Nancy Reagan funeral draws political heavyweights, stars from bygone era

Nancy Reagan funeral guest list read like a flashback to a bygone era, with celebrities like Wayne Newton, Anjelica Huston, Melissa Rivers, Tina Sinatra…

Washington Post | By Karen Heller and William Wan

Nancy Reagan funeralPolitical and Hollywood heavyweights from past and present gathered Friday for 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. The funeral – an invitation-only affair at the Reagan Presidential Library — was attended by representatives of 10 White House families, including: first lady Michelle Obama; former first ladies Hillary Clinton and Rosalynn Carter; former president George W. Bush and his wife, Laura; Caroline Kennedy; 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 Mrs. Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign — was seen arriving at the library Friday through a side entrance dressed in full camouflage attire, combat boots and an American flag wrapped around his head.

Mrs. Reagan’s funeral also 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 Mrs. Reagan.

Over the past two days, more than 4,500 have flocked to this library in the Simi Valley to pay their respects to Mrs. Reagan 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 Santa Susana mountain range loomed in the background. And many reminisced nostalgically not only about Mrs. 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 Mrs. 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.”

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

The former first lady, a woman who left little to chance, 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, her fashionable attire, but most of all for her love and fierce devotion to her husband, President Ronald Reagan, and his legacy.

“My life didn’t really begin until I met Ronnie,” she often said.

One of the poignant moments of the service will likely be the reading of a love letter that her husband wrote to her by Brian Mulroney, who was Canada’s prime minister when Reagan was president.

There will be eulogies from Mrs. Reagan’s son Ronald Prescott Reagan and daughter Patti Davis. Tom Brokaw will give a third eulogy, and Diane Sawyer will read from the Gospel of John, library officials said. Former secretary of state James Baker is also scheduled to speak. Puerto Rican soprano Ana Maria Martinez will perform “Ave Maria.”

Pallbearers included her brother, Richard Davis, columnist George Will, 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, N.Y., similar to the one she selected for her husband.

Some of the carefully attended details harkened 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 rare form of reference to the former secretary of state and current Democratic presidential front-runner.

At the end of all the pomp and tributes Friday, Mrs. 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.

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

Mrs. 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, Mrs. 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,” Mrs. 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.

 

This article first appeared in the Washington Post

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