Reagan's golden sunset

Posted: Jun 15, 2004 12:00 AM

 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.

 It's odd, but even as he rose to be a movie star, a governor and a president, Reagan never seemed ambitious. Goodman says she noticed that when she first met Californians, people seemed "several degrees below in intensity, but don't be fooled."

 I can imagine how Beltway blowhards must scoff at the crowd of those attending the interment services in Simi Valley. The Washington service could boast world leaders and congressional heavyweights. Simi Valley provided an odd mix of California statesmen and Mickey Rooney, Pat Sajak, Johnny Mathis, Tom Selleck, Bo Derek. Worse, to those who don't see how effective he has become -- California's second actor-turned-governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

 Those who care to also can mock Reagan's very California family. Two marriages produced very different children, with Michael, Patti and Ron surviving Maureen.

 Reagan was divorced. Lefties scoffed: How's that for family values? And yet who today doubts that the marriage between Ron and Nancy Reagan was true?

 As Patti noted, in Reagan's last moments, when he looked at Nancy, "He showed us that neither disease nor death can conquer love." Son Ron simply said his father was "the most plainly decent man you could ever meet."

 People wonder why the national media have been so kind to Reagan this week. A cynic could argue that they don't particularly mind a dead conservative. Or that they've beat up on George W. Bush so much that there's no ammo left for Reagan. But I don't think that's the dynamic. I think there's a newfound respect for Reagan as one-time naysayers in the press corps are aging.

 Some realize they were wrong and Reagan was right on disarmament, the Cold War and even taxes. They see even how clever he was to let the media underestimate -- and even belittle -- him. They now understand that he played them in his own stagy Hollywood way.

 It just took them this long to figure out how smart Ronald Reagan really was.