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A Nation’s Farewell

June 11, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: The nation said its official farewells to Ronald Reagan today. The day of ceremony began with a national memorial service for the former president in Washington. Then, Mr. Reagan’s body was flown back to Simi Valley, California, for a private funeral and burial. Kwame Holman narrates our extended summary of the day’s events.

KWAME HOLMAN: On a cool June morning shrouded by darkened skies, some 4,000 invited guests began arriving at Washington’s National Cathedral two hours before the funeral for Ronald Reagan was to begin. And as the gathering inside began to grow, it took on the look of a major international event.

There were prominent Republicans, including former members of President Reagan’s administration– his chiefs of staff Alexander Haig and James Baker; George Schultz, his secretary of state. And there was former President Gerald Ford, former Vice President Dan Quayle, and former Senator Bob Dole. Prominent democrats also were in attendance: Former President bill Clinton and Senator Hillary Clinton; former Vice President Al Gore; and former President Carter chatted with his vice president, Walter Mondale. Among the foreign dignitaries, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, and Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan; British prime minister Tony Blair; and Charles, Prince of Wales.

There, the hundreds of dignitaries, many of whom had dealt with each other during more stressful diplomatic and political times, smiled and chatted in the aisles and across the pews. All had come to celebrate the life of Ronald Reagan. Meanwhile at the rotunda of the United States capitol, former first lady Nancy Reagan approached the casket where her husband’s body lain in state since Wednesday evening. Then a military guard lifted the casket and began the slow procession to the hearse for the procession to the National Cathedral. It’s estimated that 105,000 people visited the rotunda to pay their respects to the former president. And by the time the funeral procession began to wind its way through the streets of Washington en route to the cathedral, the invited guests inside had taken their seats in anticipation of its arrival.

A short time later, the procession drew to the front of the cathedral for a funeral service that had been planned well in advance, and down to the minute, all according to the historical and military tradition for state funerals, and in close consultation with the Reagan family. First there was a brief ceremony on the cathedral steps. (Music playing ) Afterwards, the casket was carried inside and down the aisle at a deliberate pace. Former Missouri Senator John Danforth, an Episcopal minister, began the service with a prayer.

REV. JOHN DANFORTH: I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.

KWAME HOLMAN: In planning for his funeral, President Reagan himself had selected those he wished to speak at the service. Among them was Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who was nominated by President Reagan. She read from John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon to the pilgrims that inspired President Reagan’s description of America as a shining “city upon a hill.”

SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR: Now the only way to provide for our posterity is to follow counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. The Lord will be our God, and delight will dwell among us, as His own people, for we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

KWAME HOLMAN: Former British Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher was a close friend of President Reagan’s. Thatcher, who has suffered a series of small strokes, previously videotaped her tribute to Mr. Reagan.

LADY MARGARET THATCHER: We have lost a great president, a great American and a great man. And I have lost a dear friend.

In his lifetime, Ronald Reagan was such a cheerful and invigorating presence that it was easy to forget what daunting historic tasks he set himself. He sought to mend America’s wounded spirit, to restore the strength of the free world, and to free the slaves of communism. These were causes hard to accomplish and heavy with risk, yet they were pursued with almost a lightness of spirit.

For Ronald Reagan also embodied another great cause, what Arnold Bennett once called “the great cause of cheering us all up.” His politics had a freshness and optimism that won converts from every class and every nation, and ultimately from the very heart of the evil empire. Yet his humor often had a purpose beyond humor.

In the terrible hours after the attempt on his life, his easy jokes gave reassurance to an anxious world. They were evidence that in the aftermath of terror and in the midst of hysteria, one great heart at least remained sane and jocular. They were truly grace under pressure. And perhaps they signified grace of a deeper kind. Ronnie himself certainly believed that he had been given back his life for a purpose. As he told a priest after his recovery: “Whatever time I’ve got left now belongs to the big ‘fella upstairs.”

And surely it is hard to deny that Ronald Reagan’s life was providential when we look at what he achieved in the eight years that followed. Others prophesied the decline of the west; he inspired America and its allies with renewed faith in their mission of freedom. Others saw only limits to growth; he transformed a stagnant economy into an engine of opportunity. Others hoped, at best, for an uneasy cohabitation with the Soviet Union; he won the Cold War, not only without firing a shot, but also by inviting enemies out of their fortress and turning them into friends.

