SIMI VALLEY: Hollywood stars and political powerbrokers past and present gathered to hear glowing tributes to former first lady Nancy Reagan before her burial beside her husband at the Reagan presidential library Friday (Saturday in Manila).
Reagan died on Sunday of heart failure at the age of 94 at her home in the Bel Air suburb of Los Angeles, 12 years after Ronald Reagan, who served two terms in the White House in the 1980s.
Representatives of presidential families stretching back to the Kennedys attended, with First Lady Michelle Obama and former first lady and ex-secretary of state Hillary Clinton joining former president George W. Bush in the front row.
James Baker, chief of staff under Reagan and George H.W. Bush, described Nancy as “a woman without whom Ronald Wilson Reagan would never have become the 40th president of the United States or succeeded as well as he did.”
“She had an instinct for reading people that the president knew he lacked. Nancy, he wrote, sees the goodness in people. But she also had an extra instinct that allowed her to see the flaws,” Baker said.
The Reagans were former actors and many of the 1980s Hollywood glitterati, including then-sex symbol Bo Derek, Oscar winner Anjelica Huston, Magnum PI actor Tom Selleck and the A-Team’s Mr T were were expected among around 1,000 guests who began arriving under sunny skies several hours ahead of the ceremony.
The former first lady’s funeral opened with a musical prelude by the Santa Susana High School Advanced Women’s Choir and Abbe Road A Cappella, and an instrumental section by the First Marine Division Band, Marine Corps Camp Pendleton.
Stuart Kenworthy, the vicar of Washington National Cathedral, presided over the 90-minute program, which opened with “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and included renditions of “Ave Maria” and “Pie Jesu” by soprano Ana Maria Martinez.
The Reagans wrote passionate love notes to each other over the decades, and former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney read out a letter the president wrote to Nancy on their first Christmas in the White House in 1981.
Reagan quotes from “Sonnet 43,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s love letter to her future husband, the poet Robert Browning, better known by its opening line: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”
“For me, there is no way to count. I love the whole gang of you: mommy, First Lady, the sentimental you, the fun you and the Peewee Powerhouse you,” Reagan wrote.
A fierce protector of her husband and his political legacy, Reagan had outsized influence during their White House years from 1981 to 1989.
The couple wed in 1952 after Ronald divorced his first wife, actress Jane Wyman. The marriage has been described as a love story to rival any that the couple acted out on the silver screen.
The pair had two children—Patti Davis, born in 1952, and Ron Junior, born in 1958, both of whom delivered eulogies that, along with a tribute from former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, had the guests laughing at fondly recounted anecdotes.
Davis was also searingly honest about her memories of her mother, recalling a “challenging and often contentious relationship.”
“When I was a child, I imagined having warm, comfortable conversations with her, the kind of conversations that feel like lamp light. The reality was far different,” she said.
“I tried her patience and she intimidated me. We were never mild with one another.”
While in the White House Nancy Reagan actively participated in her husband’s campaigns, approved members of the president’s cabinet, and was the face of the administration’s Just Say No drugs campaign.
Ronald Reagan suffered from Alzheimer’s disease after leaving office and went into a long decline. His wife took care of him until his death and became a tireless advocate for Alzheimer’s research.
President Barack Obama and his wife praised Nancy Reagan’s “proud example” in a statement after her death, saying she redefined the role of first lady.
As a “mark of respect” Obama ordered that flags be flown at half-staff at federal buildings, military posts, US naval vessels and diplomatic missions until sunset Friday.