Reagan Laid to Rest After Final Tributes

Hear an NPR News SpecialReagan Children Speak at Sunset Funeral

Hear an NPR News SpecialMemorial Service at the National Cathedral

Hear an NPR News SpecialMemorials and Last Respects as Reagan Lies in State

Hear an NPR News SpecialNPR News Special Coverage of Ronald Reagan's Death

June 12, 2004 -- After final tributes from family, friends and fellow world leaders, the 40th president of the United States was laid to rest Friday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in California's Simi Valley.

His surviving children remembered him as a loving father and solid example.

Reagan against American flag backdrop

Reagan at a 1982 political rally
Photo: Reagan Presidential Library

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford were among the dignitaries who attended a funeral service at the National Cathedral earlier Friday. Former President George H.W. Bush spoke warmly of the man he served as vice president and followed into the oval office. The current President Bush, who has cited Reagan as a political model, offered praise for Reagan's governing policies.

An estimated 100,000 to 200,000 admirers had passed through the Capitol Rotunda in the days prior to bid Reagan farewell.

He died June 5 at his home in Bel-Air, Calif., after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease. At 93, he was the longest-lived U.S. president.

For more than a decade, Reagan dominated the U.S. political stage. His movie-actor delivery and warm wit earned him the name "the Great Communicator." But he virtually vanished from public life after 1994, when he revealed his illness.

As president from 1981-89, Reagan oversaw an economic recovery, the largest military buildup in history, a massive tax cut, reduction in spending on domestic programs, and record budget deficits. His hard-line stance against the Communist government in Moscow -- which he famously dubbed an "evil empire" -- led to nuclear arms-reduction agreements. And many historians say it helped bring about the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But Reagan's presidency also was tarnished by scandals, most notably what came to be called the Iran-Contra affair. Top Reagan national security aides had weapons illegally shipped to Iran, then secretly diverted the profits to Nicaragua's right-wing Contra guerrillas. The move was intended to win the release of American hostages held in Lebanon by Islamic groups linked to Iran. While Reagan denied knowing about the funds transfer when it occurred, in 1987 he acknowledged a "mistake" in the affair. Several aides were convicted of charges related to the affair, but most saw their convictions overturned on appeal or were pardoned by Reagan's successor, President George Bush.

Republicans looked upon Reagan as a legendary figure, who led what they called the "Regan Revolution." A version of his Strategic Defense Initiative (also known as "Star Wars"), a proposal to use space-based weapons to form a defense shield against nuclear missiles, continues in testing today.

Ronald Wilson Reagan was born Feb. 6, 1911, in Tampico, Ill. His father, John Reagan, was a shoe salesman and his mother, Nelle, was a homemaker and occasional shop clerk whose love of the theater influenced the future actor. Reagan's father nicknamed him "Dutch" after the baby's Dutch-boy haircut.

Growing up in Dixon, Ill., Ronald Reagan was credited with saving 77 lives during the seven summers he worked as a lifeguard. He attended Eureka College in Illinois, where he majored in economics and sociology, served as student body president, played football and took up drama.

In the 1930s, Reagan was a sports broadcaster in Davenport, Iowa, and later at Des Moines station WHO. From the studio there, he recreated Chicago Cubs baseball games with "play-by-play" based on teletype reports.

In 1937, during a spring training trip to California with the Cubs, Reagan took a screen test for Warner Brothers. He landed the role of a radio announcer on Love Is On the Air. That kicked off a 28-year acting career in which Reagan appeared in more than 50 movies. The most memorable were King's Row, in which he played an accident victim who wakes up to find his legs had been amputated and screams, "Where's the rest of me?"; and Knute Rockne, All American, in which he portrays Notre Dame football legend George Gipp. His famous line from that film, "Win just one for the Gipper," followed Reagan into the political arena decades later.

Reagan entered the U.S. Army Air Corps as a second lieutenant in 1942. Disqualified from combat duty, he was assigned to make training films. He was discharged at the rank of captain three years later.

He married actress Jane Wyman in 1940, and daughter Maureen was born a year later. They adopted son Michael in 1945 and were divorced in 1949. Reagan married his second wife, actress Nancy Davis, in 1952. They had two children, Patti and Ron.

His earliest foray into politics came in Hollywood, where in 1947 he was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild. Reagan appeared as a friendly witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and supported moves to blacklist writers and directors suspected of Communist ties. As the actors' labor union chief, Reagan later led a strike against movie studios (though decades later, as U.S. president, he moved to crush a strike by the nation's air traffic controllers).

