SIMI VALLEY, Calif. (Reuters) - First lady Michelle Obama and representatives from nine former presidential families led a bipartisan gathering of politicians and celebrities in paying memorial tribute to Nancy Reagan, whose love for her late husband, Ronald Reagan, was hailed as a romance “for the ages.”
In an invitation-only funeral for about 1,000 guests to her husband’s presidential library in Southern California, the onetime Hollywood actress turned first lady was remembered for the fierce devotion she accorded her spouse during their White House years and his long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.
“Theirs was a love story for the ages,” former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said of the couple, during a service that organizers say Nancy Reagan herself helped plan in advance. “They had style, they had grace and they had class.”
Former White House chief of staff James Baker called Nancy Reagan the “consummate political wife and first lady,” and a figure whose support, encouragement and political savvy were indispensable to her husband’s political success.
After her husband’s death at age 93 in 2004, she “dedicated herself to his memory and his place in history,” Baker said.
The funeral brought together prominent Republicans and Democrats alike in salute of a woman especially admired by political conservatives at a time when deep partisan rancor has reverberated through Washington and the 2016 presidential campaign.
The list of VIPs attending the memorial was headed by President Barack Obama’s wife, who sat beside former President George W. Bush and his spouse, Laura, and two fellow former first ladies - Jimmy Carter’s wife, Rosalynn, and the Democratic front-runner in the 2016 presidential race, Hillary Clinton.
Seated nearby were the Reagans’ daughter Patti Davis and son Ron Jr., - both of whom eulogized their mother - along with Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late President John Kennedy, and children of his three immediate successors - Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
Davis described her mother and father as “two halves of a circle, closed tight” while her brother, Ron, said that “as a couple, they were more than the sum of their parts.”
She was to the president, Baker recalled, “absolutely without a doubt his closest advisor,” adding she was particularly adept at knowing who was truly loyal to her spouse and who was not.
He credited Nancy Reagan with prodding her husband to open a dialogue with then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a relationship that helped ease Cold War tensions.
She could be “tough as a Marine drill sergeant ... when things weren’t going well,” Baker said, recounting he only saw Nancy Reagan lose her cool once - the day in March 1980 when her husband was wounded by gunfire from a would-be assassin.
“She was devastated, and in fact, she fell apart,” he said, adding that she returned with her husband to the White House after his discharge from the hospital “with a fierce determination to protect him in every way she possibly could.”
Rain began to fall over the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, north of Los Angeles, as the service ended and a military honor guard carried the flower-bedecked mahogany casket from the memorial gathering beneath a large white tent to a nearby grave site on the grounds.
Nancy Reagan, who died on Sunday of congestive heart failure at age 94 [nL1N16E06K], was to be buried beside her husband later on Friday, though no family members planned to attend, having already “said their goodbyes,” according to library spokeswoman Melissa Giller.
Others dignitaries among the funeral guests were broadcast journalists Diane Sawyer and Tom Brokaw, California Governor Jerry Brown, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, U.S. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, as well as such showbiz figures as Oscar-winning actress Anjelica Huston and singer Wayne Newton.
Even the actor known as Mr. T, a well-known supporter of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign, was in attendance, wearing an American flag bandanna on his head.
Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Robert Birsel, Tom Brown and Diane Craft