I cannot imagine how any diplomat or any dramatist could improve on his words to Mikhail Gorbachev at the Geneva summit: “Let me tell you why it is we distrust you.”

Those words are candid and tough, and they cannot have been easy to hear. But they are also a clear invitation to a new beginning and a new relationship that would be rooted in trust. Ronald Reagan knew his own mind. He had firm principles, and, I believe, right ones. He expounded them clearly. He acted upon them decisively.

For the final years of his life, Ronnie’s mind was clouded by illness. That cloud has now lifted. He is himself again– more himself than at any time on this earth. For we may be sure that the big ‘fella upstairs never forgets those who remember him. And as the last journey of this faithful pilgrim took him beyond the sunset, and as heaven’s morning broke, I like to think, in the words of Bunyan, that “all the trumpets sounded on the other side.” We here still move in twilight. But we have one beacon to guide us that Ronald Reagan never had. We have his example. Let us give thanks today for a life that achieved so much for all of God’s children.

KWAME HOLMAN: Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, also a close friend of the Reagan’s, spoke next.

BRIAN MULRONEY: In the spring of 1987, President Reagan and I were driven into a large hangar at the Ottawa Airport to await the arrival of Mrs. Reagan and my wife, Mila, prior to departure ceremonies for their return to Washington. We were alone, except for the security details. President Reagan’s visit had been important, demanding and successful.

Our discussions reflected the international agenda of the times: The nuclear threat posed by the Soviet Union and the missile deployment by NATO; pressures on the Warsaw Pact; challenges resulting from the Berlin Wall and the ongoing separation of Germany; and bilateral and hemispheric free trade. President Reagan had spoken to parliament, handled complex files with skill and good humor, strongly impressing his Canadian hosts. And here we were, waiting for our wives.

When their car drove in a moment later, out stepped Nancy and Mila, looking like a million bucks. And as they headed towards us, President Reagan beamed. He threw his arm around my shoulder and he said, with a grin, “you know, Brian, for two Irishmen we sure married up.”

In that visit, in that moment, one saw the quintessential Ronald Reagan: The leader we respected, the neighbor we admired, and the friend we loved; the president of the United States of America, whose truly remarkable life we celebrate in this magnificent cathedral today.

Ronald Reagan does not enter history tentatively. He does so with certainty and panache. At home and on the world stage, he possessed a rare and prized gift called leadership that ineffable and magical quality that sets some men and women apart so that millions will follow them as they conjure up grand visions and invite their countrymen to dream big and exciting dreams.

I always thought that President Reagan’s understanding of the nobility of the presidency coincided with that American dream. I have been truly blessed to have been a friend of Ronald Reagan. I am grateful that our paths crossed and that our lives touched. I shall always remember him with the deepest admiration and affection. And I will always feel honored by the journey that we traveled together in search of better and more peaceful tomorrows for all God’s children everywhere.

And so in the presence of his beloved and indispensable Nancy, his children, his family and his friends, and all of the American people that he so deeply revered, I say au revoir today to a gifted leader, an historic president, and a gracious human being. And I do so with a line from Yeats, who wrote, “Think where man’s glory most begins and ends, and say my glory was that I had such friends.”

KWAME HOLMAN: Former President George Bush, Mr. Reagan’s vice president during both terms, delivered a personal and emotional remembrance, mixing humor with a serious tone.

GEORGE BUSH: Why was he so admired? Why was he so beloved? He was beloved first because of what he was.

Politics can be cruel, uncivil. Our friend was strong and gentle. Once he called America “hopeful,” “big-hearted,” “idealistic,” “daring,” “decent” and “fair.” That was America. And, yes, our friend. If Ronald Reagan created a better world for many millions, it was because of the world someone else created for him.

Nancy was there for him always. Her love for him provided much of his strength. And their love together transformed all of us as we’ve seen renewed, seeing again here in the last few days. And one of the many memories we all have of both of them is they provided during our national tragedies.

Whether it was the families of the crew of the “challenger” shuttle, or the U.S.S. “Stark,” or the marines killed in Beirut, we will never forget those images of the president and first lady embracing them and embracing us during times of sorrow.

So, Nancy, I want to say this to you: Today America embraces you. We open up our arms, we seek to comfort you, to tell you of our admiration for your courage and your selfless caring. And to the Reagan kids: It’s okay for me to say that at 80– Michael, Ron and Patti, today all of our sympathy, all of our condolences to you all. And remember, too, your sister, Maureen, home safe now with her father.

