Former first lady Nancy Reagan shed a tear when a blue curtain fell away and revealed the visage of her beloved "Ronnie," standing tall as a head of state and bearing the trademark twinkle of a movie star who understood the power of humor in politics.
She reached out and touched the statue's knee.
"The last time that I was in this room was for Ronnie's service," Mrs. Reagan, 87, told the Reagan-era officials and their successors who packed the Rotunda. "It's nice to be back under happier circumstances."
Reagan, who died in 2004, was the nation's 40th president, from 1981-1989. There was bipartisan agreement that his statue belonged in the Rotunda, the symbolic core of American government. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama created the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission to plan and carry out activities marking the 100th anniversary, in 2011, of Reagan's birth.
His legacy includes the spread of democracy after his dramatic appeal in Berlin to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall!" The Berlin Wall that divided East and West Germany fell in 1989, a symbol of the decline of communism and the thawing of the Cold War. Pieces of it are embedded in the statue, according to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Guests recalled other elements of the Reagan legacy, specifically the optimism and charisma he honed as an actor, tapped as a policy maker and used to create an outsized but genial presence.
The ceremony was as much about Mrs. Reagan as it was about her husband. Dressed in white, she slowly walked into the towering room to a standing ovation that grew louder as she ascended the stage.
"You created that secure space from which he ventured forth to change America and to change the world," Reagan's friend and treasury secretary, James Baker III, told her. "As this ceremony honors him, Nancy, it also honors you."
Mrs. Reagan did more than support her husband. After he died of Alzheimer's disease at 93, she quietly took on a president of her own party, George W. Bush, over his order to stop funding new embryonic stem cell lines. Behind the scenes, she lobbied Republicans in Congress, and a bill to reverse Bush's policy passed. Bush then vetoed it, but the two remained on good terms.
Obama this year reversed Bush's policy.
Onstage, Baker gestured to the statue, sculpted by North Carolina artist Chas Fagan.
"It will stand forever as a silent sentry in these hallowed halls, to teach our children and our grandchildren about that which once was and to inspire them with visions of that which can be again - today, tomorrow and unto the generations," Baker said.
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