From 1954-62, Reagan hosted television's General Electric Theater. He honed his public speaking skills while touring GE plants around the country. He gave speeches about the benefits of free enterprise and the dangers of too much government, recurring conservative themes in his later political career.

Though he campaigned as a Democrat for President Harry Truman in 1948 and President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, Reagan officially switched to the Republican Party in 1962. Two years later, Reagan's political career was launched when he gave a nationally televised speech on behalf of GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. In that speech (titled "A Time for Choosing"), Reagan hit themes that would re-emerge in his presidency: He spoke about high taxes, an intrusive federal government and the Cold War "with the most dangerous enemy that has ever faced mankind."

On the success of that speech, California Republicans asked Reagan to run for governor and in 1966 he trounced the Democratic incumbent, Edmund G. Brown.

In his two terms as governor, Reagan pushed to reduce the state's welfare rolls and, faced with a large budget deficit, was forced to raise taxes despite a campaign pledge to cut them. In 1969, he ordered the National Guard to quell student protests at the University of California at Berkeley. He initially cut funding for higher education, but by the end of his second term, funding was nearly double what it had been when he first entered office.

In 1968, Reagan made a brief presidential bid but lost the Republican nomination to Richard Nixon. Reagan made another try for the GOP nomination in 1976, but narrowly lost to President Gerald R. Ford. After Ford lost the White House to Democrat Jimmy Carter, Reagan began planning his run for 1980.

During that campaign, Reagan cut to Carter's weaknesses, asking potential voters, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" He easily defeated Carter, whose presidency was dogged by an energy crisis, high inflation and unemployment. The incumbent's biggest failure was his inability to end the seizure of American diplomats at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The hostage crisis played out on television nightly for over a year. The remaining 52 hostages, held for 444 days, were released on the day of Reagan's inauguration, Jan. 20, 1981.

Reagan's inaugural address railed against the federal bureaucracy: "Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is is the problem."

On March 30, 1981, less than three months after taking office, Reagan was shot in the chest as he was leaving a Washington hotel. Press Secretary James Brady, a police officer and a Secret Service agent also were wounded by the gunfire. A bullet narrowly missed the 70-year-old president's heart and lodged in his left lung. In typical good humor, Reagan told his wife, Nancy: "Honey, I forgot to duck." John Hinckley Jr., who said he had shot Reagan in an attempt to impress actress Jodie Foster, was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Reagan delivers State of the Union address

Reagan delivers his State of the Union address Jan. 25, 1988
Photo: Reagan Presidential Library

Reagan recovered in a few weeks and resumed work on his economic program: a record cut in taxes, massive increases in the defense budget and steep reductions in welfare and other domestic programs. Reagan hoped the tax cuts -- dubbed by critics as "trickle down economics" that would help the rich -- would quickly stimulate the economy, but the nation plunged into a deep recession. Millions were unemployed -- the most since the Great Depression -- and the budget deficit swelled. In 1982, in a bid to trim the deficit, Congress approved the largest tax increase in history, partially reversing the cuts of the prior year.

While much of his focus was on the domestic economy, Reagan also took on foreign policy, bringing his anti-Communist fervor to the world stage. In a speech before the British Parliament in 1982, he predicted that freedom would triumph and the Soviet model would be left "on the ash heap of history." In another speech the following year, he called the U.S.S.R. "the evil empire." He said his plan for spaced-based defense, called the Strategic Defense Initiative, would "give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete." Skeptics had another name for SDI: "Star Wars."

Other foreign policy challenges marked Reagan's presidency. In sharp succession in the fall of 1983: a Soviet fighter plane downed Korean Air Lines Flight 007, killing all 269 aboard, including 61 Americans; 241 members of a U.S. peacekeeping forced were killed when a suicide truck bomber slammed into a Marine barracks in Beirut; and U.S. troops invaded Granada after a Marxist coup on the Caribbean island.

In his second term, Reagan's philosophy of "peace through strength" eventually yielded nuclear arms reduction agreements with Moscow, struck in a series of summits with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan's demand in a June 1987 speech at the Brandenberg Gate -- "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" -- augured the fall of the Berlin Wall between East and West Berlin two years later, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Helping bring down the "evil empire," historians say, is perhaps Reagan's most enduring legacy.

In Depth

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