A Poignant Moment For Nancy Reagan

Former first lady Nancy Reagan christened a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in the name of her husband on Sunday, their 49th wedding anniversary.

But it was President Bush - not former President Ronald Reagan - who stood at Mrs. Reagan's side as she broke a ceremonial bottle of American sparkling wine against the ship's bow.

The former president, who turned 90 on Feb. 6, has Alzheimer's disease and was home in California recovering from a broken hip suffered he suffered in a fall in January.

"I want to thank the Navy for giving us such a wonderful present, such a little thing," Mrs. Reagan of the massive ship - the first carrier to be christened in the name of a living former president.

"I wish Ronnie were here," she said as the crowd cheered. "But somehow, I think he is."

Mr. Bush, the principal speaker at the event, hailed Mr. Reagan as a great leader and an advocate of naval power. By the time President Reagan left office in 1988, the Navy had 15 carriers and nearly 600 ships. Today, the Navy has 12 carriers and about half as many ships.

"Upon this ship we have put the finest of American names," said President Bush.

The president promised to build military strength in keeping with Mr. Reagan's "vision of optimism, modesty and resolve."

"When we send her off to sea, it is certain the Ronald Reagan will meet with rough waters as well as smooth," said the president. "But she will sail tall and strong like the man we have known...All of us here wish the ship Ronald Reagan godspeed. And we wish Ronald Reagan God's blessings."

President Bush also asked God to bless the families of the 21 people killed in the crash of a National Guard plane on Saturday in Georgia. Earlier, Gov. Jim Gilmore led the crowd in a moment of silence in memory of the 18 Virginia National Guard airmen who perished in that crash.

The $4 billion ship is the ninth Nimitz-class carrier constructed by Newport News Shipbuilding, the nation's only builder of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.

The Reagan is about 60 percent complete. It will be ready to join the Navy's fleet in 2003. The next carrier, the final ship of the Nimitz class, is to be christened in 2006.

"The Ronald Reagan may be the second to last in its class of carriers, but its namesake is second to none in his class of presidents," said Gilmore.

Other speakers included Chief of Naval Operations Vern Clark, Acting Secretary of the Navy Robert B. Pirie Jr., Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and Virginia Sens. John Warner and George Allen. Mr. Reagan's son Michael also attended.

The ship was draped in red, white and blue bunting and a large American flag hung behind the speakers' platform. Thousands of people attended the ceremony despite the rain and cold.

"He was one of the greatest presidents of the last century," said Raiford Pierce, 55, a travel agent rom McLean, who huddled under an umbrella with his wife, Ann.

"He was responsible for the end of communism in Russia," added Johnathan Miller, 48, of Paeonian Springs in northern Virginia, who served as chief management officer at the White House during Reagan's presidency.

Miller attended the christening with his father, Scott Miller, 73, of Louisville, Ky., who said the ceremony held special meaning for him because he was a sailor aboard an aircraft carrier during World War II.

Plus, "I'm a real Republican," the elder Miller said.

As the ship's sponsor, Mrs. Reagan used a two-handed grip to break with one blow the bottle of sparkling wine against a rail welded to the ship's bow.

William P. Fricks, chairman and chief executive officer of the shipyard, stood next to Mrs. Reagan and Bush and joked that she soaked him and the president with the sparkling wine.

Dozens of new technologies have been incorporated in the carrier. Among the changes are a large bow for improved flight operations, larger gear to land heavier aircraft, a relocated weapons elevator to improve safety and weapons movement, and more berthing spaces and facilities for women.

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