I’m of accord with The Other Charlotte: Who says America can’t do formal? (See “In the Order of Sacrifice,” today below). I myself was standing yesterday afternoon at the intersection of Constitution Avenue and Fourth Street, three blocks from the Capitol, when they came by: the marching bands and their drumbeats, the units of military men and women proud in dress uniforms, and then the caisson with its six black horses and its flag-wrapped coffin and following behind, the saddled and riderless horse. Later I read that the riding boots placed backwards in the stirrups on that horse, symbolizing that the last ride had already been taken, were Ronald Reagan’s own.
The details were exactly perfect: the tall horses as polished as the fittings on their tack, the soldiers, sailors, and airmen impeccably dignified. This was an American state funeral procession, and its components were traditional. They had been precisely crafted over many, many decades. They were laden with history, hearkening back to a time when caissons carried cannons and horses cavalry into the wars–Revolutionary, 1812, Civil–that had forged our country into what it is today. They were distant wars, but ever so close, fought on the soil of Washington, D.C., itself. And now, in a way that Ronald Reagan would surely approve, our country was at war again and every one of those military men and women in the 40th president’s honor guard undoubtedly knew someone stationed far away under the same blazing sun.
The most moving aspect of the afternoon, however, was the silence. The crowd that pressed against the stanchions on Constitution Avenue contained a few obvious office workers, but it was mostly visitors, from the near suburbs and from hundreds of miles away. They wore standard Washington summer tourist gear: shorts, sandals, baseball caps. They brought the cameras and the kids–and indeed most of the crowd looked too young to have remembered Reagan as president. Some of the older ones had located and pinned on their old “Reagan for President” campaign buttons. One or two wore “Reagan for Governor” buttons left over from California in the 1960s. Some carried homemade signs to drape over the stanchions so that Nancy in her limousine could see them: “We Love You, Ronnie.” Kids clambered up trees to get a better view–until a mounted policeman spotted them and ordered them down. A guy in a Vietnam vet T-shirt carefully picked off all the excess garbage atop an overflowing plastic trashcan and then balanced himself up on the lid with camera poised. It was a happy, chatty, noisy crowd–until the caisson came. Then, suddenly, you could hear a pin drop. Every baseball cap was off. We stood there, and we looked at the casket bearing the man who had been one of America’s most beloved presidents. We stood there. My eyes filled up with tears.
Ronald Reagan was a monumental figure. When he ran for office in 1980, the pundits, the clever people, were predicting right up until election night that he would never make it. He beat Jimmy Carter by a landslide. The pundits, the clever people also told us that the Cold War, the Soviet Union, would last forever, that they would be permanent parts of the international landscape that must be permanently appeased with SALT treaties and containment strategies, or the world would be blown to bits. Reagan didn’t listen to the clever people. He listened to the dissidents, the marginal Eastern European figures whom the intellectuals dismissed: Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, Nathan Sharansky, Pope John Paul II. He decided there would be no more appeasement. He branded the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire.” and he began beefing up American defense. Soon after Ronald Reagan left office, the Soviet Union and its empire simply melted away.
Even the liberals who looked down their noses at Reagan as the Bonzo in the “Bedtime” movie during his presidency have waxed sentimental and affectionate now that he is gone. Yesterday I trolled the websites of the leftish media–The Nation, Mother Jones, and so forth–hunting for the usual condescension, but I found darned little of it. The only major exceptions: Slate (whose snide flippancy TOC has already noted), and the once-cute but lately full-of-herself Wonkette, who’s running something she calls Gipperporn that makes fun of the outpouring of Reagan eulogies.
The most sweetly surprising tribute to Ronald Reagan comes from Tina Brown, whose silly Thursday column for the Washington Post I’ve often mocked. Not today. Tina writes a lovely memoir of the evening in 1985 when Reagan and Nancy, clad in elegant attire for a black-tie function, danced and smooched to Frank Sinatra for a Vanity Fair cover story that saved the then-ailing magazine under Tina’s editorship. Tina writes:
“‘I love this song, honey,’ she said. ‘Let’s dance.’ Her co-star replied with a line that might have been written for any number of vintage B movies: ‘We can’t keep the president of Argentina waiting, Nancy.’
“‘Oh, Ronnie,’ teased the first lady, grabbing him by his broad shoulders, ‘Let him wait!’ She kicked back her leg (click-whirr click-whirr click-whirr went [Vanity Fair photographer] Harry Benson’s camera), and, perhaps in a paradigm of their easeful marriage, the president quit resisting and took his wife in his arms. For the next 15 minutes they fox-trotted blithely around the Map Room to more Sinatra oldies on Benson’s cassette, exchanging the gossip of the day as if no one else were there.
“‘A kiss!’ shouted a now-ecstatic Benson, juggling three cameras. ‘Mr. President, give your wife a kiss!’ Cheeky, perhaps, for other presidents, but for them it was easy. They moved closer. Their eyes closed. Their lips came together for the iconic moment I have seen flashed on TV screens over and over in the past few days.”
Yes, Mr. President, in your fine formal attire that night, you brought gaiety and confidence to America. We’ll miss you so. In gratitude, a mournful America gave you its formal best yesterday. We hope we did you proud.