By Susan Schindehette
June 21, 2004 12:00 PM

The end was near. After watching as the spark slowly faded from his eyes and listening as his voice finally fell silent, the family of Ronald Reagan gathered at his house in Bel Air in the last days of May. The former President, said his doctors, now had pneumonia in addition to his Alzheimer’s. A matter of days, they said, maybe a week.

On Sunday, May 30, Reagan’s son Michael drove to his father’s home. There, he and his family spent time with his dad, “just standing by his bedside and holding his hand. He was sleeping. That was pretty normal for the past year. He’d spent a good deal of his time sleeping.” During a visit a few days later, Michael, 59, an L.A. radio talk show host, took his wife, Colleen, and their two children outside, where they formed a circle in the driveway. “We prayed over the house and over Dad. We asked that he would go in a peaceful way,” he says.

On Saturday, June 5, another call came, this one urgent. Delayed by traffic, Michael arrived at the house and found the family—Nancy, Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis, 51, who lives nearby, and son Ron, 46, who had flown in from vacation in Hawaii—in Nancy’s bedroom sitting on the couch. His father had died minutes before. “The door was closed where Dad was,” Michael says. “We hugged. We knew that he was with angels, where he always wanted to be, and then I went in and visited with my father. I kissed him on the forehead and I said the Our Father. He gave us all strength.”

By the time Ronald Wilson Reagan, the longest-lived American President, made his final exit at age 93, he had given much indeed—not just to his family but to the nation that mourned him. Ordinary citizens by the thousands poured through the gates of the Ronald W. Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. They waited in line for hours to view the casket of the leader many credit with ending the Cold War (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” he intoned within sight of the Berlin Wall in 1987) and ushering in a conservative, low-tax style of governance that would revolutionize American politics. Dignitaries from around the world, meanwhile, prepared to attend his funeral service on June 11 at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. “It didn’t matter if you were the guy shining shoes or a head of state. He treated you with unfailing courtesy, warmth and humility,” says his son Ron, a Seattle TV journalist. “For all his strength and directness, he was the most decent man I’ve ever known. And certainly the kindest.”

That a son would say such things of his father may not be surprising. Less expected, perhaps, were the sentiments of those who hadn’t even known the man, like the small group who stood silently outside the Reagans’ three-bedroom home as a black Cadillac hearse pulled slowly from the shaded driveway into the sunlit street. “I’m not so sure about his politics, but that’s not what made him great,” said Jeff Dashev, 60, a neighbor. “He inspired people. He made us all feel better about ourselves.”

It was the key to his record popularity. The former Hollywood movie star, with boundless faith, helped restore pride and prosperity to a nation still smarting from the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam war. His story—now a legend, really—was built on a series of improbabilities: the child of an alcoholic father who became a figurehead for family values; the skinny, nearsighted kid who transformed into a strapping lifeguard and a handsome movie star; and a B-list actor who, finding his career washed up, resurrected himself by building one of the most powerful political careers of an era, first as a two-term governor of California in the ’60s and ’70s and then as President in 1981. The nation held its breath when he was nearly brought down by a would-be assassin less than three months after taking office—and cheered when he rebounded to robust health with impressive speed.

Beloved as he was, Reagan’s Presidency was not without its dark side. Critics said he did little as the AIDS crisis exploded on his watch. “I think the world would have been better off if he had not been President,” says AIDS activist Larry Kramer. The growing legions of homeless Americans in the 1980s were seen by many as the cruel reality of Reaganomics. And the President also played a role (never clearly defined) in the lran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal.

Still, Reagan was a fine one for restoring America’s own can-do optimism, or comforting a nation in trauma, as he did in the wake of the 1986 Challenger disaster. “He wasn’t so much the great communicator,” former French President Franˆois Mitterrand once said of Reagan, “as he was in communion with the American people.”

Along for the ride was second wife Nancy, the actress he met in 1949 when, at the height of the Red Scare, she discovered her name on a list of suspected Hollywood Communist sympathizers. (Reagan and his first wife, actress Jane Wyman, with whom he had two children, Maureen and Michael, had divorced the year before.) Nancy turned to Ronald, then president of the Screen Actors Guild, to help her clear her name. Turns out it was another Nancy Davis, and with business taken care of, the pleasure began. Married in 1952, theirs was a rare love story. “My parents have about as close a relationship as I’ve ever seen anyone have,” Patti Davis once said. “They really sort of complete each other.”

They became the ultimate political couple, sweeping into Washington in 1980 with a coterie of glamorous friends, fancy clothes and the drive to make a White House invite the hottest ticket in town—even if some critics groused over the $210,000 set of new china. “Ronald and Nancy always looked so divine together,” says friend Betsy Bloomingdale. “It was another era, and they represented it.” Supporters called Nancy fiercely protective of the President; detractors claimed she called the shots and got rid of staffers who crossed her.

