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Final Farewell to Ronald Reagan

Aired June 11, 2004 - 23:00   ET


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: The program tonight is not our usual fare, not in tone or substance. Not in length, or in structure. For those of you who missed the nation's farewell to the president this morning, we hope you'll stay with us over the next hour or so. And you will see what millions of others watched throughout the day.
For those of you who watched so much of it to stay with us; we hope you'll watch it again, seeing some things you missed earlier.

There are some still photos to show you. Many a few friends of Mr. Reagan's to talk to. A song that seemed perfect for the moment to play a perfect ending of our program. We even eliminated the crawl.

So tonight a different NEWSNIGHT. But NEWSNIGHT still. And it begins at the beginning of a day of long goodbyes.


BROWN (voice-over): The nation's first state funeral in more than three decades began simply. With a gentle kiss.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: With faith in Jesus Christ, we receive the body of our brother, Ronald for burial. Let us pray with confidence to God, the giver of life that he will raise him to perfection in the company of the saints.

BROWN: Inside the National Cathedral, in front of all of the country's living ex-presidents, and with the world watching, the final chapters of Ronald Reagan's long goodbye began in prayer.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For none of us liveth to himself. And no man dieth to himself. For if we live, we live under the Lord. And if we die, we die unto the Lord. Whether we live therefore or die, we are the Lord's. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord even so seth the spirit. For they rest from their labors.

Let us pray. Oh God whose mercies cannot be numbered, accept our prayers on behalf of thy servant Ronald. And grant him an entrance into the land of life and joy.

RABBI HAROLD KUSHNER: Even youth shall faint and be weary. And the young men shall utterly fail. But they that wait upon the world shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not feel faint. BROWN: They spoke of history changed; words spoken by some who helped change it. Margaret Thatcher, frail now, spoke her words on tape.

MARGARET THATCHER, FORMER PRIME MINISTER OF GREAT BRITAIN: He inspired America and its allies with renewed faith in their mission of freedom. Others saw only limits to growth. He transformed a stagnant economy into an engine of opportunity. Others hoped, at best, for an uneasy cohabitation with the Soviet Union. He won the Cold War. Not only without firing a shot, but also by inviting enemies out of their fortress and turning them into friends.

BRIAN MULRONEY, FORMER PRIME MINISTER, CANADA: One day in Brussels, President Mitterand, in referring to President Reagan said, il a vraiment la notion de l'etat. Rough translation, "he really has a sense of the state about him." The translation does not fully capture the profundity of the observation. What President Mitterand meant is that there is a vast difference between the job as president, and the role of president.

BROWN: President Bush the elder was never better. Balancing a nation's sorrow with great good humor.

GEORGE HERBERT WALKER BUSH, FMR. PRESIDENT, UNITED STATES: As his vice president for eight years, I learned more from Ronald Reagan than from anyone I encountered in all my years of public life. I learned kindness. We all did. I also learned courage. The nation did. Who can forget the horrible day in March 1981? He looked at the doctors in the emergency room and said, "I hope you are all Republicans."

And then I learned decency. The whole world did. Days after being shot, weak from wounds, he spilled water from a sink. And entering the hospital room, aides saw him on his hands and knees, wiping water from the floor. He worried that his nurse would get in trouble.

The good book says humility goes before honor, and our friend had both. And who could not cherish such a man?

And perhaps as important as anything, I learned a lot about humor. A lot about laughter. And oh, how President Reagan loved a good story. When asked how did your visit go with Bishop Tutu, he replied "so-so."

BROWN: And his son spoke of a nation's loss.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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 worrying is gone. Clear of mind. Strong and sure, and smiling again. And the sorrow of this parting gone forever. May God bless Ronald Reagan, and the country he loved.


BROWN: On any day, Ronan Tynan's "Amazing Grace" touches your soul. Today it seemed to touch something even deeper.


BROWN: The minister, friend, former senator, John Danforth.

JOHN DANFORTH, FORMER U.S. SENATOR: In this service of worship, we celebrate the life of a great president. And we profess the resurrection faith of this church. It is faith in God's victory over darkness. It is faith in the ultimate triumph of light. We believe in this victory every day of our lives. We believe it as individuals. We believe it as a nation. There is no better time to celebrate the triumph of light than in a service for Ronald Reagan.

BROWN: And then Ronald Wilson Reagan, a child of small-town America, left the city where he made history. Left for his last trip west. He was as the Air Force band played, going home.


BROWN: That was this morning in Washington. We'll return in California in a moment.


BROWN: Every culture -- at least every culture I know of throughout time has had funerals. They help us make the difficult transition from life to death and beyond. That is no different then when they are big state formal funerals like the ones we've watched over the last several days. CNN's Candy Crowley was in Simi Valley during the service. And Candy joins us now from there. Good evening. It was moving and perfect in so many different way, wasn't it?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It really was. And so different from what we saw in Washington. The National Cathedral as lovely as it was, and as beautiful a man-made structure as that is, it's just nothing for these mountains, and the sunset, and this perfectly clear night.

I wanted to try and give you an idea of a couple of things you may not have seen while the camera was elsewhere. One is, it was so quiet here. I don't think I heard a cough. I don't think I heard a whisper. At one point I looked at my producer and said, do you hear that dove? I mean that's how quiet it was.

When the camera started to click, it sounded like thunder bolts. It just really broke the silence. As you may have noticed, the motorcade was very late compared to when it was supposed to be here. It arrived some 45 minutes late I think. Partially because they slowed down so that the crowds that were along the way could get a good look at the hearse, and the funeral procession.

And what that meant was that here these people sat and never -- didn't seem to talk to one another. Maybe a whisper or so. But very quietly. And up above you kept hearing those F-18's that did the fly- by during the funeral itself. Just a lonely F-18's up there. So there were just lots of imagery. Beautiful setting. I judge probably precisely what Ronald Reagan had in mind when he said I want to be buried right here. And I want to be facing west. We had -- when the flag-draped coffin came and they put it up against those kind of sun-dappled mountains, it was incredible coloring. Hollywood could not have done it any better. It was an amazing night.

And I think the most personal of the times I've seen, we heard from the three children.


CROWLEY: It was very clear at the end when you saw Nancy Reagan with the casket, and she went over to it for the last time. It was very hard for her to back away from that. Her children came over and whispered in her ear, and were clearly trying to get her to move back. But that took a little while. This really was the last goodbye.

BROWN: Just a thought. Mr. Reagan and Mrs. Reagan planned every detail of this. And had planned it for a long time. The one thing they couldn't have planned, but that turned out is that their family which was often had difficult estrangements over the years, in the last years of his life. And as we all saw today, was very much together. Of good spirit.

I thought that the children particularly were quite lovely. And the things they had to say, and their grace, and in their humor. And in their obvious love for their father. It's been a long road for the family to get to this point. But in the most important moment, they were there.

CROWLEY: Yes. And the family itself attributes this to the disease, Alzheimer's. As awful as that was, it has a way of bringing life into perspective. And what seems so important obviously, when you are faced with that kind of debilitating disease, time has run out. And they say this is one the children and their father found some peace with one another when that started.

And certainly that was evident tonight. Very gracious children of Ronald Reagan. They seemed to have learned a lot from him.

BROWN: Candy, thank you very much. It was -- I think for people who watched it, it was everything you wanted it to be, and wonderfully played out if you will. Quietly, and with great dignity. Thank you for your work tonight. Candy Crowley in California.

In the last 48 hours, we've seen this remarkable -- and for Americans at least, unusual public image play out. In the time remaining with us, we'll stop and watch and listen again, as some of these moments unfolded.

We'll also look a little more at Mr. Reagan's life. He was a letter-writer. He wrote hundreds of them. And we'll talk some about that as well. And we'll end it all tonight with the perfect marriage of a moment.

Ray Charles who dies yesterday, and Ronald Reagan who's funeral was today, together. This is NEWSNIGHT from New York.


BROWN: George H.W. Bush will turn 80 this weekend I believe. American's first met Ronald Reagan at the movies where he was larger than life moving across the screen. The week that honored his death was itself an exercise in motion. From take-offs and landings, on opposite coasts, to parades of people paying respects, to riderless horse clip clopping to the capital steps. A blur of action really.

So tonight, for a moment or two, we'll slow it down. Stop it actually, and let still photographs do what they do best. With thanks to the photographers of the "Associated Press" who captured them all.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have come this day to begin the preparation of our final respects. We thank you that this world is a better place because he was here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The legacy that he left behind and set a path for the American future. It's something that is going to affect my life, and everyone else's. So it's good to be part of that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: God bless you Nancy!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This Capitol building is for many the greatest symbol of democracy and freedom in the world. It is the right place to honor a man who so faithfully defended our freedom. And so successfully helped extend the blessings of liberty to millions of people around the world.

