RONALD WILSON REAGAN : 1911-2004
Ronald Reagan Dies
40th President Reshaped American Politics
By David Von Drehle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 2004; Page A01
Ronald Wilson Reagan, 40th president of the United States, who transformed the Republican Party and substantially defined the terms of contemporary political debate during two momentous terms in office, died yesterday afternoon. He was 93.
Ten years after Reagan announced his Alzheimer's disease in an open letter to the American people, he reached the end of his long twilight at his home in Bel Air, Calif., in the company of his wife and their children.
"My family and I would like the world to know that President Ronald Reagan has passed away," former first lady Nancy Reagan said in a written statement. "We appreciate everyone's prayers."
President Bush received the news shortly after 4 p.m. Eastern time; he was in Paris and had just left a dinner with French President Jacques Chirac. In Washington and California, plans were quickly implemented for the capital's first presidential funeral in more than 30 years.
Plans call for Reagan's body to lie at his presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif., early this week and then travel by Air Force One to Washington on Wednesday, where he will lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. Late in the week, probably Friday, there will be a funeral procession with horse-drawn caisson from the Capitol to a spot near the White House. From there, a hearse will carry the casket to Washington National Cathedral for a funeral officiated by the newly nominated ambassador to the United Nations, John C. Danforth, an Episcopalian minister and a former Republican senator from Missouri.
The body will then be flown back to California to be buried at the Ronald W. Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.
Official plans will be announced this morning, a library spokesman said.
"This is a sad hour in the life of America," Bush said after speaking with Nancy Reagan by telephone. "A great American life has come to an end. Ronald Reagan won America's respect with his greatness and won its love with his goodness. He had the confidence that comes with conviction, the strength that comes with character, the grace that comes with humility and the humor that comes with wisdom."
Blinking back tears, Bush added: "He always told us that for America, the best was yet to come. We comfort ourselves in the knowledge that this is true for him, too. His work is done. And now a shining city awaits him."
It was an almost unbelievable life, a melodrama, a rags-to-riches tale, a multi-part saga written by someone with boundless imagination and an infinite sense of the possible. Born in tiny Tampico, Ill., educated at Eureka College in nearby Dixon, Reagan was a radio sportscaster, a Hollywood B-movie star, host of a TV variety show, a soap salesman, a motivational speaker, governor of California and -- starting at age 53 -- arguably the most important American political figure since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
So it was no wonder that he believed all things were possible, from the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he predicted even when the clash of superpowers seemed near its most menacing point, to the complete disarmament of all nuclear arsenals, which Reagan proposed in a stunning arms-control summit near the end of his administration. What seemed to some as naivete struck others as good old gumption.
Reagan was a champion salesman of the American dream, mayor-for-life of the land he called "a shining city on a hill."
Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry said, "Ronald Reagan's love of country was infectious," and he praised the late president for his "goodwill in the heat of partisan battle."
"Even when he was breaking Democrats' hearts, he did so with a smile and in the spirit of honest and open debate. Despite the disagreements, he lived by that noble ideal that at 5 p.m., we weren't Democrats or Republicans, we were Americans and friends," said the senator from Massachusetts.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company