- The Washington Times - Friday, May 17, 2002

The enthusiasm, civility and style that defined an era was revived if only for a few brief, memorable hours Wednesday at a gala honoring former President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, upon the occasion of their jointly receiving the Congressional Gold Medal.

The 40th president, 91 and in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's Disease, was unable to attend the event, although his wife, who accepted the award from the Senate and House leadership yesterday on Capitol Hill, made sure to tell 650 friends and supporters that he always would be with them in spirit.

"Of course, I wish Ronnie were here," she told the crowd at the end of the evening, pausing a moment to compose herself. "Somehow, I think he is."

The dinner, concert and tribute at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center where else? turned into an emotion-filled evening, especially for about 200 VIPs who reminisced about the good old days at the exclusive pre-dinner reception where Mrs. Reagan received guests.

Sens. John W. Warner, Christopher S. Bond, Bill Frist, George Allen, Ted Stevens, Kay Bailey Hutchison and John McCain were among the prominent solons queuing up to greet the former first lady (who seemed to favor Mr. McCain with the longest chat and hand-holding session) as Bush administration officials Andrew H. Card Jr., Karl Rove, John Ashcroft, Elaine L. Chao and Ted Olson circulated the room to chat with Reagan alumni Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, Paul Laxalt, Edwin Meese, Charles Wick, Lucky Roosevelt, Frank Fahrenkopf, Holly Coors and Sheila Tate, among many others.

"A lovely reunion," said New York- and Paris-based philanthropist Cecile Zilkha, who, like many of the ladies, was notably ravissante in discreet jewels and a long, major-designer gown. (Hers was by Yves Saint Laurent.)

"It's also a very loving one," Buffy Cafritz added as she noted the presence of the Reagans' social friends, many of whom had flown in from California for the $1,250-per-person (minimum) event, which raised more than $1 million for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Foundation.

"I came with Bo Derek in my plane," said casino mogul and former talk-show host Merv Griffin, who revealed that he and the beauteous Republican film star took off for Washington at about the same time as Mrs. Reagan's private aircraft but that Mrs. Reagan's had arrived first.

"She got special permission to land at Reagan National, so she beat us," Mr. Griffin joked.

"As well she should," former White House Social Secretary Nancy Ruwe declared. "After all, it's her airport."

It was clear that many longtime pals considered the soiree a "must-attend" event, especially because Mrs. Reagan rarely travels far from home these days.

"She's a wonderful caregiver for her husband, and she's been doing it a long time," travel mate Mary Jane Wick observed.

"She has an incredible support system in place which you would expect from her and her two children, Patty and Ron, are also around" to help, said former Reagan Foundation head Robert Higdon.

Mrs. Reagan seemed both pleased and touched by the impressive program, which included maestro Mstislav Rostropovitch leading the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra on cello in a special three-movement Haydn concerto, plus bipartisan tributes from Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

"Ronald Reagan always talked about freedom, not only in America, but around the world," Mr. Lott said, reminding the audience of the president's speech to World War II veterans on the beach at Normandy and, especially, his famous call to Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.

Mr. Hastert focused on Mrs. Reagan's singular contributions: her "elegance and dignity" in the White House, her leadership in the "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign and, most especially, her "enduring and undying love of her husband which has become an inspiration to all Americans."

It's no easy task for a Democrat to get a standing ovation in a room full of die-hard Republicans, especially when it's Mr. Kennedy although Massachusetts' senior senator did exactly that with his moving words about the character and accomplishments of his sometime nemesis.

The Kennedy family, he said, never forgot Mr. Reagan's "extraordinary act of generosity, hospitality and kindness" when, soon after assuming office, he initiated the effort to bestow posthumously the same congressional medal on Mr. Kennedy's brother Robert F. Kennedy.

"It was an early and powerful demonstration of largeness of spirit that infused his presidency," Mr. Kennedy intoned as the audience and even the ever-scurrying waiters came to complete silence. "He believed in defeating opponents, not destroying them. He renewed America's faith in itself and restored the presidency as a vigorous, purposeful instrument of national leadership."

A warm personal message from President Bush played on a large overhead screen, followed by a special video of the Reagans' magic moments in both public and private life. There was hardly a dry eye in the house when it ended with a photo of the loving couple as the sounds of "Our Love Is Here to Stay" drifted through the cavernous room.

Mr. Griffin did his duty to make sure the evening ended on a happy note, passing the microphone first to Mrs. Reagan and then to the somewhat embarrassed congressional hosts to lead the audience in a hearty version of "God Bless America."

Definitely not "a night for Democrats or Republicans, or for liberals or conservatives," as the evening's master of ceremonies, Time magazine senior correspondent Hugh Sidey, succinctly stated, but "a night for all Americans."

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