As his vice president for eight years, I learned more from Ronald Reagan than from anyone I encountered in all my years of public life. I learned kindness– we all did. I also learned courage– the nation did. Who can forget the horrible day in March, 1981, he looked at the doctors in the emergency room and said, “I hope you’re all Republicans.” (Laughter)

And then I learned decency– the whole world did. Days after being shot, weak from wounds, he spilled water from a sink, and entering the hospital room, aides saw him on hands and knees wiping water from the floor. He worried that his nurse would get in trouble. The good book says humility goes before honor, and our friend had both, and who could not cherish such a man?

And perhaps as important as anything, I learned about a lot about humor, a lot about laughter. And, oh, how President Reagan loved a good story. When asked, “How did your visit go with bishop Tutu?” He replied, “so-so.” (Laughter) And it was typical. It was wonderful. And in leaving… in leaving the White House, the very last day he left in the yard outside the Oval Office door a little sign for the squirrels. He loved to feed those squirrels. And he left this sign that said, “Beware of the dog,” and to no avail, because our dog Millie came in and beat the heck out of the squirrels.

But anyway, he also left me a note, at the top of which said, “Don’t let the turkeys get you down.” Well, he certainly never let him get him down, and he fought hard for his beliefs. But he lived conviction, but never made an adversary into an enemy. He was never mean-spirited.

Reverend Billy Graham, who I refer to as the nation’s pastor, is now hospitalized and regrets that he can’t be here today. And I asked him for a bible passage that might be appropriate, and he suggested this from Psalm 37. “The Lord delights in the way of the man whose steps he has made firm; though he stumble, he will not fall, for the lord upholds him with his hand.” And then this, too, from 37. “There is a future for the man of peace.”

God bless you, Ronald Wilson Reagan, and the nation you loved and led so well.

KWAME HOLMAN: President George W. Bush delivered the last of the four eulogies.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We lost Ronald Reagan only days ago, but we have missed him for a long time. We have missed his kindly presence, that reassuring voice and the happy ending we had wished for him. It has been ten years since he said his own farewell, yet it is still very sad and hard to let him go.

Ronald Reagan belongs to the ages now, but we preferred it when he belonged to us. The qualities all of us have seen in Ronald Reagan were first spotted 70 and 80 years ago. As the lifeguard in Lowell Park, he was the protector, keeping an eye out for trouble. As a sports announcer on the radio, he was the friendly voice that made you see the game as he did. As an actor, he was the handsome, all-American good guy, which, in his case, required knowing his lines and being himself.

Along the way, certain convictions were formed and fixed in the man. Ronald Reagan believed that everything happens for a reason, and that we should strive to know and do the will of God. He believed that the gentleman always does the kindest thing. He believed that people were basically good and had the right to be free. He believed that bigotry and prejudice were the worst things a person could be guilty of. He believed in the golden rule and in the power of prayer. He believed that America was not just a place in the world, but the hope of the world. And he believed in taking a break now and then, because, as we said, there’s nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse.

He came to office with great hopes for America, and more than hopes. Like the president he had revered and once saw in person, Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan matched an optimistic temperament with bold, persistent action. President Reagan was optimistic about the great promise of economic reform, and he acted to restore the rewards and spirit of enterprise. He was optimistic that a strong America could advance the peace, and he acted to build the strength that mission required. He was optimistic that liberty would thrive wherever it was planted, and he acted to defend liberty wherever it was threatened. And Ronald Reagan believed in the power of truth in the conduct of world affairs.

When he saw evil camped across the horizon he called that evil by its name. Ronald Reagan carried himself, even in the most powerful office, with the decency and attention to small kindnesses that also define a good life. He was a courtly, gentle and considerate man, never known to slight or embarrass others. Many people across the country cherish letters he wrote in his own hand to family members on important occasions, to old friends dealing with sickness and loss, to strangers with questions about his days in Hollywood.

A boy once wrote to him requesting federal assistance to help clean up his bedroom. The president replied that, unfortunately, funds are dangerously low. He continued: “I’m sure your mother was fully justified in proclaiming your room a disaster, therefore you are in an excellent position to launch another volunteer program in our nation. Congratulations.”

See, our 40th president wore his title lightly, and it fit like a white Stetson. In the end, through his belief in our country and his love for our country, he became an enduring symbol of our country. We think of the steady stride, that tilt of the head and snap of the salute, the big-screen smile, and the glint in his Irish eyes when a story came to mind. We think of a man advancing in years with the sweetness and sincerity of a scout saying the pledge. We think of that grave expression that sometimes came over his face, the seriousness of a man angered by injustice and frightened by nothing.