With faith in Jesus Christ, we receive the body of our brother Ronald for burial. Let us pray with confidence to God, the giver of life that he will raise him to perfection in the company of the saints.

THATCHER: He is himself again, more himself than at any time on this earth. And as the last journey of this faithful pilgrim took him beyond a sunset, and as heaven's morning broke, I like to think, in the words of Bunyan, that all of the trumpets sounded on the other side.

GEORGE H.W. BUSH: As his vice president for eight years, I learned more from Ronald Reagan than from anyone I encountered in all my years of public life. I learned kindness. We all did. I also learned courage. The nation did.

GEORGE W. BUSH: It has been 10 years since he said his own farewell, yet it is still very sad and hard to let him go. When the sun sets tonight off the coast of California and we lay to rest our 40th president, a great American story will close.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He is home how. He is free. In his final letter to the American people, Dad wrote, "I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life." This evening, he has arrived.


BROWN: The photographs of the Associated Press and the elegant work of NEWSNIGHT producer Amanda Townsend.

Next on NEWSNIGHT, how Mrs. Reagan honored his life and his death at sunset in California. Around the world, this is NEWSNIGHT.


BROWN: For Ronald Reagan's family, today began with high pageantry and ended on a California hilltop where days ago nearly 100,000 people had come to pay their respects. There were no crowds today, just invited guests. President Reagan had come home for the last time, and it was time for the private good-byes.


REV. MICHAEL WENNING: We have come from sea to shining sea, to this soil which he loved so much and where his body will remain.

MICHAEL REAGAN: He sent me a letter about marriage and how important it was to be faithful to the woman you love, with a P.S., "You'll never get in trouble if you say `I love you' at least once a day." And I'm sure he told Nancy every day, "I love you."

PATTI DAVIS: At his last moment, when he opened his eyes, eyes that had not opened for many, many days, and looked at my mother, he showed us that neither disease nor death can conquer love.

RON REAGAN: Those of us who knew him well will have no trouble imagining his paradise. Golden fields will spread beneath the blue dome of the western sky. Live oaks will shadow the rolling hillsides. And someplace, flowing from years long past, a river will wind towards the sea. Across those fields, he will ride a gray mare he calls Nancy D. They will sail over jumps he has built with his own hands. He will let the river carry him over the shining stones. He will rest in the shade of the trees.

Our cares are no longer his. We meet him now only in memory, but we will join him soon enough, all of us, when we are home, when we are free.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ready, aim, fire! Ready, aim, fire! Ready, aim, fire!


BROWN: The California chapter of today's story. Mrs. Reagan, who is 82, perhaps 83, obviously showing the strain of a long and difficult week, a week she planned meticulously, down to the very last note of the very last song.

When we come back, we'll talk history and the president, the 40th president. A quick break here first. From New York, this is NEWSNIGHT.


BROWN: Kevin Starr has written six volumes on the life and times and spirit -- it's considerable -- of the state of California. It'd be somewhat slimmer, we imagine, had Ronald Reagan settled in Chicago instead. For years, Elizabeth Drew wrote "The Letter From Washington" for "The New Yorker" magazine. With Mr. Reagan in the White House, she never lacked for material. And historian Mary Sarotte teaches international relations at the University of Cambridge, where she is a fellow at St. John's College. She's also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. And they all join us now, and we are pleased to have them all with us.

I don't think this is the night for especially hard or tricky questions. Let me -- let's talk a little sense of history. FDR said of great presidents that they are leaders of thought at times when certain ideas of a nation had to be clarified. Ms. Drew, does that seem to define Ronald Reagan pretty well?

ELIZABETH DREW, JOURNALIST: I think it does, Aaron. The striking thing about Ronald Reagan's presidency is he really filled both roles to the fullest, whether one agreed with him or not. He understood the role of the president as head of state. He understood the symbolism of statecraft, of being the head of state. Mike Deaver told me once that before Reagan made any entrance, he would throw his shoulders back. He understood how to be and appear to be a leader.

He was also a very good and shrewd politician. But most of all, Reagan was a revolutionary. He, like his compatriots -- that was so striking today, Mr. Gorbachev and Mrs. Thatcher -- were visionaries, even revolutionaries. And they all remade the world that they inherited.

BROWN: Do you think -- it's too early to talk about how history will write the story, but is he in that category of great, do you think, Mary?

MARY SAROTTE, HISTORIAN: I think that he -- he is, although the -- obviously, we buried the man today. You don't want to speak ill of the dead.

BROWN: Right.

