Waking up this morning, I had texts and other messages awaiting me— all with the same notification: Nancy Reagan passed away.
It’s a surprise in a way, but obviously not a shock. She was 94 years old and had faced some serious health issues since around 2008/09. Even in frail health she continued to be involved with the Reagan Presidential Library, and even being a ceremonial host for quite a few GOP debates there.
As a political/presidential buff since I was about eight years old— I was thrilled when I had the chance to go on up to the Reagan Library back in 2002 to meet Mrs. Reagan. It was a book signing event that she held and she had those on a semi-infrequent basis. There were a few back in the 1990s, a couple in 2000/01 and then the one I attended in February ’02. It ended up being the final signing she ever did where the public could meet her. It’s a really beautiful place— done up in mission-style with Spanish tile roofs.
It was a fun morning. We got up there early and a line had already formed outside the courtyard gate, and it was still a couple hours away from the start of the signing. We walked through a simple security checkpoint where all we had to do was empty our pockets and allow cursory searches of bags and purses. No metal detectors or anything like that. In fact it was regular, private security that handled the checkpoints; the Secret Service didn’t make their presence known until later. And that was a sight to see because we had assumed she was already securely inside the library in a holding room, relaxing before it started.
My friend and I were seated on a bench near the entrance to the courtyard, and we were about an hour away from the start of the signing. People had gathered all over the place— under the trees and the overhangs in the hallways that surrounded the courtyard on three sides. So all the sudden a side door to one of the wings flew open, and men in suits made their way out in zig-zag formations across the walkways. It was the stereotypical thing you’ve seen in presidential flicks: walking and talking into their radio mic’s clasped in their hands— the United States Secret Service!
Just then we hear a car, and up pulls a black, four-door Cadillac with a dark sea-green windows (bulletproof glass). Two of the Secret Service agents made for the gate and opened it. The driver of the car got out, along with an agent in the front seat, and they opened the rear door. Out came another agent, and then that’s all we could see. The lush landscape of shrubs obstructed anything just below the top of the car when looking from the courtyard out.
Slowly walking up towards the courtyard entrance were two tall, solid agents and in the middle— Mrs. Ronald Reagan.
She walked inside the courtyard, escorted arm-in-arm on both sides and not ten feet from me she slowly made her way. She paused at one point as staggered applause began which quickly turned thunderous. She was truly touched and waved and blew a kiss. She entered through the door the agents initially came out from and it was closed on in behind her.
A while later my friend and I found ourselves in another lucky area— just outside the main library doors where the signing was to take place just inside and to the right. Standing there and looking at our new books we were going to get signed, a library aide comes out and quietly says to those of us just outside the doors that if we wanted to come inside and gather in the center of the lobby area— Mrs. Reagan will walk out, shake hands and greet as many as she can.
We walked inside and there was stanchions placed down the middle to keep an aisle for Mrs. Reagan to walk and we were right there on the line. It wasn’t long after that the lobby was packed with dozens of others trying to push their way in. Word had quickly spread that she was doing an impromptu meet-and-greet.
The suspense built only to have it canceled. Confusion soon passed over and some thought the signing altogether was a suddenly a no-go. Mrs. Reagan only nixed the walking up and down to shake hands, but the signing would still take place, but be a little delayed. Come to find out Mrs. Reagan was getting over the flu.
One of the great things I have always loved about the Reagan Library’s organizing of special events like this is their numbering system. When you enter the grounds and pass through security you are given a number in line in the order that you walk in. So if you go and venture away to look around the place— you won’t lose your place in line come the time of the start of the signing, event, etc.
The signing got underway and surprisingly the line moved extremely fast. Best I can recall is less than five minutes after the start— there I was at the front of the line, looking ahead to the person in front of me who was in front of Mrs. Reagan, getting their book signed.
Looking over I found that she was well flanked by 3-4 Secret Service agents. One or two were behind this long desk behind her and a couple stood sentry in front of it. I remember seeing video of her last signing before this in 2001 and it was a nice wooden desk where those who walked up to her— she was a foot or two in front of you; easy access. That day it wasn’t. It was a desk-table that was turned sideways, lengthwise, and there was easily a 5-6 foot gap between you and Mrs. Reagan. Some complained, but I felt it was so she wouldn’t get anyone else sick. Some even griped that she was autographing books with a Sharpie marker.
There were no complaints from me that day. Soon it was my turn, I handed my book to an aide who handed it to the agent to Mrs. Reagan’s right, who then put it front of her and she signed it with her name. I said a few words and she looked up and smiled.
And soon it was the 70+ mile trip back home. It was a venture up to Simi Valley that almost didn’t happy back in ’02, but even more so today I’m glad that I did.
We’ve truly lost an American great… no matter your views.
PS- I wanted to add this here after just reading it. Patti Davis, daughter of President & Mrs. Reagan, is an accomplished author and keeps a wonderful blog. Tonight she wrote about her mother’s passing this morning which offers up more detail as to what happened. I have to say— that’s pretty low-brow what she described about the news leak. Seriously. Not even for a First Lady some rags won’t show respect.