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Inside Politics

Reagan sons surprised by outpouring for father

'You felt all that goodwill coming your way and it just helped'

Ron Reagan says his father "made you feel good about your country."
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Ron Reagan shares memories of his late father with CNN's Larry King.

In a surprising twist, some Democrats are invoking President Reagan's name.
Ronald Wilson Reagan
Ron Reagan
Michael Reagan
Nancy Reagan

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- The family of the late President Ronald Reagan was surprised and comforted by what they called the unexpected outpouring of emotion and affection from across the country after his death earlier this month, his two sons said.

"There was something about that public turnout that I think made it easier for everybody," Ron Reagan told CNN's "Larry King Live" in an interview broadcast Wednesday. "I don't quite know how, but you felt all that goodwill coming your way and it just helped."

"I don't think we expected, any of us, the literally hundreds of thousands of people that would show up," Michael Reagan told CNN's "Paula Zahn Now." "It was a tremendous surprise in so many ways to us. But, at the same time, it was such a great support system to us to be able to see it."

Ron Reagan described his mother, Nancy, as tired but holding up well after the death of the man to whom she was married for 53 years and who was celebrated with a week of ceremonies in California and Washington.

"She's doing pretty well. I've got to hand it to her," he said of his 83-year-old mother. "She was such a trouper for the last couple of weeks ... I know that she would have done anything to do right by my father, and she wanted to do that whole thing right."

Michael Reagan said one of the most touching moments for him was the sight of a father and his young son, standing in the median of a freeway as the motorcade carrying Reagan's casket was on its way to Point Mugu Naval Air Station for the trip back to Washington for his funeral.

"I thought, here's a little boy ... no more than four years old, five years old. The only thing he knows about my father is what has been told to him by his dad. And there they were, saluting," he said.

Ron Reagan told King that he believes the outpouring was not only because of his father's character and accomplishments but also because the American people were hungry for someone to look up after months of disconcerting news about Iraq.

"I think it came at a moment when Americans were particularly hungry for someone they could perceive as honest, upstanding, a hero," he said. "We've had all these awful pictures from the prison in Iraq and these sort of memos floating around about justifying torture and all this kind of stuff. It makes you want to take a shower. And now, here is this guy who made you feel good about yourself and made you feel good about your country."

Michael Reagan said he thought it was "tremendous that the world was able to see" Americans coming together to honor a departed president.

"People argued and debated his policies all they time. They always do. But at the end of the day, everybody respected Ronald Reagan," he said. "With all the arguments that take place in America because of our freedom of speech, that we can at times come together, I think it was good for everybody to see."

He also said his father would have been surprised by the reaction to his death "because he never patted himself on the back" -- and he would also have been pleased that his widow and children were there together supporting each other, overcoming various estrangements through the years.

"I think he would have been proud and smiling ... when we laid him to rest because his family was together," Michael Reagan said. "I think that was a great gift to be able to give Dad at the end."

Ron Reagan, a self-described liberal and atheist who said he does not support President Bush's re-election, raised eyebrows during his father's burial service when he said in his eulogy that his father "never made the fatal mistake of so many politicians, wearing his faith on his sleeve to gain political advantage."

Many observers thought the remark was aimed at Bush, who often speaks publicly of the role faith plays in his life. But Ron Reagan told King that he did not set out to take a dig at Bush, though, after so many other people made that connection, "I began to think maybe I was. I just didn't know it."

"When you hear somebody justifying a war by citing the Almighty God, I get a little worried frankly. The other guys do that a lot. Osama bin Laden's always talking about Allah and what Allah wants, that he's on his side," he said, referring to Bush's comments in journalist Bob Woodward's book about the Iraq war that the president had sought guidance from God, rather than his own father, former President George H.W. Bush..

Ron Reagan said he does not believe his father would have gone into Iraq.

"I think he would have been much more interested in going after Osama bin Laden," he said.

Both Reagan sons said they expect Nancy Reagan to actively support the cause of embryonic stem cell research, which some scientists believes could hold the key to one day combating a number of debilitating illnesses, including possibly the Alzheimer's disease that claimed Ronald Reagan.

Bush has limited the use of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, amid ethical and moral concerns about experimental use of human embryos. Nancy Reagan has gone public with her disagreement.

"This isn't a whim of hers. She knows this is right, flat out. There is no down side to this," Ron Reagan said. "This is the right thing to do."

Michael Reagan said that on the stem cell issue, his stepmother will "be a lightning rod because of who she is."

"You have to have been there and had to deal with it 24 hours a day to understand where she's coming from," he said. "To her, it's not a Republican-Democrat issue. It's a life issue."

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