SAROTTE: Today is the day to think about his accomplishments. I think the audit of history will be more critical than the coverage we've seen recently.

BROWN: It'll certainly be more complex.


BROWN: There's a difference between beloved, which clearly he was, and greatness, which is a much more complicated matter.

SAROTTE: Absolutely. This president is, as we've seen this week, beloved as few have been. I don't think that that will ever change, his standing with the American people. What will come out when the grieving is past is a more critical assessment of his -- his -- the deficits, foreign policy. But today's not a day, really, to talk about those topics.

BROWN: I agree. Kevin, out in California, were there times, as the governor of California, where -- was he a different leader in those times than he became when he became president, or were all the markers there even then?

KEVIN STARR, HISTORIAN: Well, of course, the governor has a more narrow base than the president of the United States, but even from the beginning, Ronald Reagan, once he adopted a kind of laissez-faire Republicanism, the Republicanism of southern California, a suburban Republicanism, if you will, that had a laissez-faire attitude towards a lot of questions, he stayed on that message. He stayed on that message that California was good and needed to be corrected and then, of course, later, he stayed on the message that America was good but needed to be corrected. And of course, later, even beyond, as president, the world had possibilities within it but needed deep correction.

BROWN: Elizabeth, I think you started to talk about this a moment ago. There is that thing about Mr. Reagan that as the head of the state, as the ceremonial head of state -- and we embody them both in the American government, the political leadership and the head of state -- he had the most perfect pitch I have -- I can imagine. He seemed to understand that part as well as any person in our history.

DREW: Oh, I think that's right. He understood the Americans' desire for the presidency to be a dignified and even majestic office. He understood symbolism. I think -- and this is not at all derogatory. I think his movie career put him in very good stead. He understood that he was playing a role, or as he would have put it, the role of a lifetime.


DREW: And he knew how to play that role.

BROWN: Getting down to our last seconds, I'm curious. You're the youngest in the -- in this group. What did you learn this week that you didn't know before?

SAROTTE: What did I learn...


SAROTTE: ... that I didn't know before? The -- just...

BROWN: Do you think appreciated the depth of feeling that Americans had for the president?

SAROTTE: I think I did. I think I saw that. But I also think -- it becomes clear, seeing him in the context of Thatcher and Gorbachev, just how much these individuals did change the world. BROWN: Yes.

SAROTTE: I think that Reagan completed the work that Truman and Eisenhower started. I think we saw an arc come to completion. And that was, I think, a profoundly satisfying feeling this week.

BROWN: Are you -- you know, we tend to say they don't make 'em like that anymore. Do you tend to think that way, they don't make 'em like that anymore, or are you of the sort that says, We'll just have to see, moments test greatness?

SAROTTE: Well, he obviously was a very unique man. Just as Elizabeth was saying, he was an actor. That was very unique. At some points, that was used against him, but he said, You know, there are days in this office I wonder how anyone who isn't an actor could do this job. And I think that was a kind of unique statement to Reagan.

BROWN: Thank all of you for being here and for being flexible with us on a night when things haven't always gone on time. That happens sometimes. We'll invite you all back and we'll continue the conversation. Thank you.

Ahead on the program still: He was called the "great communicator." We tend to think of that in terms of the speeches that he wrote, but this is a man who literally wrote thousands of letters. And the letters are incredibly revealing, and we'll read a few after the break.


BROWN: They continue to pass by, pay their respects in Simi Valley. We have two more pieces of business we want to get in tonight before we leave you, and this is the first of them. A letter Ronald Reagan wrote -- the letter he wrote to the county announcing that he had Alzheimer's, is the one most of us remember -- it's poignancy and especially its honesty are still striking a decade later. President Reagan's way with the spoken word earned him the label "the great communicator," but pen and paper exerted an irresistible pull on the man. When he took office, e-mail and instant messaging had yet to reshape the way we communicate. BlackBerries were found in bushes, not in briefcases. Letters, the kind you post in the mail, still had currency. And Ronald Reagan wrote thousands of them. A good many were published several years ago in a book called "Reagan: A Life in Letters."


KIRON SKINNER, "REAGAN: A LIFE IN LETTERS": He wrote to family, to friends, to heads of government, his peers as president. There was no one too big or too small for Ronald Reagan to write to. He didn't waver, and the letters -- he took each individual seriously.

