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Nancy Reagan's funeral draws political heavyweights, stars from bygone era

The casket of former first lady Nancy Reagan at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., on Wednesday, March 9, 2016.

WALLY SKALIJ, LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS

By KAREN HELLER AND WILLIAM WAN | The Washington Post | Published: March 11, 2016

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Political and Hollywood heavyweights from past and present mourned and reminisced over a bygone era at the funeral of Nancy Reagan — a reflection of the unique and enduring cultural sway held by the former first lady and her husband since their era in the White House.

They talked of her signature elegance and the fierce approach she took to her causes. But most of all, they talked of her marriage and ferocious love for her husband that eclipsed all else in her life.

The Reagans were "defined by their love for each other," said former secretary of state James Baker at the service.

While her husband was alive, she was fiercely protective of every aspect of his life and career, Baker said. After her husband's death, she dedicated herself just as relentlessly to President Ronald Reagan's memory and place in history. The two, Baker said, were "as close to being one person as any person could be."

"My parents were two halves of a circle. Nobody truly crossed the boundaries of the exquisite space that was theirs," said their daughter Patti Davis. Davis made brief reference to her at-times bitter relationship with her strong-minded mother and recalled the heat of her wrath. "Even God might not have the guts to cross Nancy Reagan."

So deep and visceral was her mother's love for her father, Davis said, that her mother felt haunted for weeks after his death — hearing his footsteps down the hall, seeing him at the foot of her bed. She described "the circle of their own private world — indestructible, impenetrable, an island for two."

The funeral — an invitation-only affair at the Reagan Presidential Library — was attended by representatives of 10 White House families. Shortly before the funeral began, in a history-filled first row, former first lady Hillary Clinton and Caroline Kennedy could be seen helping former first lady Rosalynn Carter find her place between them. Sitting with them: first lady Michelle Obama; former president George W. Bush and his wife, Laura; Tricia Nixon; and Lynda Byrd Johnson Robb and Luci Baines Johnson.

The guest list read like a flashback to a bygone era, with celebrities like Wayne Newton, Anjelica Huston, Melissa Rivers, Tina Sinatra, Bo Derek and Ralph Lauren.

Mr. T — a stalwart ally in Reagan's "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign — arrived through a side entrance dressed in full camouflage attire, combat boots and an American flag wrapped around his head.

"They had a magnificent sense of occasion. They had style and they had grace and they had class," said Brian Mulroney, who was Canada's prime minister when Reagan was president.

In one of the most poignant moments of the service, Mulroney read a 1981 love letter — one of many in their lifetime — that Ronald Reagan wrote to his wife.

"For there could be no life for me without you," the letter read. "I love the whole gang of you — Mommie, First Lady, the sentimental you, the fun you and the peewee powerhouse you. Merry Christmas you all — with all my love. Lucky me."

The funeral brought together under one tent notable Democrats and Republicans at a deeply divisive time — from Newt Gingrich and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Friday's funeral represented a moment of solemnity amid the current explosive and at times crude presidential campaign, especially among Republican candidates, whose members tend to venerate Reagan and view his presidency as the party's halcyon era. At the beginning of Thursday's Republican debate, one noted for its rare civility, CNN's Jake Tapper asked for a moment of silence to honor Reagan.

Over the past two days, more than 4,500 have flocked to this library in the Simi Valley to pay their respects to the former first lady ahead of today's funeral, and many continued to stream in Friday morning before the service.

On a cool day in the valley with clouds overhead, the guests emerged one by one from a cavalcade of black luxury vehicles. As they walked up the library's gravel path toward a vast white tent, the Topatopa mountains loomed in the background. And many reminisced nostalgically not only about Reagan but the American era she represented.

"One of the last great grande dames," said television host Melissa Rivers, who recalled the countless conversations between Reagan and her fashion maven mother Joan Rivers. "She was an elegant, wonderful woman."

"I probably didn't call her enough," said actor Tom Selleck.

"We shared horse stories," said actress Bo Derek, wearing a black suit, blue silk scarf and black high heels.

