WASHINGTON — "Ladies and gentlemen," the unseen announcer said, "the statue of Ronald Reagan."
The blue drape fell, the applause rose. There he was, all right. Inside the Capitol Rotunda, the likeness of the late president stood idealized and larger than life. Look closely: You can tell by his grin that a joke is right around the corner.
"I've seen that expression hundreds of times," former California Gov. Pete Wilson said admiringly.
Wilson joined more than a thousand other spectators Wednesday, many of them with long political pedigrees, for the dedication of the bronze, 7-foot tall statue. It was a morning-in-America kind of affair, sunny and bright and without a hint of the conflicts that marked Reagan's eight-year presidency.
Instead, top Democrats joined top Republicans and rank-and-file Reagan supporters for the nearly hour-long celebration, which included a standing ovation for former first lady Nancy Reagan.
"The last time I was in this room was for Ronnie's service," she said, her voice cracking, "so it's nice to be back under happier circumstances."
The 87-year-old presidential widow spoke briefly, declaring the statue sculpted by North Carolina resident Chas Fagan to be "a wonderful likeness of Ronnie" and praising the "lovely, lovely singing" of the U.S. Army Chorus. Then, with an abrupt "that's it," she was ready to stand for the unveiling with her husband's former treasury secretary and chief of staff, James Baker III.
The new statue is one of two that represent California in the Capitol, and it displaces a statue honoring the influential 19th-century Unitarian preacher Thomas Starr King. The relatively obscure King statue will be moved to Sacramento.
Unlike other state representatives clustered together in the nearby National Statuary Hall, the 500-pound Reagan statue will stand sentry in the Rotunda, at least for the time being. It's in exalted company, near former President and World War II Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and not far from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
The Reagan statue depicts the nation's 40th president standing on a marble pedestal with his left hand resting easily on a waist-high pillar. He appears dapper and relaxed: his shoulders broad, a handkerchief peeking out from his pocket, his now-perpetual bronze a becoming look.
"He's got that brown suit on, still," said Rep. Ken Calvert, a Riverside, Calif., Republican who helped lead the effort to bring the statue to the Capitol.
The nearly five-year campaign included approval by the California Legislature — there was one dissenting vote — and fundraising by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. The culmination Wednesday brought back many Reagan administration alumni, though with notable absences, as well as some familiar lighthearted stories.
"He was always quick with a smile and a self-deprecating joke," said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, who then related how Reagan had said, perhaps more than once, "I have given orders that I be awakened in the event of a national emergency, even if I'm in a Cabinet meeting."
Reagan's two-term vice president and successor, George H.W. Bush, was absent. So was California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, despite earlier plans to attend.
However, Reagan's former press secretary, James Brady, who was badly wounded in a 1981 assassination attempt on Reagan, rolled in in his wheelchair. At a guard's station, a Capitol Hill Police officer carefully frisked Brady before another officer whispered something into his ear; a discreet reminder, it seemed, of who the man was.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2009