Citizen Reagans Are Home After Bittersweet Farewell

Times Staff Writers

In what he called the sweet part of a bittersweet day, Ronald Reagan flew home to California with his wife, Nancy, on Friday, enjoying a silver-screen Los Angeles welcome after a stately but impassioned Washington farewell.

Citizens Ronald and Nancy Reagan emerged from their last official flight on the presidential jet at 3:30 p.m. Friday at Los Angeles International Airport with picture-perfect waves for a homecoming rally of 700 fans organized by Reagan’s White House staff. Under warm but overcast skies, the Salvation Army Tournament of Roses Band played “California, Here I Come.”’

In a fitting ceremony for an actor-turned-President and his wife, the Reagans were greeted by Mayor Tom Bradley, comedian Rich Little, former Atty. Gen. William French Smith and actor Robert Stack. “You are an example of the true American success story,” Stack told his old friend. “You changed the course of history.”


In brief, off-the-cuff remarks, Reagan told the cheering crowd of 700 that there “aren’t enough words” to express “what is in my heart.” Having to stay in Washington eight years left him in “a perpetual state of homesickness,” he said.

On their way home aboard an Air Force jet that is known as Air Force One only when a sitting President is aboard, the Reagans--standing in the doorway to the aft cabin, his arm around her waist--spoke liberally about their personal transition, a shift from the high-profile and high-powered life in the White House to their new existence in Bel-Air.

The former President, relaxed and wearing a blue Air Force jacket that had replaced the dark one he wore during President Bush’s inauguration, recalled some of his triumphs on foreign policy and the economy and lamented his inability to overturn the 1973 Supreme Court decision protecting women’s right to abortion.

Reagan seemed to harbor no bitterness about the 1981 incident in which John W. Hinckley Jr. shot him, saying: “My thoughts about him after he did it was when I was praying for my own recovery. I prayed that he’d recover too, that whatever caused him to be that way that he would be cured. I don’t know that he has been; I understand he’s still in the hospital.”

Hinckley remains in a Washington mental hospital.

Homecoming Conversation

But the Reagans’ conversation with the 14 journalists accompanying them centered on leaving Washington and coming home.

The homecoming, Reagan said, “will be a return to a life we did love very much. California isn’t a place in my mind; it’s a way of life. So . . . that’s the sweet part of the bittersweet experience” of leaving office.

“Overall,” the eight years “went so quickly,” Mrs. Reagan said, adding that the last two weeks were difficult “because people would come up and say: ‘We’ll miss you.’ ” She said that “it got to the point where I’d say: ‘Don’t say anything nice about me, please, because I’ll start to cry.’ ”

Reagan said that “anyone who leaves that job (the presidency) leaves with a feeling of things undone, but you just run out of time.” Now, he said, he will be “taking the case to the people and trying to impress the people on being supportive of these same things.”

At 77, Reagan is the oldest retiring President in the nation’s history. But, he made clear, he has no plans to slow down. He mentioned the possibility of foreign travel but said he has made no plans. And he has made no decision about whether to accept offers to broadcast on radio, a former occupation. As for movies, Reagan said, “that would look a little bit like trying to cash in on this job that I’ve had.”

Mrs. Reagan, asked if she would try to “tie him down,” said: “No, I’m not going to try. No, no, I don’t believe in retirement, and he’s going to be writing a book and I’m going to be finishing my book . . . . “

Aboard the plane were a number of the Reagans’ White House aides, including Chief of Staff Kenneth M. Duberstein; M. B. Oglesby of the congressional relations staff; Elaine Crispen, Mrs. Reagan’s press secretary, and Mark Weinberg, assistant Reagan press secretary. Also accompanying the Reagans were Mrs. Reagan’s hairdresser, Julius Bengtsson. Weinberg will be the former President’s press secretary in California. At one point during the flight, the Reagans were toasted with champagne. A black-and-white picture showing Reagan portraying an alcoholic businessman in a 1950s movie was circulated and signed by all aboard.

