THE VICE PRESIDENT: Mrs. Reagan, members of the President’s family, colleagues, distinguished guests, members of the diplomatic corps, fellow citizens:
Knowing that this moment would come has not made it any easier to see the honor guard, and the flag draped before us, and to begin America’s farewell to President Ronald Reagan. He said goodbye to us in a letter that showed his great courage and love for America. Yet for his friends and for his country, the parting comes only now. And in this national vigil of mourning, we show how much America loved this good man, and how greatly we will miss him.
A harsh winter morning in 1985 brought the inaugural ceremony inside to this Rotunda. And standing in this place for the 50th presidential inauguration, Ronald Reagan spoke of a nation that was “hopeful, big-hearted, idealistic, daring, decent, and fair.” That was how he saw America, and that is how America came to know him. There was a kindness, simplicity, and goodness of character that marked all the years of his life.
When you mourn a man of 93, no one is left who remembers him as a child in his mother’s arms. Ronald Wilson Reagan’s life began in a time and place so different from our own, in a quiet town on the prairie, on the 6th of February, 1911. Nelle and Jack Reagan would live long enough to see the kind of man they had raised, but they could never know all that destiny had in store for the boy they called Dutch. And if they could witness this scene in 2004, their son taken to his rest with the full honors of the United States, they would be so proud of all he had done with the life they gave him, and the things they taught him.
President Reagan once said, “I learned from my father the value of hard work and ambition, and maybe a little something about telling a story.” That was the Ronald Reagan who confidently set out on his own from Dixon, Illinois during the Great Depression, the man who would one day speak before cameras and crowds with such ease and self-command. “From my mother,” said President Reagan, “I learned the value of prayer. My mother told me that everything in life happened for a purpose. She said all things were part of God’s plan, even the most disheartening setbacks, and in the end, everything worked out for the best.” This was the Ronald Reagan who had faith, not just in his own gifts and his own future, but in the possibilities of every life. The cheerful spirit that carried him forward was more than a disposition; it was the optimism of a faithful soul, who trusted in God’s purposes, and knew those purposes to be right and true.
He once said, “There’s no question I am an idealist, which is another way of saying I am an American.” We usually associate that quality with youth, and yet one of the most idealistic men ever to become president was also the oldest. He excelled in professions that have left many others jaded and self-satisfied, and yet somehow remained untouched by the worst influences of fame or power. If Ronald Reagan ever uttered a cynical, or cruel, or selfish word, the moment went unrecorded. Those who knew him in his youth, and those who knew him a lifetime later, all remember his largeness of spirit, his gentle instincts, and a quiet rectitude that drew others to him.
Seen now, at a distance, his strengths as a man and as a leader are only more impressive. It’s the nature of the city of Washington that men and women arrive, leave their mark, and go their way. Some figures who seemed quite large and important in their day are sometimes forgotten, or remembered with ambivalence. Yet nearly a generation after the often impassioned debates of the Reagan years, what lingers from that time is almost all good. And this is because of the calm and kind man who stood at the center of events.
We think back with appreciation for the decency of our 40th president, and respect for all that he achieved. After so much turmoil in the ’60s and ’70s, our nation had begun to lose confidence, and some were heard to say that the presidency might even be too big for one man. That phrase did not survive the 1980s. For decades, America had waged a Cold War, and few believed it could possibly end in our own lifetimes. The President was one of those few. And it was the vision and will of Ronald Reagan that gave hope to the oppressed, shamed the oppressors, and ended an evil empire. More than any other influence, the Cold War was ended by the perseverance and courage of one man who answered falsehood with truth, and overcame evil with good.
Ronald Reagan was more than an historic figure. He was a providential man, who came along just when our nation and the world most needed him. And believing as he did that there is a plan at work in each life, he accepted not only the great duties that came to him, but also the great trials that came near the end. When he learned of his illness, his first thoughts were of Nancy. And who else but Ronald Reagan could face his own decline and death with a final message of hope to his country, telling us that for America there is always a bright dawn ahead. Fellow Americans, here lies a graceful and a gallant man.
Nancy, none of us can take away the sadness you are feeling. I hope it is a comfort to know how much he means to us, and how much you mean to us as well. We honor your grace, your own courage, and above all, the great love that you gave to your husband. When these days of ceremony are completed, the nation returns him to you for the final journey to the West. And when he is laid to rest under the Pacific sky, we will be thinking of you, as we commend to Almighty the soul of His faithful servant, Ronald Wilson Reagan.