I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life," Ronald Reagan wrote to the American people in 1994, back when the Alzheimer's was just beginning its inexorable march across his brain. "I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead."
By the time his journey finally ended on June 5, Mr. Reagan was a shadow of his former self. The Great Communicator had forgotten how to speak. The president who stared down the Evil Empire now stared unseeing at the trees outside his window. And the man who championed family values could not recognize the wife and children gathered around his bed.
Yet even as the darkness descended on Mr. Reagan, something at last seemed to dawn on the rest of the world: They had lost not merely a good person but a truly great president. From his erstwhile antagonists-dictators who once rattled their sabers and journalists who once rolled their eyes-came an outpouring of grudging admiration. From friends and allies came eulogies so heartfelt they sometimes had to be prerecorded. (Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, under doctor's orders to avoid public speaking following a series of strokes, put her thoughts on tape several months ago.)
And then there were the ordinary Americans, hundreds of thousands of them, determined to make whatever small gesture they could to thank a man they'd never met. Flowers and flags and candles and cards erupted into a makeshift shrine outside the funeral home, seeming to transform Nancy Reagan's grief-for a moment, at least-into amazement. Traffic snarled on freeways and shuttle buses were overwhelmed as 50,000 mourners a day filed past the flag-draped casket at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif.
Vietnam veteran Larry Ledvina had to wait five hours to pay his final respects, but he said he would gladly have waited five or six hours more. "I loved him," he said simply, his voice breaking. After the twin national nightmares of Vietnam and Watergate, President Reagan "put us back on our feet. He was a real American."
By the time it was over, some 106,000 mourners had filed through the library, taking about a minute each to say their silent goodbyes and thank-yous. Washington officials expected even bigger crowds during the 36 hours Mr. Reagan's body lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda. "It is unbelievable what I am seeing on TV," Nancy Reagan said through a spokeswoman. "The outpouring of love for my husband is incredible."
Everyone had a different Reagan story to tell, a different reason for coming to pay their last respects. "I am very much moved to be able to come here," said Attila Revesz as he emerged from the library, his words laced with a thick Hungarian accent. "If Ronald Reagan had not been president, I would not be in America now."
The former college professor recalled the early 1980s, when his son's fourth-grade class was required by the Communist regime to sign an oath declaring President Reagan "the evil man of the world," a trigger-happy zealot whose policies would soon ignite World War III. But on the day his classmates passed the oath from desk to desk, each dutifully signing, young Eors Revesz excused himself to go to the restroom.
"I was encouraged by President Reagan," the elder Mr. Revesz told WORLD. "I could see he was fighting communism.... He had faith and courage and backbone ... you knew what he believed in. When the world criticized him for calling the Soviet Union an 'Evil Empire,' we were on the [Soviet] side of the Iron Curtain. We knew exactly what he was talking about."
Twenty years later, the rest of the world knows, as well. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called Mr. Reagan a "great leader" and quickly announced plans to attend the funeral of the man who, more than any other, was responsible for tearing apart the Soviet bloc. Former Polish President Lech Walesa said his trip to Washington is out of his "debt of gratitude" for Mr. Reagan's help in securing Poland's independence.
For all his impact on the world map, however, some said Mr. Reagan's most important legacy lay closer to home: not in confronting the Evil Empire but in cleaning up the "shining city on a hill," the Puritan conception of America that Mr. Reagan so often mentioned in his speeches.
"I like what he did for California and for this country," said Penny Lopez, shuffling forward in the long queue of mourners and admirers that encircled the mission-style courtyard of the Reagan Library. "I admired his integrity.... He saw the world as good and evil and he was not afraid to say so."
That was hardly a popular view during the 1980s, particularly among the media and academic elite. What gave Mr. Reagan the courage to swim against that tide? "His personal faith," said Ms. Lopez, who attends the Church on the Way in Van Nuys, Calif., with the president's son Michael.
Indeed, for all the praise heaped on Mr. Reagan in 2004, his friends remember the scorn he endured two decades earlier. "President Reagan was constantly attacked as a B-movie, trigger-happy, cowboy actor," says Donald Hodel, who served as both energy secretary and interior secretary in the Reagan administration. "He was under enormous attack, and I believe the reason he didn't let it faze him was because of his faith. He felt if he was doing something worthwhile, there were bound to be people who would try to stop him."
Ronald Reagan's career, according to Mr. Hodel, "showed that a great man, a determined man who knows what he believes and stands for it, can change history. He changed the way we looked at ourselves, the way we looked at the role of government in our economy, and he changed the international climate."
He also restored America's faith in moral absolutes, made it OK again to believe in right and wrong. Mr. Reagan embraced the Christian worldview that men are imperfect beings who fall short of God's glory, said Mr. Hodel, who is now president and CEO of Focus on the Family. "If you have that kind of biblical view of mankind, you don't want a government of men to have too much power." By trying to shrink the role of government in the affairs of ordinary citizens, he was a silent but powerful witness to his worldview.
"Reagan's whole political career was built around the idea that the United States had a special role to play in the world, and that we had to be a virtuous people because of the burden we were going to have to carry in dealing with communism and other issues," said Gary Bauer, director of the White House Office of Policy Development during the Reagan years. When he took office, "we were definitely in a downward moral spiral, and Reagan's presidency certainly slowed that down and in some areas did reverse it."
Nothing, of course-not the love of a nation or the care of its best doctors-could reverse the long downward spiral of Alzheimer's disease. Shielded from public view by his ever-protective Nancy, Mr. Reagan slipped quietly into the long night that enveloped him. Though he worried for his wife-"I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience," he wrote in his farewell letter-he was confident that both he and his country were in good hands.
"In closing," he wrote, "let me thank you, the American people, for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your president. When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future....
"Thank you, my friends. May God always bless you. Sincerely, Ronald Reagan."