Shortly before 3 p.m. ET, Ronald Reagan left Washington for the last time, as Air Force One carried his casket back to California for a sunset burial before 700 family members, close friends and associates.
Friday was a rainy day in America’s capital, which seemed appropriate for a national day of mourning, as world leaders gathered in Washington’s National Cathedral for the state funeral of the popular 40th president.
The service included eulogies that managed to mix gentle humor with large lump-in-the-throat sentiments. Former presidents Bill Clinton, the elder George Bush, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford all sat near one another, each accompanied by his wife. Sitting across the aisle, closest to Nancy Reagan, was President George W. and First Lady Laura Bush, and, near them, Vice President Dick and Lynn Cheney.
During his 15-minute eulogy, the current President, referring to his predecessor’s decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, said: “We lost Ronald Reagan only days ago but we have missed him for a long time. It has been 10 years since he said his own farewell, yet it is still very sad and hard to let him go.”
Added the President: “Ronald Reagan belongs to the ages now, but we preferred it when he belonged to us.”
The elder Bush, his voice choking with emotion, said America loved Reagan because he was “strong and gentle. … 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.”
Bush also managed to elicit a smile from Mrs. Reagan when he recalled how he once asked the President how his meeting went with South African Bishop Desmond Tutu. Replied Reagan: “So-so.”
Before the funeral, when the casket was still in the Capitol Rotunda being prepared for the funeral cortege to the cathedral, Mrs. Reagan caressed the flag-draped coffin, gave it a kiss and several gentle pats and shared what appeared to be final words with her husband of 52 years.
Because of a series of small strokes, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher planned ahead, and videotaped a eulogy last February. She, along with current Prime Minister Tony Blair and Prince Charles, attended the funeral, as did former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Said Thatcher, who referred to her friend as “Ronnie”: “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.”
Reagan’s three surviving children, Patti Davis, Ron and Michael, sat alongside Mrs. Reagan at the cathedral, and were referred to by the elder Bush – who turns 80 on Sunday – as “the kids.” A daughter, Maureen, died from cancer in 2001, and, as Bush said, she is now with her father.