Even in death, Ronald Reagan can still pack ‘em in.
A standing-room-only crowd filled the Capitol Rotunda on Wednesday for the unveiling of a statue of the former president, representing California in Washington’s version of a national hall of fame.
Nancy Reagan called it a “wonderful likeness of Ronnie,” adding, “He would be so proud.”
The former first lady, her voice choked with emotion, recalled her last visit to the Rotunda, five years ago when Reagan lay in state. “It’s nice to be back under happier circumstances,” she said.
The ceremony came one day after President Obama signed legislation creating the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission to plan a celebration in 2011 of the 100th anniversary of Reagan’s birth.
The 500-pound bronze sculpture by Chas Fagan features a 7-foot-tall Reagan in a business suit, standing on a 3-foot-high marble pedestal that contains the presidential and California governor’s seals and includes pieces of the Berlin Wall.
Among those attending the event were Reagan-era officials, congressional leaders past and present, and members of California’s congressional delegation.
Republicans, who have had little to cheer about since losing control of both Congress and the White House, welcomed a moment to celebrate one of their heroes.
“Ronald Reagan’s legacy is intact, and I’m confident it will be for generations to come,” House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) spoke of “the special pride that we take as Californians” in Reagan’s place in the Capitol. She called the Reagans’ marriage “one of the great love stories of all time,” one that benefited the American people, and praised Nancy Reagan for her support for stem-cell research.
Recalling Ronald Reagan’s sense of humor, Pelosi told a story about the then-governor receiving a birthday cake during a visit to the state Assembly, then led by a political adversary, Democrat Jesse M. Unruh.
Reagan blew out the candles, and someone called out, “Governor, did you make a wish?” Reagan looked at Unruh and said, “Yes, I made a wish, but it didn’t come true. He’s still there.”
The Reagan likeness replaces a statue of Thomas Starr King, which had stood in the Capitol since 1931 as one of California’s two representatives in the National Statuary Hall Collection.
The state’s other representative in the collection is Father Junipero Serra, whose bronze likeness holds a little mission in his left hand and a cross in his right.
The Reagan statue stands on the other side of the entrance to the Rotunda from a statue of a uniformed President Eisenhower, who represents Kansas. The statues are donated by states to recognize figures important in their history and are a popular tourist attraction.
The statue of King, a Unitarian minister who was credited with helping keep California in the Union through his oratory, will be put on display in the state Capitol in Sacramento.
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, which paid for the Reagan statue, declined to provide its cost.
Don Ritchie, the Senate’s associate historian, said that although he was sad to see the King statue go, “I’ve rarely met a Californian who knew who he was.”
“I suppose that former presidents will have more staying power,” he said. “Anyway, having your statue in the U.S. Capitol for almost eight decades is a pretty good run, even if it’s not for eternity. And since King was a minister, he would likely have recalled Solomon’s warning in Ecclesiastes: ‘Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.’ ”