- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2001

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. Former first lady Nancy Reagan yesterday christened the USS Ronald Reagan, and President Bush vowed the new aircraft carrier, like the former president, "will sail tall and strong."

Mrs. Reagan smashed a bottle of champagne on the bow of the mammoth ship, spraying a bit of bubbly on Mr. Bush as she became the first person to name a carrier after a living ex-president. It was the 49th anniversary of her marriage to Mr. Reagan, who is suffering from advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease.

"I wish Ronnie were here," Mrs. Reagan said in an emotional ceremony at the Newport News Shipbuilding Yard. "But, somehow, I think he is."

On a lighter note, she joked that she and Mr. Reagan were actually taking possession of the 20-story-tall, 100,000-ton behemoth.

"It is our wedding anniversary," she said coyly. "I want to thank the Navy for giving us such a wonderful present. Such a little thing."

Mr. and Mrs. Reagan are former actors who appeared together in the film "Hellcats of the Navy." Mrs. Reagan's long devotion to her ailing husband drew a tribute yesterday from Mr. Bush.

"Since your wedding day, you've seen the name Reagan written large in many places, from theater marquees to the archways of great buildings," the president said. "But there is something especially fitting in the place it holds today on the newest ship in the greatest navy in the world.

"When we send her off to sea, it is certain that the Ronald Reagan will meet with rough waters, as well as smooth, and head winds as well as fair. But she will sail tall and strong, like the man we have known."

Mr. Bush, whose father served as Mr. Reagan's vice president in the 1980s, spoke affectionately of the former president.

"A man cannot be strong forever, but if he is very fortunate, life will send him a partner to be strong when he is not," the president said. "In a life of honors, Ronald Reagan has always valued one honor above all the love of Nancy. It is a love that believes all, hopes all and endures all.

"Mrs. Reagan, anyone who has seen you together knows how much you mean to him," he said. "I want you to know how much your care and love for him means to America."

The $4 billion carrier, stretching 1,092 feet from stem to stern nearly the height of the Empire State building will not be completed for another two years. It will have a 4.5-acre flight deck and be powered by two nuclear reactors that can operate for more than 20 years without refueling.

The dedication took place in a steady rain under skies that matched the ship itself battleship gray. Among the many dignitaries who spoke was Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican and chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

"I was privileged to know the president we used to ride horses together," Mr. Warner said. "And were he here today, he would look at that ship and say, 'For an old second lieutenant, not too bad,' " Mr. Warner said, referring to Mr. Reagan's World War II service in the Army Air Corps. Mr. Warner predicted the Navy will one day name a ship after two U.S. presidents, "and the ship will be the USS Bush."

Mr. Bush used yesterday's dedication as an opportunity to push for two of his initiatives, rebuilding the military and constructing a missile defense shield.

"Because of Ronald Reagan, the world saw America as a strong and peaceful nation," he said. "Today's world is different from the one he faced and changed. We are no longer divided into armed camps, locked in a careful balance of terror.

"Yet freedom still has enemies. Our present dangers are less concentrated and more varied. They come from rogue nations, from terrorism, from missiles that threaten our forces, our friends, our allies and our homeland. Our times call for new thinking."

It was a subtle reference to Mr. Bush's plan for a missile defense shield, which Democrats oppose as unworkable and overly provocative to America's rivals. Mr. Bush was less subtle about his call for rebuilding the military, which declined significantly during the Clinton years.

"Ronald Reagan understood that the advance of freedom depends on American strength," Mr. Bush said. "We must have a military that is second to none and that includes a Navy that is second to none."

Yesterday's celebration was somewhat marred by news that 21 National Guard members most of them from Virginia were killed in a plane crash Saturday in Georgia. Mr. Bush began his remarks yesterday by "asking for God's blessing on those who lost their lives yesterday, and for their families."

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