The time for sadness had passed. For hundreds of foot soldiers in the Reagan Revolution, yesterday afternoon was a celebration of a man they proudly called their boss.
"You look out here," said former secretary of energy Jim Edwards, his arm sweeping across the Ronald Reagan Building's crowded atrium. "It speaks for itself: the love, the admiration, the dedication that these people have for this man. There'll never be another one like him."
On this national day of mourning, there were no tears in this room. The mood was relaxed, almost upbeat. "We've lost a truly great statesman and decent human being," said Edwards. "He died for me 10 years ago when he got Alzheimer's. It really is a celebration of his life."
Almost 3,000 people belong to Reagan's alumni association, and they meet a few times each year to remember the past and carry on his legacy. This time was different, of course. This time, the whole world was watching. The week-long tributes to the man they adore confirmed everything they believed, everything that made their work for Reagan so special to them.
"It was a great history lesson for our children and our grandchildren," said former representative Jack Kemp. "As Lincoln was the Great Emancipator, Reagan will be known as the Great Liberator."
More than 500 former Reaganites flocked to the building for the hastily arranged tribute. Some were big names, former senior administration officials such as attorney general Ed Meese, United Nations ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and CIA and FBI director William Webster. But most were the anonymous faithful, ordinary people who found themselves part of extraordinary times. They wore name tags, laughed, reminisced and -- as at any reunion -- teased each other.
"Everybody looks a lot older than they used to," said Frank Keating, who held three positions in the Reagan administration before he was elected governor of Oklahoma. "All of us who worked for Reagan were doing a job, rather than having a job." He called the group "very focused, agenda people."
Most had not attended the funeral at Washington National Cathedral, instead watching the service on televisions around the room. A buffet lunch was served, and people scooped up mashed potatoes and beef strips as they watched the funeral procession make its way to Andrews Air Force Base. The room quieted as a frail Nancy Reagan moved slowly up the plane steps. Her husband, the master of the perfect political moment, would have turned and waved at the crowd. Just when it seemed the former first lady would disappear into the darkness of the plane, she turned and raised her arm in salute. The room broke into applause.
"Although it's a sad time for Mrs. Reagan and his family, for many of us here we can look back and be glad to be a part of his life," said Pat Ingoglia, who worked for Reagan's California gubernatorial campaign in 1966 and took a red-eye Tuesday to be in Washington this week. "Reagan was part of our family. He is family."
A stage had been erected in the front of the atrium, where a long table and chairs had been placed for the "State of the Union -- 15 Years Later," as the program had been billed. At each place was a bottle of water, notebooks and bowls of (what else?) jelly beans.
Then 15 former administration officials took the stage: Meese, Kirkpatrick, Edwards, Webster, former labor secretaries Bill Brock and Ann McLaughlin, transportation secretary Jim Burnley, energy secretaries John Herrington and Don Hodel, agriculture secretary John Block, HHS secretary Richard Schweiker, security advisers Bud McFarlane and Bill Clark, trade representative Clayton Yeutter and the OMB's Jim Miller. Also introduced: Tricia Nixon Cox, who popped onstage to warm applause.
They began with a moment of silence for the late Malcolm Baldrige, Sam Pierce and Don Regan -- a gracious touch, considering Regan's contentious split from the Reagans.
Then former national security adviser Richard Allen and domestic policy head Martin Anderson "briefed" those assembled. The glories of Reagan's tenure were magnified, and the problems -- Iran-contra, the deficit and the like -- minimized. "It will all be at the bottom of the dustbins of history," predicted Anderson.
Instead, Reagan's many accomplishments were recited: He revitalized the economy, restored American pride . . . "and, oh yeah, won the Cold War," Meese told the crowd, on the off chance anyone hadn't mentioned it in the past couple minutes. How? With vision, courage and perseverance, Meese said, quoting the president's motto: "We win, they lose."
There was time for a class picture, and then two short films: one created in 1984 for Reagan's reelection campaign, the second released by the Republican National Committee as a memorial this week. The room became quiet when their president appeared once again.
"We're here because of our loyalty to Ronald Reagan," said Meese. "We're here because of his loyalty to us. We came to change a nation, and we changed the world."