Saturday, June 12, 2004

Ronald Wilson Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, left Washington for the final time yesterday after a moving state funeral in the National Cathedral, where he was remembered as the man who defeated Soviet communism and restored America’s belief in itself.

“Ronald Reagan belongs to the ages now, but we preferred it when he belonged to us,” said President Bush, who joined three former world leaders to give eulogies that also honored the former president’s widow, Nancy, seated in the front row.

After the service, marked by a mixture of tears and laughter, Mr. Reagan’s body was flown back to California for a private burial at sunset atop a hill at his presidential library in Simi Valley.

“With the lever of American patriotism, he lifted up the world,” former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said in her eulogy, which she videotaped months in advance because of her own ill health.

“And so today the world — in Prague, in Budapest, in Warsaw, in Sofia, in Bucharest, in Kiev and in Moscow itself — the world mourns the passing of the great liberator and echoes his prayer ‘God bless America,’” she added.

Mrs. Thatcher’s soft voice echoed off the walls of the towering cathedral, where she was seated among thousands of invited guests who arrived under gloomy skies and a misting rain.

Outside, mourners who had gathered to watch the arrival of the funeral motorcade kept vigil. Some had been among the more than 100,000 who bid farewell to Mr. Reagan during the 36-hour public viewing in the Capitol Rotunda.

Tributes played out across the city and country as the funeral service began at 11:30 a.m.

American guns around the world fired 21-gun salutes at the stroke of noon local time at U.S. military bases. At dusk, there was another worldwide round of 50-gun salutes.

One of the most emotional moments came as Mr. Bush’s father paid tribute to his political mentor.

“As his vice president for eight years, I learned more from Ronald Reagan,” the elder Mr. Bush said, his voice quavering before he paused to regain his composure, “than from anyone I encountered in all my years in public life.”

Later, Mr. Bush drew the biggest laugh with an example of Mr. Reagan’s legendary sense of humor:

“When asked, ‘How did your visit go with Bishop Tutu?’ he replied, ‘So-so.’”

Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney reminded mourners of Mr. Reagan’s unflinching opposition to the Soviet Union.

“Some in the West, during the early 1980s, believed communism and democracy were equally valid and viable,” he said. “This was the school of moral equivalence.

“In contrast, Ronald Reagan saw Soviet communism as a menace to be confronted in the genuine belief that its squalid underpinnings would fall swiftly to the gathering winds of freedom,” he added. “And we know now who was right.”

Mr. Mulroney and the elder Mr. Bush delivered their eulogies from a simple wooden lectern placed on the vast marble floor of the cathedral. They were followed by President Bush, who ascended to an ornate stone pulpit to deliver the final eulogy.

“We lost Ronald Reagan only days ago but we have missed him for a long time,” the president said. “We have missed his kindly presence, that reassuring voice and the happy ending we had wished for him.”

Mr. Bush told a funny story about a boy who wrote Mr. Reagan a letter “requesting federal assistance to help clean up his bedroom.”

“Unfortunately, funds are dangerously low,” Mr. Reagan wrote back. “I’m sure your mother was fully justified in proclaiming your room a disaster.

“Therefore, you are in an excellent position to launch another volunteer program in our nation,” the letter continued. “Congratulations.”

The congregation erupted in laughter.

“See, our 40th president wore his title lightly,” Mr. Bush remarked. “And it fit like a white Stetson.”

Mr. Reagan’s flag-draped casket lay less than 30 feet from the nation’s five surviving presidents, all of whom were gathered in the front two pews with their wives: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and both Bushes.

A military officer escorted Mrs. Reagan down the center aisle to the front of the sanctuary, where the younger Mr. Bush ushered her to a seat next to children Patti and Ron.

In his eulogy, the president alluded to his father and to Mr. Carter when recounting Mr. Reagan’s successful presidential campaign in 1980.

“He came out ahead of some very good men, including one from Plains and one from Houston,” Mr. Bush said.

Among dozens of dignitaries present was former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who recently rejected the notion that Mr. Reagan won the Cold War. Mrs. Thatcher disagreed.

“He won the Cold War,” she insisted in her eulogy. “He did not shrink from denouncing Moscow’s evil empire. But he realized that a man of good will might nonetheless emerge from within its dark corridors.”

Mr. Mulroney predicted that Mr. Reagan would be remembered for his boldness.

“Ronald Reagan does not enter history tentatively,” he said. “He does so with certainty and panache.

“At home and on the world stage, his were not the pallid etchings of a timorous politician,” the Canadian leader added. “They were the bold strokes of a confident and accomplished leader.”

The elder Mr. Bush spent much of his eulogy recalling Mr. Reagan’s gentleness and grace. He noted that the president so loved the squirrels outside the White House that he erected a “Beware of Dog” sign before turning the place over to his dog-owning successor.

The elder Mr. Bush also told a little-known anecdote about Mr. Reagan’s hospital stay after he was shot in 1981. Having spilled water from a sink, the weakened president got down on his hands and knees to clean it up so that a nurse would not get into trouble.

Perhaps the most evocative rhetoric came from the current president, who painted a vivid picture of Mr. Reagan.

“We think of the steady stride, that tilt of the head and snap of the salute, the big-screen smile, and the glint in his Irish eyes when a story came to mind,” Mr. Bush said.

“We think of a man advancing in years with the sweetness and sincerity of a Scout saying the pledge,” he added. “We think of that grave expression that sometimes came over his face, the seriousness of a man angered by injustice and frightened by nothing.”

The president said Mr. Reagan’s Christian faith enabled him to cope with the prospect of death at two points in his 93-year life — after the assassination attempt, when he prayed for his attacker, and at the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

“It is the faith of a man with a fearful illness who waited on the Lord to call him home,” Mr. Bush said. “Now death has done all that death can do, and as Ronald Wilson Reagan goes his way, we are left with the joyful hope he shared.

“In his last years, he saw through a glass darkly. Now, he sees his Savior face to face. And we look for that fine day when we will see him again, all weariness gone, clear of mind, strong and sure and smiling again, and the sorrow of this parting gone forever.

“May God bless Ronald Reagan,” the president concluded, “and the country he loved.”

As Mr. Reagan’s casket was slowly carried out and placed into the hearse, the cathedral’s bells chimed 40 times. The casket was driven to a waiting Boeing 747 from the White House fleet that took off from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland bound for Naval Base Ventura County in Point Mogu.

A smiling Mrs. Reagan stood in the doorway, waved and blew a kiss before entering the cabin.

• Jim McElhatton, Tarron Lively, Megan Fromm and I-wei J. Chang contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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