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Pelosi, Nancy Reagan unveil Capitol statue

Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau

June 4, 2009

California's two famous Nancys, one from the liberal Bay Area, the other from the conservative south, set aside differences that once divided them Wednesday when they unveiled a bigger-than-life statue of former California Gov. and U.S. President Ronald Reagan in the Capitol Rotunda.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi bested her Republican peers in paying tribute to Reagan, frequently ad-libbing in a gracious tribute to his leadership and what she called "one of the great love stories of all time" - his marriage to Nancy Reagan.

Pelosi also noted the late president's civility, a quality that has since all but vanished in Washington.

"Ever a gentleman, he never questioned the motives of the person because he knew people in public office loved our country and acted on behalf of the American people," Pelosi said.

Former first lady Nancy Reagan, 87, whose last visit to the Rotunda was when her husband lay in state there five years ago, singled out the speaker among the many dignitaries gathered.

"I'm very grateful to her," she said. "Everybody else, too, but particularly Nancy."

Her voice breaking, Nancy Reagan added, "It's nice to be back under happier circumstances," With that, the two women, both dressed in white, warmly embraced and turned to unveil the enormous bronze likeness.

At 7 feet tall, the Gipper faces west wearing his trademark grin and a stylish Hollywood suit. Ringing the statue's base are fragments of the Berlin Wall. On one side is the seal of the state of California, on the other, the seal of the president of the United States, and sandwiched between is one of his many famous quotes: "America's best days are yet to come."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi comforts former first lady Nancy Reagan as she became emotional during a ceremony unveiling a statue of late President Ronald Reagan in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, June 3, 2009. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Every state gets two statues for the Capitol, and the new one of Reagan boots out a long-forgotten San Franciscan, Thomas Starr King, a Unitarian minister who urged Californians to support the Union in the Civil War and whose statue stood in the Capitol for nearly eight decades with Father Junipero Serra, the Spanish Franciscan monk who founded California's famous missions. The King statue will be returned to Sacramento.

The statue of Reagan, as a likeness of a former president, will remain in the most hallowed spot of the Capitol, its soaring Rotunda. The statue will join, on the other side of a doorway, the next most recent addition, fellow Republican President Dwight Eisenhower.

Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona (Riverside County), came up with the Reagan statue idea after Kansas replaced one of its statues with the bronze of its native son Eisenhower. Calvert gathered 24 signatures (Pelosi was not among them) from California's 53-member delegation to get the project rolling.

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation funded the 500-pound statue by North Carolina artist Chas Fagan.

Nancy Reagan called it "a wonderful likeness of Ronnie."

Pelosi, 69, came to Washington at the end of Reagan's second term, in 1987. He had infuriated gay activists for failing to acknowledge AIDS, although he had begun to do so by the time Pelosi arrived. She spent much of her first years in office fighting for funding to combat the disease, which by then was ravaging the gay community.

Those battles were long forgotten Wednesday, when Pelosi praised Nancy Reagan for her commitment to stem cell research, a cause she took up while caring for her husband during his long illness with Alzheimer's disease before he died in 2004 at age 93.

After the ceremony, Nancy Reagan returned to the White House for a private lunch with first lady Michelle Obama.

Whatever awkwardness once existed between the Obamas and Nancy Reagan, from President Obama's ill-considered joke about the former first lady's seances to the president's failure to invite her to his announcement that he was reversing a Bush-era ban on stem cell research, was forgiven Wednesday.

With Nancy Reagan at his side, Obama signed the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission Act. He leaned down and told her his wife "just thinks the world of you." The act creates a commission to honor the 100th anniversary of Reagan's birth in 1911 and was approved unanimously by the Senate and with an overwhelming bipartisan vote in the House.

Obama praised Reagan's optimism and friendship with former Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill. "The moment we fail to recognize the good in those with whom we quarrel is the moment that we've lost sight of who we are as a people," Obama said.

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead

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