WASHINGTON (AP) - This time, Ronald Reagan really was larger
Seven feet tall, in fact, cast in bronze and unveiled Wednesday
in the Capitol Rotunda next to another popular Republican
president, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Former first lady Nancy Reagan shed a tear when a blue curtain
fell away and revealed the visage of her beloved "Ronnie,"
standing tall as a head of state and bearing the trademark twinkle
of a movie star who understood the power of humor in politics.
She reached out and touched the statue's knee.
"The last time that I was in this room was for Ronnie's
service," Mrs. Reagan, 87, told the Reagan-era officials and their
successors who packed the Rotunda. "It's nice to be back under
Reagan, who died in 2004, was the nation's 40th president, from
1981-1989. There was bipartisan agreement that his statue belonged
in the Rotunda, the symbolic core of American government. On
Tuesday, President Barack Obama created the Ronald Reagan
Centennial Commission to plan and carry out activities marking the
100th anniversary, in 2011, of Reagan's birth.
His legacy includes the spread of democracy after his dramatic
appeal in Berlin to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down
this wall!" The Berlin Wall that divided East and West Germany
fell in 1989, a symbol of the decline of communism and the thawing
of the Cold War. Pieces of it are embedded in the statue, according
to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Guests recalled other elements of the Reagan legacy,
specifically the optimism and charisma he honed as an actor, tapped
as a policy maker and used to create an outsized but genial
The ceremony was as much about Mrs. Reagan as it was about her
husband. Dressed in white, she slowly walked into the towering room
to a standing ovation that grew louder as she ascended the stage.
"You created that secure space from which he ventured forth to
change America and to change the world," Reagan's friend and
treasury secretary, James Baker III, told her. "As this ceremony
honors him, Nancy, it also honors you."
Mrs. Reagan did more than support her husband. After he died of
Alzheimer's disease at 93, she quietly took on a president of her
own party, George W. Bush, over his order to stop funding new
embryonic stem cell lines. Behind the scenes, she lobbied
Republicans in Congress, and a bill to reverse Bush's policy
passed. Bush then vetoed it, but the two remained on good terms.
Obama this year reversed Bush's policy.
Onstage, Baker gestured to the statue, sculpted by North
Carolina artist Chas Fagan.
"It will stand forever as a silent sentry in these hallowed
halls, to teach our children and our grandchildren about that which
once was and to inspire them with visions of that which can be
again - today, tomorrow and unto the generations," Baker said.
The Reagan statue replaces one of Thomas Starr King, a Unitarian
Church minister who was credited by President Abraham Lincoln with
keeping California in the union during the Civil War.
States are allowed to have two statues of historic figures in
the U.S. Capitol. California's other is of the Rev. Junipero Serra,
the Roman Catholic founder of nine California missions.
King, a fiery orator, spoke throughout California in 1861
opposing secessionist sentiments that dominated much of the state.
At one rally in San Francisco, 40,000 people turned out to hear
During the Civil War, King helped recruit union troops and
raised $1.5 million for the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a forerunner
of the American Red Cross. He died in 1864 of diphtheria and
John Allen, a history professor at American River College in
Sacramento, said King was also a "profound nature writer" whose
letters about the beauty of Yosemite helped lead to the creation of
the national park.
King was also an advocate for African American rights and, as a
minister, exposed his San Francisco congregation to other religious
views, including Hinduism and Judaism.
"In a lot of ways, I find him, the more I read about him, a
more and more attractive personality," Allen said. "In a lot of
ways his ideas were ahead of the time."
Koren Benoit, a curator with the state Senate Rules Committee,
said the King statue will be sent to California and placed inside
the Capitol, but the location has not been determined.
Republican state Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, who introduced the
resolution calling for the replacement of the King statue with one
of Reagan, said putting King's statue in the California Capitol
would give "thousands of visitors and thousands of schoolchildren
... a chance to hear his story each year."
California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, then a state senator,
cast the only vote against the Hollingsworth resolution. She said
her objection related to the way the measure was passed on the last
day of the Legislature's 2007 session.
"There was no discussion with anyone about why the King statue
should be replaced, who the many other nominees for replacement
might be or whether a statue should replace the King statue or the
Serra statue," she said. "I thought it was important that we
consider all of California's history, and not just the most
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