Mourners from the top ranks of Washington and Hollywood paid final tribute to Nancy Reagan on Friday, recalling at her funeral how the former first lady and her husband made up “two halves of a circle,” with a legendary love that seemed to inspire everyone they met.
Inseparable in life, the pair were to be reunited in death in side-by-side graves at Ronald Reagan’s presidential library.
During a service filled with poignant and often humorous memories, each speaker came back to the couple’s love story.
“When they were together, he hid love notes around the house for her to find,” said Reagan’s former chief of staff, James Baker. “She reciprocated by secreting little notes in jellybeans in his suitcase.
“Ronald and Nancy Reagan were defined by their love for each other,” Baker added. “They were as close to being one person as it is possible for any two people to be.”
Although many speakers invoked the president’s name, they were also quick to add that Mrs. Reagan was more than just a supportive wife. She was a force of nature herself.
“There would be no Ronald Reagan Presidential Library without a President Ronald Reagan, and there likely wouldn’t have been a President Ronald Reagan without a Nancy Reagan,” said the couple’s son, Ron Reagan.
It was her belief in what her husband could accomplish that gave his father the “chutzpah” to seek political office, he added.
“It would be a mistake, by the way, to consider her as somehow subordinate to him just because he was the one usually taking the center stage,” Reagan said. “They were co-equals. They complemented one another.”
While her husband was affable, Mrs. Reagan could be loving, friendly and quick to laugh. But, if anyone did anything she thought was harmful to her husband, she was fiercely protective and sometimes quick to anger.
Former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw recalled that when he once questioned the hard-luck story of the president’s early life, Mrs. Reagan was so angry that Reagan’s own staff advised him to stay away from the White House until she calmed down. Reagan didn’t mind the criticism, Brokaw said, but his wife did.
“Occasionally I’ve thought that even God might not have the guts to argue with Nancy Reagan,” the couple’s daughter, Patti Davis, quipped.
For his part, Reagan spoke in public so warmly, and so often, about his wife, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney recalled, that he once told Reagan he was making every other world leader look bad in front of their wives.
“Well, Brian,” he said the president told him with a smile, “That’s your problem.”
A waterproof tent was put up behind the library to shield its 1,000 invited guests from a rainy forecast. Although it sprinkled lightly during the 90-minute ceremony, the heavens didn’t open up into a full downpour until its conclusion, forcing guests to open umbrellas as they left.
Among those in the front row were first lady Michelle Obama, who was seated next to former President George W. Bush. Hillary Clinton sat between Bush’s wife, Laura, and former first lady Rosalynn Carter.
The sprawling, Spanish mission-style library is located between the Reagan’s post-White House home in the upscale Bel Air section of Los Angeles and Rancho del Cielo, the “ranch in the sky” where the Reagans spent their leisure time, sometimes on horseback, in the rugged mountains near Santa Barbara.
The guest list for the funeral told the story of the couple’s life together, which stretched from Hollywood’s Golden Age to the California statehouse during Reagan’s time as governor to Washington.
Mourners included former Reagan administration official Ed Meese, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Mike Love of the Beach Boys and singer Johnny Mathis.
As the group gathered briefly outside the library to chat, Mathis reminisced about how he and Mrs. Reagan would sing together during his visits to the Reagan family home. Their favorite song: “Our Love is Here to Stay.”
The memorial service brought together Democrat and Republican, an unusual tableau at a time of deep division in Washington and on the 2016 campaign trail.
On Wednesday and Thursday at the library, more than 5,500 mourners filed slowly past the former first lady’s closed casket, blanketed with white roses and peonies, Mrs. Reagan’s favorite flower.
Tears often fell. The crowd, many in graying years, spoke to a time when it was “morning again in America” and the nation followed the Reagan doctrine to weaken Soviet influence during the Cold War.
Reagan left the presidency after eight years, on January 20, 1989.
“Ronald Reagan was one of the best presidents we’ve ever had, and I admired them both as a couple for their love story and the support they showed to each other,” said retired school teacher Mary Ellen Gruendyke, from Riverside.
Mrs. Reagan, who died Sunday at 94, planned the smallest details of her funeral. She selected the funeral’s flower arrangements, the music to be played by a Marine Corps band and the list of guests invited to the private memorial.
The library site, where the 40th president was buried in 2004, provides sweeping views of horse country dotted with oaks and, on a clear day, a vista to the Pacific.
The Reagans “just fell in love” with the spot, Boston developer and Republican fundraiser Gerald Blakeley recalled in a 2004 interview. He was part of a partnership that donated the land where the library now sits.
SOURCE: The Associated Press
Michael R. Blood