The 18 million passengers who travel in and out of the nation's capital through Reagan National Airport each year will now be greeted by a 9-foot tall, nearly $1 million bronze statue of the former president that was unveiled Tuesday.
The statue is the fourth dedicated this year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, which operates his presidential library. Tuesday's unveiling also gave travelers an opportunity to revisit the dormant debate over whether Reagan was worthy of having his name put on the airport that had long been known simply as "National."
Many D.C.-area residents resented the change when it was approved by Congress in 1998, and it seems the passage of 13 years has done little to soften people's opinions.
"I've never understood the people who feel he's such a beloved figure," said Kathleen Meehan of Madison, Wis., as she waited for her flight. "My daughter refuses to call it `Reagan.'" The only thing Meehan gave Reagan credit for was "the destruction of the middle class."
Jessica Denson of Washington said she continues to refer to it as "National." Her travel partner, New Orleans resident Terry Scott, agreed.
"It's crazy that they salivate over this guy like he was an angel. What's next, canonization?" Scott asked. "It's like John Wayne airport (in California). I won't use John Wayne."
But Carol Ole, who was headed back to Atlanta after watching her nephew run the Marine Corps Marathon, was thrilled to see the statue being unveiled.
"I love it. I'm a real conservative," she said.
Elizabeth Dole and James Burnley, who were both transportation secretaries under Reagan, said at Tuesday's ceremonies that it was especially appropriate that this airport be renamed for Reagan. It was under the Reagan administration that National and its sister airport, Dulles, were transferred from federal control to a regional board called the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Similar efforts had been made for decades, but it was the Reagan administration that got it done, they said.
The change was significant because it freed the airports from the federal budget process and allowed them to issue their own bonds, fueling significant growth and modernization for them, Burnley said.
Burnley acknowledged that when it comes to aviation, Reagan is probably best remembered for firing striking air traffic controllers in 1981. But Burnley said Reagan's legacy extends beyond that.
"It wasn't just that he faced the illegal strike and handled it. It was the rebuilding" of the Federal Aviation Administration after the strike that was even more important, Burnley said.
Fred Ryan, chairman of the Reagan foundation's board of trustees, said the foundation has also sponsored statues of Reagan that have been erected this year in the U.S. Capitol, the presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif., and outside the U.S. Embassy in London. Ryan said the 1998 vote to rename National Airport for Reagan was passed by "an overwhelming bipartisan vote of Congress and signed into law by a Democratic President," Bill Clinton.
The Senate voted 76-22 in support of the name change and the key House vote for the name change was 240-186, with opposition from 183 Democrats.
The bronze statue cost about $900,000 and was paid for with money raised from private donors by Reagan's foundation. Located outside the airport's Terminal A, it depicts Reagan with his hands at his side and his gaze fixed slightly off in the distance. Officials said the statue is nine feet tall, but it appeared to be even taller. Dole came up only to the statue's hip when she posed for photographs beside it.
The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority also spent about $80,000 on site preparations.
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