BROWN (voice-over): In 1982, he wrote this letter to a woman who was suffering financially, and even though she had voted for him, accused him of not thinking about people like her. "I wish I could tell you," he wrote, "there is some instant answer to the economic problems besetting us, but I can't. However," he said, "it is my strong belief that we are on the right track and the economy is looking up."

SKINNER: Reagan reveals himself more in letters than in any other medium. He was great at giving speeches. He's known as the "great communicator." He was -- he was excellent on radio, on television. But where the best revelations about Reagan -- his thinking, his ideas, his life -- can be found is really the letters.

BROWN: In 1983, the National Conference of Bishops published a letter on war and peace, and President Reagan responded. "Reverend Mahoros (ph), I can't tell you how much your letter meant to me," he wrote. "I'm sure the bishops supporting the freeze and unilateral disarmament are sincere and believe they are furthering the cause of peace. I am equally sure," he wrote, "they are tragically mistaken. What they urge would bring us closer to a choice of surrender or die. Surrender, of course, would mean slavery under a system that would banish God. I believe," he wrote, "there is another way, the way we call `Peace through strength,' and it leads us away from the possibility of war."

SKINNER: The great (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the letters is how much, at every phase of his life, Ronald Reagan was in control of what he was doing -- of his thoughts, of his policies, of his ideas. But I don't think he felt the need to just defend himself through press conferences on a daily basis.

BROWN: He expressed this early in his presidency in a letter to his friend, John Kohler (ph). "I have a foreign policy. I'm working on it," he wrote. "I just don't happen to think that it's wise to always stand up and put in quotation marks in front of the world what your foreign policy is. I am a believer," he wrote, "in quiet diplomacy."

Ronald Reagan was not afraid of taking on his critics.

SKINNER: He would really outline in great detail, walk them through the steps of what he was doing. And he did that elegantly and frequently in letters.

BROWN: In response to a 1987 editorial critical of the INF (ph) treaty, he wrote, "We haven't weakened Western defense at all. Quite the contrary. They are removing four warheads for every one we are taking out. But more importantly, we still have thousands of tactical warheads on line."

SKINNER: And I think he might have been able to alter the impression that he was somewhat of an empty suit had he been as revelatory in public as he was in writing. But I think he was so comfortable in his own skin, and he was so -- that he didn't feel the need to outline everything that he was doing.

BROWN: In 1994, Ronald Reagan wrote his good-bye letter to the country, revealing that he had Alzheimer's. We thought of it as the end of his political career, but he didn't. SKINNER: It's after the -- the -- the '94 election has taken place, and Republican -- the Republican Party has just won the House of Representatives for the first time in a long time. And nine days, again, after Reagan wrote his good-bye letter to the nation, he writes just a brief note.

BROWN: And this is what he wrote. "Dear Haley," writing to Haley Barbour, the chairman of the Republican Party, "congratulations on the great job from the Republican Party. I couldn't be happier with the results of the election." And he added, "Please don't count me out. I'll be putting in my licks for the Republicans as long as I am able."

He wasn't able much longer, and we know little about the 10 years that followed. The letters tell us much about Ronald Reagan, but they cannot tell us much about that.


The letters of Ronald Reagan. We'll take a break. When we come back, a good-by to the president and to another (ph) and to the country. This is NEWSNIGHT.


BROWN: Finally from us tonight, a couple of good-byes. Lost perhaps a bit in the death of President Reagan was the death yesterday of Ray Charles, both men giants in very different ways. But take three minutes and change and marry their passings together, and you find a tribute fitting to each and to the country that honors them both.


RAY CHARLES (singing): Oh, beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife, who more than self their country loved and mercy more than life, America, America, may God that gold refine till all success be nobleness and every gain divine -- and you know, when I was in school, we used to sing it something like this, listen here -- oh, beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain -- well, now, wait a minute! I'm talking about -- America, sweet America, you know, God done shed his grace on thee, he crowned thy good, yes he did, in brotherhood, from sea to shining sea -- you know, I wish I had somebody to help me sing this -- America, I love you, America, you know, my God, he done shed his grace on thee -- and you ought to love him for it because -- he crowned they good, he told me he would, in brotherhood, from sea to shining sea. Praise the Lord! Oh, Lord! I thank you, Lord!


BROWN: The work of NEWSNIGHT producer Mary Anne Fox.

Next week, we go back to the normal business of life, of dealing with wars and peace and terror and the economy and campaigns and all the rest. But this week was something special and different, and it was an honor to share it with you each night. Thanks for joining us. Have a wonderful weekend. We'll see you Monday. Good night for all of us.


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