Long ‘Nostalgic Moment’

Reagan said his last day as President was a long “nostalgic moment of wanting to take one more look at the place that every morning I’ve been walking in.”

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Reagan and his wife walked hand-in-hand through the White House before they left. Reagan left a humorous note in the dressing room closet for Bush, the spokesman said, but would not reveal what it said. The last formal document he signed as President was a farewell and thank you to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

About 10 a.m., Reagan visited the Oval Office for the last time with Duberstein, National Security Adviser Colin L. Powell, personal aide Jim Kuhn, secretary Kathy Osborne, and Fitzwater.

“Well, it looks like they got everything,” he said, surveying the office emptied of his personal effects. Asked by an aide if he didn’t feel like carving his initials in the desk, he said that “my mark” was a two-inch strip of wood that raised the desk to allow his knees to fit under it comfortably.

Powell, offering the President his last national security briefing, said simply: “The world is quiet today, Mr. President.”

With one last, sweeping look around, Reagan left to say farewell to the White House staff, who gave Mrs. Reagan a residence staff pin and Reagan a box in which to place the flag that flew over the White House until noon Friday.

After the inauguration, the Reagans looked at the White House from the helicopter that took them to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. There, before a cheering crowd of about 2,000 people, many of them young college students, they received a 21-gun salute. “So long, Gipper,” one placard read, referring to one of his movie roles.

After his arrival in Los Angeles, Reagan alluded to his Hollywood career when he quipped: “I was asked to play a part in a remake of ‘Bedtime for Bonzo.’ Only this time, they wanted me to play Bonzo (a chimpanzee).

“Neither of us has any intention of this being a resignation. I’m going to keep on campaigning out on the mashed-potato circuit for some of the things we didn’t get done. . . .”

Among those things, he said, is to fight for the repeal of the 22nd Amendment, which, he charged, “is an infringement upon your democratic rights” because it limits presidents to two terms in office.

When the crowd took the cue and chanted: “Four more years!” Reagan shook his head. “No,” he said. The former first couple, after accepting USC marching band helmets and oversized California license plates reading: “The Prez” and “F. L. Nancy,” joined an eight-car motorcade for their $2.5-million Bel-Air home.

Reagan’s homecoming, like that of other chiefs of state, reflected the tenor of his presidency.

In 1953, as Harry S. Truman boarded a train to go back to Independence, Mo., someone hoisted a sign reading: “We’re still wild about Harry.” In 1961, when former Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower headed home to his Gettysburg, Pa., farm, an accordionist played “Old Soldiers Never Die.”

In 1968, after the trials of Vietnam, Lyndon B. Johnson announced that he would not run again and flew home to his Texas ranch, telling a large crowd of neighbors: “I did the best I could with what the good Lord gave me . . . . “

His successor, Richard M. Nixon, resigned in the infamy of Watergate in 1974. But when he arrived at El Toro Marine Base, hundreds of his loyal fans, fingers raised in a victory sign, softly sang: “God Bless America.”

Gerald R. Ford, tears in his eyes after watching the Georgia peanut farmer who defeated him take the oath of office, headed off for a Pebble Beach golf tournament. Just four years later, Jimmy Carter, himself defeated, flew to Plains, Ga., where a country band played “Dixie” in a cold, pouring rain.

As for the Reagans, that last day ended, a Secret Service man said, with a quiet evening at their new Bel-Air home. When their motorcade arrived, Reagan gave a brief wave through the window to the 30 people gathered outside, and the gates of his new home opened.

Only a few of the 30 were Bel-Air residents. When asked why, neighbor Stephen Fogel said: “In this neighborhood, if you’re invited to the White House and have dinner, that’s the way you meet the President.”

Ronald Wilson Reagan’s limousine entered the gates, and he spent his first evening as a private citizen in eight years in private.

Staff writers Charisse Jones and Judy Pasternak in Los Angeles and James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this story.