Monday, April 11, 2011
To celebrate Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday, the Reagan Library renovated its exhibits. The press release quotes Nancy Reagan – “This renovation will be a wonderful birthday present for Ronnie,” said former first lady Nancy Reagan. “I am so pleased that the Library will remain open so that visitors can tour Air Force One, attend events, and see one of my favorite exhibits, The White House Miniature.”
It is a complete revamp and enhancement that brings the museum side of the library up to speed with the Air Force One Pavilion, home of the gleaming Boeing 707 set as though launched into the bright skies of Simi Valley. The big jet transported the 40th President of the United States to strategic sites all over the world. In the newly refurbished halls, you can stand at the Presidential Podium and read some of Reagan’s best speeches off a teleprompter if you dare. The camera will catch you and the Presidential Seal, and you’ll look, well, Presidential. Or, you can video record yourself at another teleprompter interviewing a young Ronald Reagan or calling a baseball game from a ticker tape as he did back in Iowa.
The White House Miniature, a sixty foot replica on a scale of one inch to one foot gives you an inside look at the First Family’s spectacular residence – from the private quarters upstairs, to the famed Lincoln Bedroom, to the Press Room, to the private theater and the Oval Office. We had our own private docent (my sister-in-law), a history major, knowledgeable, articulate and charming, who walked us through the decades highlighting the most interesting and poignant exhibits, including the recreated Oval Office and the interior cabin of Air Force One. In the foreign policy room, we heard the back-story of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the contentious but world-altering friendship with Mikhail Gorbachev. She took us back to the years when Reagan was governor and I was a student at the University of California and the tumultuous days of student protest and assassinations.
Reagan had a lifelong habit of handwriting his letters. We saw several originals, including a two pager to Gorbachev, a love letter to Nancy and another addressed to the American People, in which he told us all about the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. It would be a new chapter. He wrote, “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life.”
Our first visit to the Presidential Library, located on the top of the hill in scenic Simi Valley, was when Reagan was still alive. He did not appear publicly then. But when he died in 2004 at the age of ninety-three, the outpouring of love and respect from every quarter captured the world’s attention. The transport of the coffin from the Rotunda of the nation’s Capitol aboard a new and larger Air Force One from Washington D.C. to southern California was tracked by a grieving nation. When it arrived on those hills he loved the images had that much more meaning, because we had walked those grounds. As the sun set over the hills, with unmatched dignity, Rev. Michael Wenning, pastor of the Reagan’s home church, Bel Air Presbyterian, eulogized the President. For one last time, Ronnie, Patty and Michael held their mother as she stroked the red and white strips of the flag draped coffin with her aging hand. We all bid him farewell. In the orange glow over his shoulder, their son Ronnie said it best. “The sun has set. He is home.”
Back in Washington, just a few days before, well over a hundred thousand people came to pay their respects first at the Capitol, then at the National Cathedral. Dignitaries from all over the world joined regular folks to walk past the coffin in a ritual as old as the nation.
The videotape of that memorable day ran in the halls of the new exhibit. I stood and watched the images that still linger from June of 2004. Margaret Thatcher, who served as Prime Minister of Great Britain the same years that Reagan served as President, a fellow conservative who shared Reagan’s conviction about a strong defense, the threat of the Soviet Union, the harm of dictatorships that rob the people of fundamental freedoms, the value of open markets, low taxes and limited governmental interference. They were kindred spirits, the “Great Communicator” and the “Iron Lady.”
As Mrs. Thatcher approached the President’s coffin at the center of the great Rotunda of the Capital, under the massive dome, she was aging, too. Dressed appropriately in black, under a perfectly British black felt brimmed hat, the camera caught the sense of loss in her eyes and like all the others, her gaze fixed on the box that held what was left of her good friend and colleague on the global stage. And then, she curtseyed. Most people missed it, I’m sure. But not the camera. It was simple, short, and thoroughly understated. But it was a sweet, magnificent gesture, with implications of royalty.
This was the first woman Prime Minister in history. She led Great Britain in the shadow of Winston Churchill; resolute, fierce and compelling. In her world, the curtsey is reserved for the Palace, a show of deference to the Monarchy.
We don’t have royalty in this country. The Constitution took pains to prevent it. But for that one simple moment in time, we did.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2011