A Nation's Farewell

A Special Edition Of <B><I>48 Hours</B></I> Pays Tribute To Ronald Reagan

Even by the standards of a legendary political showman, former President Ronald Reagan's funeral was a masterful curtain call.

With more solemn pageantry than the Capitol has seen in 30 years, the nation's 40th president bid goodbye to a city he changed profoundly. Correspondent Lesley Stahl has this special 48 Hours report.


"This is a death in the family, a death in the national family," says Richard Norton Smith, the former director of the Reagan Presidential Library.

"It isn't just a man that we're putting into the earth, but we're putting a large part of our past."

Reagan's last trip to Washington began Wednesday, with a meticulously prepared funeral procession. Nancy Reagan had a strong hand in much of the planning, assisted by her former press secretary Sheila Tate.

"Nancy Reagan was giving 100 percent. She had to. And this is her final commitment to him. She's taking care of him," says Tate.

"She looks so fragile and so lost, you know, in a lot of ways. On the other hand, she's just carried herself magnificently. She's been so dignified."

The week of mourning so carefully plotted was a combination of traditional elements and personal touches.

"Among the personal requests that Nancy Reagan made, Ronald Reagan's own riding boots on the riderless horse turned backwards," says Tate. "I know for all of us who knew him, that meant a lot."

A special flag also draped the casket. "The flag flew over the Capitol in January 1981 when Ronald Reagan was inaugurated," says Tate.


After lying in state for 34 hours at the Capitol rotunda, the president's body was moved to the National Cathedral Friday morning, where all four living ex-presidents and dignitaries of 167 nations gathered in his honor --among them, former Soviet Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Iraq's new president, Ghazi al-Yawer.

The flag-draped coffin entered the cathedral to one of Reagan's favorite compositions, the Navy Hymn.

Reagan was the first president to name a woman, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, to the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice O'Connor read one of Reagan's favorite passages: "For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us."

Reagan's cold-war cohort, Lady Margaret Thatcher, was also there for her old friend.
"She agreed many years ago to come," says Tate. "And in fact, I've heard that everywhere she traveled for years, she carried a black dress with her, just in case something happened."

Because of her declining health, the 78-year-old former British prime minister no longer speaks in public, so her eulogy was recorded in advance:

"The world has lost a great president and a great American, and I have lost a great friend. ... Ronald Reagan knew his own mind, he had firm principles and, I believe, right ones. He acted decisively. He knew almost instinctively what to do. ... The world mourns the passing of the great liberator, and echoes his prayer, 'God Bless America.'"


Surrounded by leaders of a world he helped remake, Reagan was eulogized by former President George Herbert Walker Bush, the man who succeeded him in office.

"He was loved because of what he was. Politics can be cruel ... our friend was hopeful and gentle," he said. "He believed in freedom, so he acted on behalf of its values and ideals."

Mr. Bush used to have a private lunch with President Reagan once a week. He has said often that he had a deep affection for the man, and reminded everyone how much Reagan liked to make people laugh: "As his vice president for eight years, I learned more from Ronald Reagan than from any other person in eight years of my life. Kindness and compassion."

President George W. Bush delivered the final eulogy, recalling the moral character of the man who is clearly a role model for today's White House:

"Ronald Reagan belongs to the ages now, but we preferred it when he belonged to us. ... The Ronald Reagan moment came in 1980. What followed was one of the most decisive decades in history. He was optimistic that a strong U.S. could restore peace. He acted to defend liberty whenever it was threatened. ... Ronald Reagan believed in the courage and triumph of free men, and we believe it all the more because we believe in him."

The cathedral's bells rang 40 times for the 40th president, and echoed from New York to Los Angeles as other churches joined in.

After an emotional week of remembrance, The Gipper began his last trip back home.

"Reagan once compared politics to show business," says Smith, the former Reagan Presidential Library director. "He said you have to have a great opening, then you coast for a while, and then you need a great finish."

But even if Ronald Reagan got the Hollywood ending he wanted, in a sense, his story will never end.

"Ronald Reagan, more than most presidents, will have an afterlife," says Smith. "People will be discussing and debating and adulating over Reagan for decades to come."