Just Say Yes: Nancy Reagan Welcomed Back at Tribute

By Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 12, 2005

Nancy Reagan walked into the ballroom like a dowager queen: regal, fragile, immediately surrounded by retainers and well-wishers. She wore a floor-length white, beaded Oscar de la Renta gown, with pearls and matching earrings. She looked delighted and a bit overwhelmed to see so many familiar faces.

The occasion was "A Nation Honors Nancy Reagan," last night's black-tie tribute to the former first lady at the Ronald Reagan Building, a $2.5 million benefit for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Foundation. It was her first trip back to Washington and her first major public appearance since the former president's death in June. "Nancy Reagan has come back to her other home again," emcee Diane Sawyer told the audience of 600.

The welcome was predictably grand, as were the guests: Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Tony Bennett sang for their supper.

"It's wonderful to be back," said Reagan shortly before the dinner began. "There's lots of memories, naturally."

Since her husband's death, the 83-year-old Reagan has stayed out of the spotlight, rarely venturing from her California home or office. "In many ways it's lonely, but she's dealing with it well," said longtime friend Michael Deaver, who talks to her weekly. She seldom gives interviews and spends most of her time behind the scenes at the library, guarding her husband's legacy.

When asked her plans, Reagan shook her head slightly and said, "I don't know. I'll know when I'll know. But the library is Ronnie, so that's where I spend my time."

The years have been good to her. Her legacy is forever entwined with that of her husband, but her devotion and grace in caring for him as he struggled with Alzheimer's disease won her many new admirers. "She's grown in the esteem of the public," said talk-show host Larry King. "She was a popular first lady among Republicans, 'but' -- There's no 'but' anymore. She's now a classy elder stateswoman."

Reagan arrived in Washington on Monday night and was invited to stay at the White House. She and Laura Bush were whisked to a secure location yesterday when a Cessna plane flew into restricted airspace -- a bit more excitement than she had counted on. They will appear together at the Kennedy Center this morning to launch the Heart Truth First Ladies Red Dress Collection, an exhibition of red dresses and suits worn by the two women, as well as Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barbara Bush, Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson. The exhibit is part of a heart-disease awareness campaign for women.

But the centerpiece of Nancy Reagan's trip was last night's dinner (tickets started at $1,500 and tables topped out at $100,000) for the presidential library and new Air Force One pavilion. The pavilion, which opens in the fall, will display the Boeing 707 Ronald Reagan (and six other presidents) used before it was retired last year.

The evening opened with a reception -- a reunion, actually, of the very un-Washington collection of people from Reagan's worlds: King, Mike Wallace, Merv Griffin and Pat Sajak ("Isn't this 'Mamma Mia'?" Sajak cracked.) Social pals Lynn Wyatt, Betsy Bloomingdale, Lily Safra, Carolina Herrera, Dominick Dunne and columnist Suzy. Washington hands Deaver, Ken Duberstein, Fred Malek, C. Boyden Gray and Bob Strauss.

"It's the Reagan mix -- which is California, New York, Europe and Washington," said author Bob Colacello. "The rich, the famous, the beautiful and the powerful."

The dinner was, as one might expect, a paean to all things Reagan. The Big Idea last night was that it was a bipartisan lovefest, which called for the congressional leadership to line up onstage and make short heartfelt tributes.

There was much talk of bravery and courage. "Nancy, you serve as a shining example of what we can accomplish when it's morning in America," said Reid. Frist said that Nancy was the best thing that ever happened to Ronald Reagan. Hastert repeated her catchphrase "Just Say No" and everyone applauded.

Cheney gave a gracious speech, tracing Reagan's life before, during and after her 52-year marriage. "For eight years as first lady of our land, Nancy Reagan was the very ideal of grace, loyalty and compassion," he said.

After dinner, Bennett sang a few of her favorite old songs, and then a video played, once again, her greatest moments.

Reagan was the last speaker, and the standing ovation and applause wouldn't stop. "Thank you so much," she told everyone. "My word. It's so nice to be here this evening."

She praised the speakers and the bipartisan nature of the evening. "Perhaps we should do this more often," she said with a sly look. She reminded the crowd that this was her first trip to Washington since the state funeral last year, and shared that the Bushes had invited her to stay at the White House.

"So many memories," she said. "They come back to me when I'm in that house." She voice cracked and she placed her hand over her heart. "Oh, dear."

She regained her composure and continued her brief remarks. She made no reference to her support of stem cell research, which runs counter to the position of President Bush and many antiabortion activists. In an interview with Sawyer for ABC's "Good Morning America," Reagan said she had no plans to take on a political role, although she continues her work with the Alzheimer's Association and related research. "There are so many diseases that can be cured or at least helped that we can't turn our backs on this. We've lost so much already I can't bear to lose any more," Reagan is quoted in a new print advertising campaign sponsored by the Republican Main Street Partnership.

But that was a fight for another night.

"One thing I know Ronnie would want me to do tonight is thank you all for supporting the library," she concluded. "The Reagan Library is a place the sun will never set on the principles that Ronnie believed in so deeply. The library is a place where we'll never forget the ideals he cherished, the optimism he symbolized, or the America he loved. So thank you for being here tonight -- for me, the library and for Ronnie."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company