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Bush's Tribute to a Lofty Symbol

The chief executive helps dedicate the Reagan library's new Air Force One exhibit and links terrorism fight to battle against communism.

October 22, 2005|Steve Chawkins and Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writers

In a sentimental tribute, President Bush came to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Simi Valley on Friday to dedicate a permanent museum display of the Boeing 707 used by the 40th president as his flying White House.

In a cavernous building that virtually doubles the library's size, the retired Air Force One served as a backdrop for a speech in which Bush likened Reagan's successful challenge of communism with his own battles against Islamic terrorists.

Pointing out that the gleaming jet flew Reagan to Berlin for his famous demand to "tear down this wall," Bush drew enthusiastic applause from the crowd of about 500 invited guests.

"The key to victory lay in our resolve to stay in the fight till the fight was won," Bush told the cheering audience, which was peppered with former Reagan staffers and Republican dignitaries. Like communism, he said, "Islamic radicalism is doomed to fail."

As president, Bush has rarely attended ribbon-cutting ceremonies. The last time was more than four years ago, in San Antonio at the dedication of the San Jose Mission. But styling himself as Reagan's political heir, Bush made the cross-country trip to Simi Valley with First Lady Laura Bush and shared the platform with Reagan's widow, Nancy.

The 84-year-old former first lady spoke briefly, praising library officials for making the jet a walk-through showpiece devoted to her husband's memory.

Emblazoned with a U.S. flag and the words "United States of America," the 52-passenger jet served the seven chief executives from Richard Nixon to, briefly, George W. Bush. Reagan, with his two-term presidency, used it the most.

"The completion of this project is the realization of Ronnie's dream: to attract individuals from all walks of life to his library so they might learn about the presidency and American leadership in the world," Nancy Reagan said.

The plane carried Nixon on his historic trip to China and returned him to California after he resigned the presidency in disgrace. Gerald Ford famously tumbled down its last four steps on a trip to Salzburg, Austria. It transported Reagan more than 630,000 miles on 211 missions to 26 countries.

With its three sets of wheels resting on concrete pedestals and its nose pointed toward an immense glass wall, Air Force One dominates its airy three-level building. The pavilion opens to the public at 10 a.m. Monday.

Inside the 33-year-old plane, visitors can see Reagan's flight jacket casually draped over a chair, his fax machine, an old-fashioned dial telephone -- everyday items endowed with the aura of history.

Reagan's celebrated speech at the Berlin Wall is tucked into the carriage of a Selectric II typewriter.

On a writing desk beside a window are undated handwritten letters to ordinary people that Reagan wrote on a yellow legal pad.

In one, he apologizes to a Mrs. Patricia Brady in Wadsworth, Ohio, for saying something that made him appear unsympathetic to "those who, for no fault of their own, are victims of this recession."

When he wasn't writing letters or poring through briefing books, Reagan, by all accounts, loved to joke. In his speech, Bush said the president would spot exhausted aides napping, strike an exasperated pose beside them and summon his photographer. A photo Reagan later gave to George Shultz, his secretary of State, was inscribed: "Wake up, George: The Soviets are coming!"

Nancy Reagan had her own office on Air Force One, and separate seating areas were set aside for staffers and the media.

Touring the plane Friday, Lee F. Simmons, a steward for both Nixon and Ford, said he was overwhelmed to be aboard again.

"It's just magnificent," he said, pointing out Nancy Reagan's stationery and the seats once occupied by Tom Brokaw and Diane Sawyer. "I'm just as proud as I can be of it."

Simmons, a Palm Desert resident, still works in nearby Rancho Mirage for Ford, who has named him "a special assistant."

American Airlines executive Steve Chealander also had vivid memories of his time on Air Force One. As Reagan's military aide, he safeguarded the satchel that contains the nuclear launch codes required for an attack.

"I was the guy who carried the football," said Chealander, a former pilot with the Air Force Thunderbirds precision-flying team.

In addition to Air Force One, the pavilion features Marine One, a helicopter used by Reagan. It also has a reconstructed Irish pub from Reagan's ancestral village in County Tipperary.

Friday's guests included members of California's congressional delegation; Reagan advisor Michael Deaver; his attorney general, Edwin Meese; and former California Gov. Pete Wilson. Singled out for special praise was Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens, whose donation of $10 million to the Air Force One campaign was announced this week.

The plane was donated to the library by the Air Force in 2001. Boeing paid for its painstaking disassembly at an airfield in San Bernardino and its reconstruction at the Reagan library, where a building was partially built around it.

Before the unveiling ceremony, the president and first lady spent the night in Los Angeles, where they attended a Republican fundraiser. At the library, they laid a wreath at Reagan's grave before returning to Washington.

Mired in the lowest job-approval ratings of his presidency, Bush is being attacked by the left and some on the right over such issues as the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, the government's deficit spending and the nomination of Harriet E. Miers to the Supreme Court.

Some Republicans thought his effort to reassert his link with the Reagan legacy made sense.

"It's not just getting out of Washington," said Kenneth M. Duberstein, who served as Reagan's chief of staff. "I think the identification with Reagan is a significant plus."

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