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President Reagan: The People's Loss - 2004-06-17


President Reagan's death drew the world's attention, and its leaders. For much of a week, Washington was the scene of official ceremonies in honor and commemoration of the man who defined the United States during nearly all of the 1980's and, in a sense, beyond that decade. But the death of the fortieth U.S. president was also a time for the American people to say their own goodbyes.

President Reagan's body arrived in Washington from California on a sweltering afternoon. Yet at sunrise that day, people had started coming to the National Mall to stand in queue to view the casket in the Capitol rotunda beginning that evening.

It didn't matter to people to have to wait for hours to spend a few moments in the presence of President Reagan. Ann Slattery reflects. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime event for me," she says "So I figure it's my duty to come."

Woody Jackson spent hours traveling to Washington to join more than one hundred thousand other mourners. "We came out from Pennsylvania and stood on line for about four hours and twenty minutes before we were able to get into the Capitol rotunda." Mr. Jackson adds "The experience was certainly well worth it. We got a chance to pay our respects to an American hero."

The majesty of the Capitol rotunda and the importance of the moment deeply touched those who came, as it did Americans who stood in the same place many years ago when other presidents including Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy lay in state. Ramsey Gilchrist says his visit was heightened by the appearance of the 43rd president. "We were in line for approximately three and a half hours. It was worth every minute of it." He says "We had an added bonus President and Mrs. Bush also came through. So it was a very moving time. It was just a great privilege to be here."

As Kim O'Bryen observes, distances traveled and generations weren't important - being there was all that mattered. "It was amazing. We were talking to all these people coming from all over the place. Everyone seemed to have a different type of memory."

Ricky Gill was only an infant when Ronald Reagan was president, but he felt compelled to travel thousands of kilometers to praise his accomplishments. He says "I came here from California, which was President Reagan's adopted home state. I felt it important to fly out here to pay my respects to a great leader." Mr. Gill went on "I'm only seventeen. I was born during his second term in office. But, I feel that I'm enjoying the fruits of his labor. My generation is going to have to carry forth his spirit."

For Anthony Cooper, saying goodbye to President Reagan had personal importance. He says Mr. Reagan exemplified the American dream that common people can rise to greatness. "When I was a kid I came here and I met Ronald Reagan. I'll always remember it. He really made a good impression on me." Mr. Cooper adds "He came from a humble upbringing. He came to power in the greatest country in the world."

The public's outpouring of respect and admiration for Ronald Reagan had common themes. One of them was appreciation for strengthening the United States, as Bill Louch reflects. "President Reagan showed the world how powerful we are, how good we are, and then the other countries started respecting our country again."

Eileen Shutok-Cutright says President Reagan elevated the United States through the qualities of his personality that carried over into the Oval Office. She says "He was an inspirational leader. He was a man of integrity. I think he tried to use wisdom in a lot of things that he decided and did. It seemed like he was a people person but he was also very determined to set our country in balance and put us in the right direction."

Her opinion is shared by other mourners including Joel Anderson. He believes the accomplishments of the Reagan administration have benefited successors. "I thought" he says "that President Reagan played a vital part in setting the balance back into the country after many years of disarray even from the government." He continues "They were necessary changes. He was the only one who had the will and the power to make some changes. The presidents who have come behind him are the benefactors of those changes."

The American people's outpouring of admiration and respect for Ronald Reagan continued after a White House jet carried the casket back to California for burial. Thousands lined the highways leading to the Reagan library in Simi Valley north of Los Angeles, where the 40th president was laid to rest in a symbolic sunset ceremony. Since then, thousands more have come to the Reagan library to remember the president and reflect on how his beliefs and actions changed America.

As much as he now belongs to history, he will always belong to the American people.

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