patti Davis recounted how the man who would be president taught his daughter about death by helping her bury her goldfish.

And Ronald Prescott Reagan talked about his father's optimism, his struggle with Alzheimer's disease and his last trip home: "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."

Luminaries and laymen on both coasts searched Friday for ways to honor the son of a Midwestern shoe salesman who had risen to Hollywood celebrity, the California governorship and a presidency that spawned a conservative era in American politics.

"Ronald Reagan belongs to the ages now, but we preferred it when he belonged to us," President Bush said during an interfaith service in the majestic cathedral, where about 3,500 people gathered in one of the greatest assemblages of power and influence the capital had seen in decades. "When the sun sets tonight off the coast of California and we lay to rest our 40th president, a great American story will close."

It was a ceremony of solemn music and soaring tribute. Bush's voice cracked once; his father, President George H.W. Bush, fought back tears. But for Nancy Reagan, 82, her husband's companion and fierce protector throughout public life, it was a day spent letting go.

"There was only one person he said could make him lonely by just leaving the room," President Bush said in one of several nods to the former first lady, who looked frail and spent as she persevered through the seventh straight day of public mourning. "America honors you, Nancy, for the loyalty and love you gave this man on a wonderful journey."

On his last day, in his last moments, Reagan himself had paid mute tribute to his beloved wife. In her graveside eulogy at the presidential library, Davis described her father's end: "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."

Only hours before the Washington service began, the public viewing of the casket --draped in the flag that flew over the Capitol the day Reagan was inaugurated in 1981 -- came to an end in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. An estimated 104,000 people had filed past in 36 hours.

Friday morning before leaving Blair House, the official residence of White House guests, Mrs. Reagan met with the personal staff from her own White House days -- including her maid, ushers, pastry chef, gardener and the president's valet.

Shortly afterward, Mrs. Reagan rode to the Capitol, where she stood in the ornate Rotunda, alone at her husband's side. She rubbed her hands over the cloth and spoke words no one could hear. Then she bent to kiss the coffin, reached for the arm of her military escort, hesitated and turned back for one final pat.

Three World War II-vintage howitzers cracked a 21-gun salute before nine military pallbearers ferried the casket to a waiting hearse for the 4 1/2-mile processional to the cathedral. Mrs. Reagan, her face strained but focused, watched until the coffin slid safely into the hearse, a black umbrella held by a gloved military attendant shielding her from the rain.

Outside the cathedral, the mahogany coffin -- said to be larger and more ornate than any used for former presidents -- glided from the back of the hearse to a chorus of "Hail to the Chief," a tune Reagan loved even more than most. He saluted crisply whenever he heard it.

The 90-minute service was timed to the second. At 11:18, the church fell silent. The coffin passed through the door at precisely 11:30. After Mrs. Reagan was escorted down the aisle, President Bush stood to meet her and clasp her hand. She was seated beside her children and Michael Reagan, the son of the former president and his first wife, actress Jane Wyman.

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