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Reagan Centennial Birthday Party Imbued With Memories, Hopeful Spirit

Reagan Birthday

Feb. 5, 1982: President Reagan blows out candles on his birthday cake in the Oval Office.

"Happy Birthday, Ronnie."

Those were the words delivered by an 89-year-old Nancy Reagan Sunday under the din of a standing ovation during the 100th birthday celebration of her late husband, Ronald Reagan, the nation's 40th president and an enduring beacon for conservative thinkers.

With a strong voice though ever-slight in frame, Nancy Reagan looked strong as she appeared in a red pantsuit and thanked the invitation-only audience at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Library, which has held a weekend-long celebration of the late president's 100th birthday.

"I know that Ronnie would be thrilled and is thrilled to have all of you share in this 100th birthday. It doesn't seem possible, but that's what it is," Reagan said to laughter. 

The centennial program held Sunday, on Reagan's actual birth date, included a 21-gun salute, an F-18 flyover and the official laying of the presidential wreath on Reagan's memorial site at the Reagan ranch in Simi Valley, Calif.

The show opened with a performance by musicians Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant. Former Sen. John Danforth, an Episcopal priest, provided a prayer that described Reagan as a man full of warmth and humor and absent pettiness or meanness, and an example as somone who lit the life given to him "on a lampstand shining not on himself but on America and into the world."

Actor Gary Sinise, who narrated the video tour of the Reagan Library, also spoke about the trajectory Reagan's life took from his birthplace in Dixon, Ill., to Hollywood to the White House.

"I'm in awe. The life story of Ronald Reagan is truly worthy of its own 10-part miniseries," Sinise said. 

Fred Ryan, who runs the Reagan Foundation, announced a new coin 

Reagan Treasury Secretary and Chief of Staff James A. Baker, who spoke to Fox News in anticipation of the president's birthday, said Reagan's greatest legacy is that he restored America's pride and confidence in itself.

"He taught us how to be proud again, he taught us how to think big again, well he taught us how to love. I have to tell you, I think he taught us how to love," Baker said. "So his legacy, in terms of concrete achievement, of course is that he led this nation for eight years, eight years of complete peace and prosperity, and that's no small feat. But in terms of his character and things like that, he really set a wonderful example for Americans, both past and future.

But even as President Obama hosts a Super Bowl party at the White House Sunday for 100 guests from both sides of the aisle, Baker said much of the Reagan style has been lost in current-day Washington.

"The current political climate is different than it was then. In those days, we would fight like hell during the day, and then after 5 o'clock he and (then-House Speaker) Tip O'Neill would retire to the residence for a drink and a few Irish stories," Baker said. "Today, I'm afraid, we have lost a lot of that. You don't see as much reaching across the aisle. There is a certain incivility in our politics today, which is quite regrettable, I think."

Republicans are hailing Reagan at a time when the party is facing a resurgence. After two elections of grueling defeats that led to a Democratic White House, House and Senate in 2008, Republicans made historic gains in the House in 2010. 

The Republican National Committee has also cleaned house, electing a new chairman in January who has overhauled the entire organization, which is now tens of millions in debt. 

Chairman Reince Priebus issued a statement Sunday reiterating Reagan's core values. 

"Even before he assumed the presidency more than 30 years ago, Reagan established himself as a staunch defender of our core conservative principles -- limited government, a thriving free market economy, and a strong national defense. ... His memory reminds us of the promise America carries for each of its citizens and the responsibility we shoulder to defend it so that for generations to come it may remain that 'shining city upon a hill,'" he said.

Reagan was 93 when he died on June 5, 2004, after a 10-year battle with Alzheimer's disease. 

The Reagan Foundation lists its mission as ensuring a new generation of leaders has the opportunity to learn about Reagan and his impact on U.S. and world history. To that end, the foundation announced Saturday that it had surpassed its $100 million goal for a centennial endowment. 

"We couldn't have asked for a better present on President Reagan's 100th birthday," foundation board chairman Frederick Ryan said during a private reunion Saturday of Reagan associates. "Just over two years ago, we set a steep goal of raising $100 million for an endowment that will ensure the Reagan Foundation and its work will live on in perpetuity."

And as the historians debate whether Reagan was responsible for many of today's events -- including instability in the Mideast -- former Vice President Dick Cheney said Saturday at a keynote speech at the Reagan Ranch Center that it was Reagan's military buildup that made it possible for the Bush administration to prevail in Iraq

He added that he's noticed that for all the demonizing of the Bush administration, the Obama administration has assumed many of the same positions, in fact, if not in rhetoric.

"The good news is I sense they have backed off on some of their more outrageous propositions," Cheney said of the Obama administration. "I'm hopeful that what we will see is a solid, steady hand at the tiller."

Fox News' Eric Shawn contributed to this report.

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