It had all the trappings of a White House event: the U.S. Marine Band, a military color guard, a thunderous 21-cannon salute. But the first lady who presided over it all was the widow of the president who took office 30 years ago last month.
Three thousand miles from the White House, it was the carefully planned 100th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan — an unusual event, in that so few other presidents have been accorded such an honor. One might even describe it as audacious, like Reagan himself, who, after all, first ran for president in 1968, after only one year as governor of California, and the second time, in 1976, when he challenged a sitting president who happened to be a fellow Republican, Gerald Ford.
Sitting Sunday in a huge clear plastic tent on the lawn of the impressively renovated Reagan presidential library, under a brilliant sunny sky on the edge of the wind-whipped southern California coast, one couldn’t help but feel a long way from Washington and a long way from the world as the Reagan presidency found it. The audience was filled with members of that administration. On stage with Nancy Reagan, who is now 89, and in the first row, were familiar faces from the early 1980s – James Baker, George Shultz, Ed Meese and Dick Cheney, who long before he was vice president, was Reagan’s secretary of defense. These were men who wrestled with the latter days of the Cold War, a pre-al-Qaida Middle East and an economic downturn mild in comparison with the Great Recession of the past few years.
There were current political faces in the crowd, including Govs. Rick Perry of Texas and Jan Brewer of Arizona, as well as possible presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. And given Reagan’s iconic hold over the Republican party of today, it was entirely expected to hear the reminders of his belief in small government and low taxes, even though taxes were raised multiple times during his administration and government spending increased as a percentage of the gross domestic product. What was surprising however, and perhaps fitting given the distance from Washington, were the reminders by two Republican speakers that the nation’s 40th president believed in the need to work with the other political party. In the invocation, former Missouri Sen. John Danforth, an ordained minister, thanked God for Reagan’s “absence of meanness and pettiness.” And in keynote remarks, James Baker, the former secretary of State and secretary of the Treasury, as well as Reagan’s first chief of staff, made a point of recalling that for all of Reagan’s strongly held principles, he was “a pragmatic,” “a master at reaching across the aisle for finding solutions.” Baker suggested that were Reagan alive today, he would say “we have to come together to solve our problems, rather than cynically coming together to seek political advantage.”
Afterwards, Baker confirmed to me he was referring to his fellow Republicans as well as Democrats, in this time when his party seems pulled to extremes, beyond even what was considered the right wing of Reagan’s era. Notably, Baker and Danforth, like all the speakers, were chosen by Nancy Reagan, who’s been revealed in the years since her husband left office, to have been a moderating influence on him. [[See our new documentary about her, airing this week on PBS](http://www.pbs.org/newshour/nancy-reagan/).] (She also [publicly lobbied former President George W. Bush](http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/05/10/health/main616473.shtml) to end his opposition to expanded government funding of embryonic stem-cell research.)
The celebration of all things Reagan was, in large part, a trip down memory lane — a nostalgic reminder of a president lauded this weekend by Republicans, as well as Democrats, including President Obama, for his optimistic, visionary leadership. But one could be excused for wishing for a debate, or at least a conversation, between those who spoke for the late president, and the Reagan fans in the audience – Gingrich, Perry, Brewer and Cheney (who got the most spirited applause of anyone other than the former first lady) – all of whom have made a mark for themselves by holding their ground and rejecting the need to work with the other side.