You head west until there is no land, only the setting sun. A soft breeze blows over what were empty hills when Ronald Reagan came here in the 1930s. Southern California was wide open. Now, they are the big natural set for Reagan's final scene on the world, as the plane bearing Reagan's casket swerves over the hazy hills across a blue sky. As the old man's advance team readily points out, Team Reagan always planned events thinking about the pictures that would remain in people's minds.
"California shaped him," notes former speechwriter Ken Khachigian as he walks Friday toward the library where his former boss is about to be interred. Reagan came to the Golden State when Okies arrived and Mexicans, Armenians and dreamers of all stripes looking for nothing more than an opportunity.
Over the week, pundits have noted what a distinctly American figure Reagan was. But as Khachigian noted, Reagan truly was "a son of California" -- a man drawn to land that likes horses and cities that embrace newcomers eager to start a new life.
Reagan was acutely aware of his western heritage. He took his presidential oath from the U.S. Capitol's western steps on Jan. 20, 1981. From that day on, Khachigian noted, "everything looked west."
Since he died, pundits have remarked on what a distinctly American figure Reagan cut. But as the sun sets on the movie star's life, Reagan's California roots shine bright.
"He came here with nothing, and he was able to live the American dream," noted California GOP chairman Duf Sundheim. No wonder streets were lined with flowers and messages from other Californians who, like Reagan, came to this state to remake their lives. Come to think of it, Sundheim noted, that's why he too came to California from Illinois.
They crafted a different GOP. Leslie Goodman is among the many former advance workers who gave time over this week to work for the Gipper one last time. She noted that Republicans from California lacked the elite pretensions she saw in her native New York. In its place, she found a love of land, open space and the outdoors. Bigness.
The West also created its own constellation of stars, and Ronald Reagan made himself one of them. While his counterparts studied letters, laws and tactics, Reagan learned how to paint an image. It paid off when he went into politics.
Said Goodman, "There was a strong belief that a picture was worth a thousand words." The approach worked.
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