When he left office in 1989, Reagan and Nancy headed west to their beloved California, there to live out a glorious retirement. But soon there were signs, quiet at first, that all was not well. In 1994, at Richard Nixon’s funeral in Yorba Linda, Calif., “Reagan seemed a little bit out of it,” says Gerald Ford’s former White House photographer David Hume Kennerly. Ford later told associates, “Ron didn’t recognize me or Betty.”

Following consultations at the Mayo Clinic, in the fall of 1994 Reagan took pen to two gold-embossed pages of paper and, with the somber words “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life,” announced to the nation that he had Alzheimer’s. Among friends, however, Reagan had his own lighthearted way of spreading the news. Film producer A.C. Lyles, now 86, recalls the day that Reagan took him aside, saying, “I’m getting forgetful, aren’t I? Well, A.C., here’s a story: Two old men are having lunch. One says, ‘Joe, I have Alzheimer’s, but I met a doctor and he’s great. You better go see him because you’re getting the same thing.’ Joe says, ‘Sure, what’s his name?’ The first guy thought for a long time and said, ‘What’s that flower that has petals and thorns?’ ‘A rose,’ Joe said. And the man hollered to his wife, ‘Hey, Rose, what’s the name of that doctor I’m going to?’ ” “Ronnie always used humor,” concludes Lyles, “and that was his way of telling me.”

As the disease progressed, there was less and less to smile about. In time, Reagan could no longer recognize lifelong friends or even remember that he had once been President of the United States. He was unaware of his 50th wedding anniversary with Nancy and that, in 2001, as he lay recovering from hip surgery, his oldest daughter, Maureen, 60, was being treated for melanoma at the very same Santa Monica hospital. She would die several months later at her home near Sacramento.

Nor was he the only victim of his own illness. Nancy, his devoted companion for the past half century, seldom ventured far from the couple’s house at 668 Saint Cloud Drive. She lunched with friends at the Hotel Bel-Air (speaking of her husband mostly in the past, discreetly refusing to talk about his condition) and spent her evenings watching TV or on the phone, exchanging recipes with friends. “She rarely left Los Angeles over the last several years,” says Fred Ryan, a former aide. “Yes, she was caring for him, but I also think she didn’t want to be away from him when the end came.”

When the end was near, she was there, of course, still directing a staff of nurses and taking precious time to speak out in favor of embryonic stem cell research, a scientific approach that she feels may one day lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s and other diseases. A doctor once looked on as Nancy gently eased her husband into bed after a brief walk, lifting his legs and helping him settle back onto a pillow. “When she had finished,” wrote Michael Deaver in Nancy: A Portrait of My Years with Nancy Reagan, “Nancy looked at her Ronnie lying there alone, took off her shoes, and gently got into bed with him. She was putting her arms around him as the doctor quietly left the room.”

The physical care was far from the hardest part, Nancy said. “The golden years are when you sit back, hopefully, and exchange memories, and that’s the worst part about this disease,” she told 60 Minutes’s Mike Wallace, a family friend, in 2002. “There’s nobody to exchange memories with, and we had a lot of memories.” Still, there were flashes of the old Nancy, the one whose irreverent laugh had bewitched her husband. Earlier this spring, comedian Jerry Lewis called to ask how she was holding up. “She’d say, ‘I’m okay for a gal who’s sitting in a house without her husband who’s sitting six feet away,’ ” Lewis told The Boston Globe.

If there is a consolation for her—beyond the end of Ronald’s suffering—it is the closeness she now enjoys with the children from whom she was once estranged. “Nancy and Patti Davis are close again,” says Wallace. “All their issues are patched up. The same is true with Ron.” Friends predict Nancy will continue her work on behalf of stem cell research. And they take comfort from the fact that her husband’s love endured the harshest of trials. Says Michael Reagan: “At the end, when Dad opened his eyes and looked at her, I said, ‘Think about the joy in my dad’s heart. The last vision he had on earth was of you. The next vision he had was of God.” Publicly, the Reagans will join in the national ritual to mark the passing of a leader; privately they know their path is less clear. “In a way my father was the glue, the focal point for the family,” says Ron. “And even in his illness, we always used to say when we were there—a sort of in-joke from my childhood—’Here we all are, gathered around old Dad again.’ Now he’s gone. But in important ways he’s not gone. He’ll be with all of us.”

Susan Schindehette. Champ Clark, Tom Cunneff, Vicki Sheff-Cahan and Frank Swertlow in Los Angeles, Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C., Juliet Butler in London and Tom Duffy in New York City