Remembering 'More Than Just a Man'
By Sue Anne Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 2004; Page A34
In and around the city where he presided over the end of the Cold War, where he defined an American conservative ethos and where he nearly lost his life to an assassin, Ronald Reagan was remembered yesterday as a towering, almost old-fashioned figure.
"He was a great man, a man of decision," said the Rev. Mupenda Muzumbi, 49, of Fort Washington, who was at Reagan National Airport, one of several Washington area institutions renamed in honor of the 40th president.
The news of Reagan's death yesterday, though not unexpected, unleashed a great wave of nostalgia. "More than just a man died," said Bill Enrico, 47, a self-described Republican who also was at the airport. "An era of greater decency died."
Like other admirers, Enrico saw Reagan's presidency as a time of personal opportunity for his family. He and his wife were able to buy a home after years of high interest rates during the Carter administration, he said. Thinking back on the Reagan era also produced a kind of longing in Enrico; when Reagan was in charge, he said, politics seemed less bitter.
But not everyone remembered the former president in such positive terms. In the liberal enclave of Takoma Park, Lisa Ripkin, 37, an employee of the Takoma Park Co-Op, said Reagan's death gave her "inner peace." She felt that it closed a chapter in U.S. political history with which she disagreed.
Her partner, Ryan Neher, 32, an electrician, elaborated. "It sort of settles energy for the whole world," he said. "I think a lot of people were hurt [by Reagan policies]. That was the point in time when Republicans really became militaristic."
For some, however, it was as if they had lost a personal friend.
The Rev. Imagene Stewart, a radio personality and the operator of a D.C. homeless shelter, took a photo of herself with Reagan at the White House from the wall of her Northwest Washington home as she reflected. "We could sit down and talk like two friends talking across the fence," Stewart said. "A lot of black people said that Ronald Reagan was pressured to sign the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday bill, but you do not make this man do anything that he did not want to do."
Rudy Hines was mourning the death of his former pen pal.
As a boy growing up in Congress Heights, Hines, now 26, exchanged dozens of letters with then-President Reagan. In his correspondence, Reagan encouraged Hines to keep reading and to heed his parents' guidance.
"It's a great tragedy for the whole United States," said Hines, who was working as a cashier at Liff's Market in Southeast Washington yesterday afternoon.
Henry Haller, the Swiss-born White House chef for Ronald and Nancy Reagan, recalled how a hungry president at times ventured into his kitchen with a jaunty, "Good evening, Chef, what are you going to have for dinner?"
Haller, now 81 and living in Potomac, recalled the first couple's tastes as a study in contrasts. "President Reagan was a man. He liked simple foods, in contrast to Mrs. Reagan -- she wanted the food presented . . . as fancy as possible, and very colorful, and at the same time tasty and helpful. They were great people."
Local government officials also paid tribute. In a telephone interview with the Associated Press from Normandy, France, where he was observing the 60th anniversary of D-Day, Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) called Reagan a role model for younger Republicans.
"He served to remind us of a very poignant lesson -- that freedom isn't free, and the price of weakness, particularly in a democracy, is to invite danger and war," Ehrlich said.
Marion Barry, who was D.C. mayor during Reagan's presidency, said that although they disagreed politically, "he was always cordial." Barry added, "Our nation has suffered a great loss."
One of the most dramatic episodes of Reagan's presidency took place March 30, 1981, when he was seriously wounded by would-be assassin John W. Hinckley Jr. outside the Washington Hilton.
Physician Joseph Giordano was in charge of the trauma team at George Washington University Hospital that day. The bullet, which had entered Reagan's chest below his left arm, came to rest in his left lung. After Reagan was rushed to the hospital, he collapsed in the corridor as his lung filled with blood and his blood pressure plummeted.
Until Giordano walked into the emergency room, he had no idea the waiting patient was the president of the United States. Surgeons would spend three hours removing the bullet and stabilizing Reagan, and he would spend 12 days recovering at the hospital.
"He was an extraordinary individual," said Giordano, now the chairman of surgery at the hospital. "Forget about the medical side. Emotionally, he just sailed right through this. It must have been an awful hospital environment, lying there with about six people around him, obviously hurt. Yet he was making quips and very relaxed. He was extraordinary."
The incident drew wide praise for the medical team. "It was a shining moment for all of us," Giordano said.
Hinckley's attorney, Barry Wm. Levine, said last night that Hinckley's mental illness is in remission and that he lives with regret over the assassination attempt.
"He lives with the haunting memory of that every day," Levine said. "He has a profound sense of regret for what happened. When he committed the act, he was ravaged by mental illness."
At the Washington Hilton, tourists and area residents said they were saddened by the news, but their reflections about Reagan's legacy and the meaning of his death tended to fall along party lines.
Cynthia Coley, 47, of Wilson, N.C., a Democrat, had a hard time retrieving a positive recollection. She was in town attending a child advocacy conference. "He would have cut the funds for that," she said.
At the grand Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center on Pennsylvania Avenue, Anna Werner, 25, a Polish exchange student on her first visit to Washington, said Reagan is known throughout her country for triggering the spread of democracy through Eastern Europe. He is known, too, she said, for the Alzheimer's disease that so limited the last part of his life.
"For years, he's struggling with his condition," Werner said. "Very sad."
Alzheimer's disease groups said yesterday that Reagan's death was not a surprise -- people live only an average of eight years after receiving a diagnosis. "It wasn't unexpected," said Kathryn Kane, a spokeswoman for the Alzheimer's Association, based in Chicago. Nevertheless, "it's a sad time."
Even those who were not old enough to know Reagan as president were somber.
Standing outside the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis yesterday, Midshipman 3rd Class Christopher Bongard said he turned 5 in 1989, when Reagan left office. He said he knew only what he has been told about Reagan, that he seems to have been a good man.
"He seems to have been one of the last cowboys, I guess," Bongard said.
Staff writers Lila Arzua, Justin Blum, Michelle Boorstein, David A. Fahrenthold, Avram Goldstein, Hamil R. Harris, Rosalind S. Helderman, Spencer S. Hsu, Fredrick Kunkle, Carol D. Leonnig, Susan Levine, Jacqueline L. Salmon, Christina A. Samuels, Mary Beth Sheridan, Debbi Wilgoren, Vanessa Williams, Elizabeth Williamson and Jason Ukman contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company