Step Aside, Thomas Starr King — Reagan's Back in Town

It's come to this for the man credited with keeping California in the Union during the Civil War.

A statue of Thomas Starr King was removed from the Capitol Rotunda Wednesday to make way for the new guy -- President Ronald Reagan.

King's likeness has been part of the Rotunda since 1931. The Unitarian Universalist minister arrived in San Francisco one year before the start of the Civil War.

He embarked on a speaking tour in an effort to keep California in the Union. He would become known as "the orator who saved the nation."

In a column that appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Jack Cheevers wrote:

"King was deeply agitated by talk of California being bisected or seceding. He embarked on a statewide speaking tour, preaching against disunion with a voice that, in the words of one observer, "held within it all the sweetness of the harp when struck by a master hand, all the power and solemn grandeur of a great cathedral organ.

"The 140-pound minister wasn't always well received, encountering some hostile crowds and death threats."

King's fate was etched in stone when California State Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, R-Murrieta, introduced the resolution to replace King's statue.

"To be honest with you, I wasn't sure who Thomas Starr King was, and I think there's probably a lot of Californians like me," he told the San Francisco Chronicle in October 2006.

Nancy Reagan was at the U.S. Capitol for the unveiling. There was an hour-long program and tribute to the nation's 40th president.

"I know Ronnie would be deeply honored to see himself with a permanent home in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol and very proud to be representing his beloved California," said the former first lady. "I'm so grateful to Californians for giving him this honor."

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation provided the funding for the statue and its surrounding events.

The sculpture, designed by American artist Chas Fagan of North Carolina, depicts President Reagan's left arm resting on a column featuring eagles and a "torch of freedom." The figure is mounted on a three-foot-high marble pedestal which contains the Great Seal of the Governor of California on one side and the Great Seal of the President of the United States on the other. Shards of the Berlin Wall have been incorporated into the stone cap of the base.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama created the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission, an 11-person panel that will plan and carry out activities to mark the 100th anniversary, in 2011, of the president's birth.

Obama invoked Reagan's trademark optimism, calling him a leader who understood that the bonds that unite Americans are stronger than the disagreements that divide them, the political parties included. He also said Reagan's sunny outlook was sorely needed during a difficult time of economic and global challenges.

"That was powerful. That was important. And we are better off for the extraordinary leadership that he showed," Obama said.

Escorted into the room by Obama, Mrs. Reagan clutched his right arm and walked with the aid of a cane. The former first lady, 87, broke her pelvis last year after falling at her home in Los Angeles.

She made no formal remarks Tuesday but bellowed a hearty "OK," when Obama said, "Ms. Reagan, let's go sign this bill."

When he put pen to paper she exclaimed, "Oh, you're a lefty."

"I am a lefty," Obama replied.

The commission will make recommendations and help federal, state and local governments and civic groups commemorate the 100th anniversary of Reagan's birth. That may include issuing a postage stamp or a $1 coin, or convening a joint session of Congress.

Reagan was born Feb. 6, 1911, and died June 5, 2004, at age 93. He had a successful movie career -- as the dying football player George Gipp in "Knute Rockne: All American" he hoped his team would "win just one for the Gipper" -- before he entered politics.

In an interview in the July issue of Vanity Fair magazine, Mrs. Reagan said she thought Obama missed an opportunity by not inviting her to the White House this year when he announced he was reversing President George W. Bush's policy on embryonic stem cell research. She became an advocate for such research after her husband was diagnosed with the mind-destroying Alzheimer's disease.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs on Tuesday lauded "her candor and her courage" in advocating for such research and said, "We certainly meant no slight whatsoever."

Obama, during his remarks, added that many people were inspired by her advocacy.

During his transition to the White House, Obama committed a faux pas at Mrs. Reagan's expense when he said he had received advice from all "living" former presidents, but joked that he "didn't want to get into a Nancy Reagan thing about, you know, doing any seances."

Obama apologized by telephone later that day. Mrs. Reagan had consulted with astrologers during her White House years, but she did not hold conversations with the dead.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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