SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Former first lady Nancy Reagan made a rare public appearance to mark her late husband's 100th birthday on a spectacular Sunday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in the hills northwest of Los Angeles. “It brings back so many memories to see all of your faces,” Mrs. Reagan, 89, told a crowd that included Reagan veterans Edwin Meese, William Clark, James Baker, Richard Allen, George Schultz and others, as well as former Vice President Cheney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, and a large contingent of members of Congress. “I know that Ronnie would be thrilled, and is thrilled, to have all of you share in his 100th birthday,” Reagan said. “It doesn't seem possible, but that's what it is.”
The day was a celebration of Reagan's legacy of economic prosperity and victory in the Cold War. In the keynote speech, Baker, the former White House chief of staff, Treasury secretary and secretary of state, reminded the audience of the miseries the country faced in 1980, before Reagan was elected: inflation, unemployment, high interest rates, the Iranian hostage crisis, and an unending arms race with the Soviet Union.
“Gloom at home was matched by humiliation abroad,” Baker said. “He launched the Reagan Revolution … defended American exceptionalism against those critics who warned that our country was in permanent decline … and helped our nation embark on the longest peacetime expansion in American history.”
The centennial celebration also marked the unveiling of an extensive renovation of the Reagan Library. Beginning Monday, visitors will see a variety of new exhibits, including the suit Reagan was wearing when he was shot on March 30, 1981, and an audio recording of Reagan reading the Nov. 5, 1994, letter in which he told the American people he had Alzheimer's disease. The museum also holds the Boeing 707 jet that served as Reagan's Air Force One.
Although the event focused on Reagan's era, today's politics occasionally crept into the discussion. The Reagan veterans present had all seen reports that President Obama is now taking Reagan as a model, and most scoffed at the idea. “I think this is really in some ways silly,” said Meese. “I think President Obama may be trying to learn from Ronald Reagan — I'll give him credit for that — but unfortunately everything he is doing policywise is directly the opposite of Ronald Reagan, at least as far as domestic policy is concerned.”
Still, Baker suggested that Reagan's legacy has lessons for both Republicans and Democrats in today's fractured politics. “While he held convictions as firmly as anyone I've ever known, he was also a pragmatist who saw the world as it is,” Baker said. “Ronald Reagan was a master at reaching across the aisle for solutions to our nation's problems.”
The ceremony was held outdoors, with the crowd of 1,500 gathering under a big tent on a replica of the White House South Lawn. The day began with a thunderous 21-gun salute in Reagan's honor and ended with a flyover of four F-18 fighters based aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan.