‘We Are Keepers of the Flame’ : President Unveils New Miss Liberty

Times Staff Writers

The restored Statue of Liberty was unveiled in a blaze of red, white and blue lights Thursday night as millions celebrated the beginning of her second century as the symbol of the American dream.

With French President Francois Mitterrand looking on, President Reagan pushed a button the size of a silver dollar to send a gleaming blue laser beam across New York Harbor from Governors Island to Liberty Island, setting off the statue’s elaborate lighting sequence. Enthralled crowds on shore and in hundreds of boats watched and cheered.

Later, Reagan lit the statue’s torch, and fireworks filled the sky around Lady Liberty.

“We are the keepers of the flame of liberty; we hold it high tonight for the world to see,” Reagan proclaimed.


‘Still Giving Life’

“It is good to know that Miss Liberty is still giving life to the dream that brought her to us, the dream of a new world where old antagonisms could be cast aside and people of every nation could live together as one.”

In a gesture to France, which gave the statue to America 100 years ago, the President praised the nation as “the midwife of our liberty.” “Vive la France!” he exclaimed.

In lower Manhattan, Thomas Tran viewed the ceremony with a special pride. Six years ago, Tran escaped from his native Vietnam, one of the thousands of boat people who fled after the fall of Saigon. Now, wearing the black suit and white cap of a cadet officer at the New York State Merchant Marine Academy, the 22-year-old Tran said: “I feel wonderful.” Although his real first name was Thanh, he said, “you can call me Thomas. That’s my American name. I am an American from now on.”

On nearby Ellis Island, where millions of immigrants first arrived in America, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger administered the oath to hundreds of new citizens, who sang “America the Beautiful” and “This Is My Country.” The televised ceremonies were repeated in other cities across the nation.

The evening ceremony on Governors Island, crowded with celebrities, began with a specially written trumpet fanfare that will be played at all major Liberty Weekend events. Presidents Reagan and Mitterrand sat in adjacent boxes facing the stage and gazing out across the water at the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island. But chill winds soon drove many from the stands.

Musicians from France and the United States serenaded the leaders. Film stars and entertainers sang and offered a history of Ellis Island. Among those sworn in by Burger on Ellis Island was ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov, who later traveled by helicopter to Governors Island to perform.


Hodel Praises Iacocca

Secretary of the Interior Donald P. Hodel introduced Chrysler Board Chairman Lee A. Iacocca, the same man he had fired as chairman of the government advisory commission on the Statue of Liberty’s restoration. “I want to pay special tribute to Lee Iacocca,” he said, to a burst of applause. “Lee, the American people join me in expressing our gratitude.”

Said Iacocca, earning a standing ovation: “Tonight concludes a four-year labor of love. . . . We have surpassed our goal of $265 million.” Iacocca, chairman of the Statue of Liberty Ellis Island Foundation, then presented Reagan, who spoke and then pressed the button to begin the illumination of the statue.

At first, Lady Liberty was cast in subtle silhouette. Suddenly a dramatic surge of power flooded the statue in a cascade of colors and light. Ranging from simple incandescent bulbs to exotic high-tech equipment, more than 1,800 lighting instruments were used to unveil the statue.

Music and dance celebrating America’s immigrant heritage followed. Next, the President awarded Medals of Liberty to 12 naturalized citizens who have contributed significantly to the nation’s progress.

The medals were not without controversy. Mayor Edward I. Koch of New York had protested that the medals did not represent America’s true ethnicity. And before Liberty Weekend began, the feisty mayor presented his own series of medals.

Liberty awards went to composer Irving Berlin; astronaut Franklin R. Chang-Diaz; psychologist Kenneth Clark; educator Hanna Holborn Gray; entertainer Bob Hope; statesman Henry A. Kissinger, and architect I. M. Pei. Also receiving the awards were musician Itzhak Perlman; journalist James Reston; scientist Albert Sabin; industrialist An Wang, and writer Elie Wiesel.


The ceremonies ended with Reagan lighting Lady Liberty’s torch, “With joy and celebration, and with a prayer that this lamp shall never be extinguished. . . . “ When the torch was lit, ships in the harbor turned on their own lights and sounded their horns.

‘Festival of Free People’

Speaking in French, Mitterrand said: “One hundred years ago, thousands upon thousands of the sons and daughters of France presented the United States of America with this Statue of Liberty, today the symbol of the foremost of our common values. . . . May our children’s children meet again another hundred years from now and long thereafter to celebrate still together the festival of free people in a world of peace.”

Then, speaking in English, he declared: “Happy Birthday, United States! Happy Birthday, Miss Liberty!”

Unseasonable cold and icy winds provided an unpleasant surprise. By evening’s end, as winds reached 30-plus knots, shivering women in designer silk dresses retreated to a Red Cross emergency mobile hospital, where 225 green woolen blankets were distributed to the frozen VIPs.

Warren P. Zorrek, chairman of Liberty Weekend for the American Red Cross, pointed to the mobile van. “A lot of ladies with very thin dresses are warming up in there,” he said. “Just a lot of shivering.”

Shawl for First Lady

First Lady Nancy Reagan pulled a red shawl tightly around her shoulders, while others fled the grandstand to escape what one official apologetically described as “combat conditions.”


The fierce winds made the VIP dinner tent set up by Liberty Weekend’s producer, David L Wolper, uninhabitable, and guests were forced to juggle paper plates filled with poached salmon, pasta salad and roast chicken on their knees in a makeshift dining area. “It was a little crowded, but you’re not paying $5,000 for the dinner, obviously. It’s obviously a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” attorney Blaine Barker of Denver remarked.

Earlier in the day, thousands of New Yorkers lined the East River and lower Manhattan as a parade of tall ships and naval vessels traveled to anchorages near the statue. Some New Yorkers and tourists began jockeying for harbor-side positions as early as 5 o’clock Thursday morning. Toting deck chairs, wearing Bermuda shorts and big sun hats, they rode subways and buses--some of the city’s taxis were on strike--to stake out spots to watch a floating parade expected to number 40,000 boats.

Called ‘Zep City’

The presence of at least five corporate blimps in the bell-clear sky added a somewhat surreal quality to the first-day festivities. “Zep City,” one observer called it.

A carnival atmosphere was quickly established. Bright blue canvas food booths alternated with souvenir stands selling Liberty key rings, Liberty Frisbees, Liberty yo-yos, pennants, earrings, banners, desk thermometers, balloons, buttons, T-shirts and anything else that might possibly accommodate a Liberty insignia.

In the Wall Street area, men in pin-striped business suits, obviously AWOL from local banks and stock brokerage firms, were seen joining the crowd devouring gourmet ice cream bars and watching impromptu performances by jugglers, clowns and comedians in Uncle Sam costumes.

All day long at the tip of Manhattan, there were concerts by high school bands from across America, some with precision drill teams in tow. “It’s a thrill for them,” said Madeline Ruthenberg of St. Clair Shores, Mich., as her son Joel played the trumpet with the Lake View High School Marching Band. “It’s something they will remember all their lives.”


Dominated by Statue

In the windy harbor, some of the vessels arrived early and positioned themselves to watch the last-minute rehearsal on Governors Island. Across the water, the star of the celebration--the statue--dominated the seascape, reflecting the sun’s rays during the day and standing in mighty silhouette at dusk.

Yachts, sailing ships, speedboats, tugs, a Chinese junk, a big blue catamaran--all flying American flags and bright pennants--passed by crowds in front of fashionable East Side apartment buildings. In the garden of the United Nations overlooking the East River, diplomats mingled with tourists to press against the iron railing.

“I think it’s great,” said Lenny Braun, a construction worker, who stood on a bench, field glasses around his neck.

Watching Like Fans

On Governors Island, a 178-acre Coast Guard base that resembles a picturesque New England village at the foot of Manhattan, Coast Guard families watched like fans at a Hollywood premiere as the guests and celebrities who had paid $5,000 a ticket arrived on special boats.

Behind a line of brightly dressed hostesses forming a human barricade between island residents and the VIPs, teen-agers and adults alike squealed as such celebrities as Kenny Rogers, Kissinger and Hope arrived.

“I can’t stand it. It’s so exciting,” said Sue Mercier, the wife of a Coast Guard chief.

More Comfortable This Time

The weather was clear, cool and still windy when more than 2,500 politicians, business leaders and celebrities first gathered on Governors Island to watch the multimedia production from bleachers constructed for the occasion. But the guests were still more comfortable than at the statue’s original dedication on Oct. 28, 1886, when it rained so badly that the fireworks display had to be canceled.


Lady Liberty was unveiled then by her sculptor, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, who had climbed inside the statue’s crown to pull the rope releasing the flag covering the statue’s face. But he miscalculated. When one speaker paused in mid-speech, Bartholdi removed the French flag and the statue’s face appeared. Pandemonium ensued as crowds along the shore cheered, ships sounded their horns and whistles and cannons saluted the statue.

Cloth Too Unwieldy

A century later, planners decided that removing a cloth cover from the 305-foot-one-inch-tall monument would be too massive and unwieldy. After conferences, it was decided to use a sequence of special lights to unveil the statue after her restoration. To add drama, the laser was chosen to begin the lighting sequence.

About 1,000 policemen were assigned to the statue’s ceremonies a century ago. This time, tens of thousands of police and security agents were on duty as police helicopters with television cameras flew overhead looking for possible terrorists and trouble spots. The pictures were relayed back to a special command post in police headquarters in lower Manhattan. More than 100 frogmen patrolled the waters around Governors Island.

And at a location kept secret, the Army’s elite anti-terrorist Delta Force stood by in case of serious incidents.

Like a medieval Christmas, Liberty’s birthday over the Independence Day Weekend has been divided into days, each with special significance. Day One, Thursday, Wolper explained, was dubbed “Ceremonial Day,” and was devoted to the lighting of the statue, the awarding of the Medals of Liberty, the swearing-in of the new citizens and the giant entertainment section.

Today, the Fourth of July, is called “Tradition,” and features the international naval review, the tall ships parade, a concert by the Boston Pops Orchestra and fireworks.


Day Three is called “Culture,” Wolper said, with, among other events, a conference on liberty and readings by the winners of the Sharon Christa McAuliffe national essay contest.

Day Four, July 6, is “Celebration”: the lavish, 15,000-cast-member closing ceremonies and an extravaganza wrap-up.

Also contributing to this story were Times staff writers Elizabeth Mehren, Jay Sharbutt, Maura Dolan, Marylouise Oates, Martha Groves and researchers Tony Robinson and Siobhan Flynn.