Nancy Reagan Receives Civilian Awards

Nancy Reagan was in the nation's capital Thursday not just to win one, but to collect one for the Gipper.

The former first lady, 80, accepted the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor awarded by Congress, during a ceremony under the Rotunda of the Capitol.

"This is a very, obviously, very special occasion for me and very memorable because it was in this room where Ronnie and I came after the inaugural and it was in this room that we learned that the prisoners were released," Mrs. Reagan, who is in Washington for her first time in five years, said.

Reagan, who defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980, is credited with getting home the American hostages who had been held captive in Iran for 444 days. They were released on inauguration day Jan. 20, 1981. 

Reagan, now aged 91, was not in attendance. The 40th president has lived for years in near-total seclusion in California, coping with advanced Alzheimer's disease. However, Nancy Reagan has kept the reverent image of Reagan alive, most recently by showing off the couple's love letters and other keepsakes during their 50th wedding anniversary celebration earlier this year.

"Ronald and Nancy Reagan were married in 1952 and their love for one another has only grown greater with the passage of time. They set out to make a life together, and this amazing partnership helped change the world," said President Bush, who presented the medal.

The former president's other assets were also on display Thursday. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert credited Reagan with reviving America's economy and cutting taxes.

"Ronald Reagan helped establish the leadership to give Americans the ability to believe in America again," Hastert said.

"But for one man, the Berlin Wall would still be standing," said Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who, like a half-dozen other speakers, credited Reagan with leading communism to its downfall in the Eastern bloc and Soviet Union.

Not everyone is a fan of Reagan, though over time his reputation has become larger than life. However, politics were set aside as the Senate dean Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., participated in the event.

Mrs. Reagan's part of the gold medal citation stems from her 1980s-era anti-drug campaign, "Just Say No."

She is still active in philanthropic work, particularly in funding for Alzheimer's research.

"We hope that this Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor Congress can bestow, will demonstrate how much we treasure Ronald and Nancy Reagan's contribution to our nation as president and first lady, and as husband and wife," Hastert said.

"Its gold is just a metaphor for how much we treasure you, Mrs. Reagan, Nancy if I may, and the man who has so long been the centerpiece of your life," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss. 

The Congressional Gold Medal has only been given to nine presidents and its bestowal requires a two-thirds approval vote by the House and Senate. It can only be given to a recipient while he or she is living or within 25 years of his or her death.

Mrs. Reagan was the toast of the town Wednesday night, when she headlined a fund-raiser for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Foundation at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.

Mrs. Reagan told the estimated 700 people in attendance the same thing she told those on hand in March 2000 for the dedication of the aircraft carrier USS Reagan.

"I wish, of course, I wish that Ronnie were here. But, somehow, I think he is," she said.

The only previous presidential couple to receive this honor was Gerald and Betty Ford in 1998.

Fox News' James Rosen contributed to this report.