We know, as he always said, that America’s best days are ahead of us. But with Ronald Reagan’s passing, some very fine days are behind us, and that is worth our tears. Americans saw death approach Ronald Reagan twice, in a moment of violence and then in the years of departing light. He met both with courage and grace.

In these trials, he showed how a man so enchanted by life can be at peace with life’s end. And where does that strength come from? Where is that courage learned? It is the faith of a boy who read the bible with his mom. It is the faith of a man lying in an operating room who prayed for the one who shot him before he prayed for himself. It is the faith of a man with a fearful illness who waited on the Lord to call him home. Now death has done all that death can do, and as Ronald Wilson Reagan goes his way, we are left with the joyful hope he shared. In his last years, he saw through a glass darkly. Now he sees his savior face to face. And we look for that fine day when we will see him again, all weariness gone, clear of mind, strong and sure and smiling again, and the sorrow of this parting gone forever.

May God bless Ronald Reagan and the country he loved.

KWAME HOLMAN: Reverend Danforth delivered the homily, which included readings from the New Testament’s sermon on the mount, President Reagan’s favorite biblical theme.

REV. JOHN DANFORTH: May I speak in the name of one God who created us, who redeemed us. Amen. This is a service about Ronald Reagan and it is a religious service. We’ve gathered to celebrate the life of a great president in a church where believers profess their faith. So this is not only about a person, but about faith, and the homily is the place to connect the two.

For President Reagan, the text is obvious. It’s from the sermon on the mount. “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid.” It was his favorite theme from his first inaugural address to his final address from the Oval Office. For him, America was the shining city on a hill. His immediate source was the sermon preached by John Winthrop, just read by Justice O’Connor.

Winthrop believed that the eyes of the world would be on America because God had given us a special commission, so it was our duty to shine forth. The Winthrop message became the Reagan message. It rang of optimism. And we longed to hear it, especially after the dark years of Vietnam and Watergate. It was a vision with policy implications.

America could not hide its light under a bushel. It could not turn in on itself and hunker down. Isolationism was not an option. Neither was protectionism. We must champion freedom everywhere. We must be the beacon for the world. What Ronald Reagan asked of America, he gave of himself. The great American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote: “The children of light and the children of darkness.”

If ever we have known a child of light, it was Ronald Reagan. He was aglow with it. He had no dark side, no scary hidden agenda. What you saw was what you got, and what you saw was that sure sign of inner light, the twinkle in the eye. He was not consumed by himself. He didn’t need to be president to be a complete person. The only thing he really needed was to be with his wife. Mrs. Reagan, you shared him with us, and for that, we will always be grateful.

He shined the light, but not upon himself. His most challenging task came on the day he was shot. He wrote in his diary of struggling for breath and of praying. “I realized I couldn’t ask for God’s help while at the same time I felt hatred for the mixed-up young man who shot me,” he wrote. “Isn’t that the meaning of the lost sheep? We are all God’s children and therefore equally loved by him. So I began to pray for his soul and that he would find his way back to the fold.”

In this service of worship, we celebrate the life of a great president, and we profess the resurrection faith of this church. It is faith in God’s victory over darkness. It is faith in the ultimate triumph of light. We believe in this victory every day of our lives. We believe it as individuals, we believe it as a nation. There is no better time to celebrate the triumph of light than in a service for Ronald Reagan. Amen.

KWAME HOLMAN: The funeral service was rich with music, highlighted by the singing of Franz Schubert’s “Amazing Grace” by Irish tenor Ronan Tynan.

MAN (singing): A grace that cause my heart to feel and graced my fear the precious deed what I believe the Lord has promised you to me he wore my shield and poison me as long, as life endures –

KWAME HOLMAN: The service lasted just over 90 minutes, and concluded with simply prayers and a blessing before the casket was taken away.

REV. JOHN DANFORTH: Receive him into the arms of thy mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.

SPOKESPERSON: Amen.

KWAME HOLMAN: As the casket was placed back inside the hearse, the bells in the cathedral towers began to chime 40 times, in recognition of the 40th president of the United States. (Church bells ringing) (church bells ringing )

KWAME HOLMAN: President Reagan’s body then was taken immediately to Andrew’s Air Force base to begin the final journey back to California and the private burial service at the presidential library.