Mr. T was overheard saying, "I don't want to talk to the media out of respect for Mrs. Reagan." But over the weekend, he tweeted, "That was the highlight of my career to be asked to work with the First Family on such a great cause. ... I will never forget her . ... I will continue her work in trying to keep kids from the Dangers of Drugs."

Reagan, 94, died Sunday of congestive heart failure at her home in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Bel-Air.

She was a woman who left little to chance, and she planned much of the memorial service before her death, library officials said, down to the smallest details, such as the roses and white peonies — her favorite flower — which crowned her coffin.

The service reflected her iconic sense of 1980s elegance, with cream-colored programs embossed with her initials and a picture of her dressed in one of her iconic red gowns.

Among mourners, she was remembered for restoring elegance to the White House and her fashionable attire, but most of all for her love and fierce devotion to her husband and his legacy.

"My life didn't really begin until I met Ronnie," she often said.

There were eulogies from Reagan's son Ronald Prescott Reagan and former TV anchor Tom Brokaw. TV journalist Diane Sawyer read from the Gospel of John. Puerto Rican soprano Ana Maria Martinez performed "Ave Maria."

Pallbearers included her brother, Richard Davis, columnist George Will, and Washington Post publisher and chief executive Frederick J. Ryan Jr., who is chairman of the board of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. Her mahogany coffin was made by Marsellus Casket Co. in Syracuse, New York, similar to the one she selected for her husband.

Some of the carefully attended details hearkened back to an earlier social era of propriety and formality, when a woman was defined by her manners, her appearance and weekly hair salon appointments, and, most important, her spouse.

The formal guest list announced by the Reagan Foundation, for example, included a line for "Mrs. Bill Clinton," a form of reference rarely applied to the former secretary of state and current Democratic presidential front-runner.

At the end of all the pomp and tributes Friday, Reagan will be laid to rest next to her husband on a hillside tomb on the library grounds facing the Pacific Ocean — reunited in death with the man to whom she devoted her life.

Despite the solemn occasion, politics still managed to intrude in one respect. President Obama chose to keep a scheduled visit to the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, prompting Republican criticism.

"He is sending his contempt for the Reagan presidency, his hostility to the Reagan ideology, and he is once again proving that he has never been president of all of the American people," said former House speaker Gingrich on Thursday.

However, records show that in recent decades, presidents for the most part have not attended the funerals of former first ladies.

Reagan was an actress of nominal acclaim but a spouse of international consequence. She moved to Hollywood to be a film actress, but found her true mission in her marriage.

"I think it's been well documented the extraordinary love that she had for her husband, and the extraordinary comfort and strength she provided him during really hard times," Obama said this week following her death. "He was lucky to have her. ... She will be missed."

Guests arriving at the library Friday reminisced about the nostalgic era the Reagans came to symbolize.

"When Ronald Reagan first ran for president in 1976, she said she would never give a speech. ... Well, thousands of speeches later ... ." recalled Wendy Fink-Weber, the first lady's former deputy press secretary.

"She would do anything for her husband. She had to do what she had to do," Fink-Weber said. "It's not easy being first lady. There's no job description. There's no salary. She never missed an event, and she was never late."

A petite woman with formidable conviction, Reagan's influence in the White House was considerable.

"I talk to people, they tell me things. And if something is about to become a problem I'm not above calling a staff person and asking about it," Reagan said in a 1987 speech. "I'm a woman who loves her husband and I make no apologies for looking out for his personal and political welfare."

In 1994, after her husband announced he had Alzheimer's, she became an outspoken advocate for stem-cell research. Ronald Reagan died in 2004.

"She was very instrumental in the building of this library with a meticulous attention to detail," said Ed Meese at the funeral Friday. Meese was an influential figure in the Reagan White House. "A great example to young people and everyone else when it comes to marriage."

"Don't say I was tough," she told her longtime friend and biographer Bob Colacello. "I was strong. I had to be, because Ronnie liked everybody and sometimes didn't see or refused to see what the people around him were really up to. But everything I did, I did for Ronnie. I did for love."

Wan reported from Washington.
 

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