Jewish World Review June 15, 2004 / 16 Sivan 5764
Even in death, Ronald Reagan exceeded expectations.
Just as his four landslides for California's governor's mansion and the
White House caught the so-called experts off guard, political observers were
surprised by last week's tsunami of public affection that greeted the
passing of America's 40th president. Original estimates foresaw 50,000
people visiting the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California to say
farewell to the departed chief executive. In fact, about 106,000 people
showed up, some waiting 11 hours to view his casket for mere moments.
Another 104,684 traveled to the U.S. Capitol Rotunda to see President Reagan
lie in state. Visiting hours had to be extended at both venues.
On the streets and highways between these two spots, thousands more stood
patiently to see President Reagan pass by in his hearse or on a horse-drawn
caisson, all the while accompanied by Nancy, his devoted bride of 52 years,
and their children and loved ones. In Wednesday's procession to Capitol
Hill, they were joined by an honor guard that reportedly included 599
uniformed service men and women, along with seven horses, dozens of police
cars, and 21 F-15 fighter jets that roared overhead.
Never mind that the former president left office nearly 15 and a half years
ago and has been secluded for the last 10. Americans nonetheless crowded
sometimes 10 deep to play their parts before the curtain finally descended
on a most remarkable American life.
And among our leaders, George W. Bush and all four living ex-presidents
attended President Reagan's funeral Friday at the National Cathedral. So did
200 senators and 870 House members of both parties, past and present. There,
too, were 25 international chiefs of state, 11 ex-leaders, and 180
ambassadors and foreign ministers, the New York Post reported.
This was Ronald Reagan's final landslide.
I was honored to be among those who paid their last respects to President
Reagan at the U.S. Capitol. Last Thursday night, I joined four friends, two
of whom were active in the Reagan Revolution, and two others who were too
young to have participated, but grew to admire President Reagan, his
philosophy, and accomplishments.
We arrived at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum, hearing that that was
where the line then ended. We followed it for perhaps two blocks, then
reached the corner of Independence Avenue, SW and 7th Street. The latter
separates Air and Space from the Hirschorn Gallery. We began advancing,
slowly but steadily. It was 11:10 p.m.
After making a right and moving east along Jefferson Drive, SW (a small
street that abuts the Mall), we made our first U-turn. After going west
again, we approached a point where it seemed we would turn east and head
straight toward the Capitol.
Ushered west, we found what resembled a crowd scene from "Troy," only with
modern clothing and without swords. Thousands and thousands stood before us
as far as our eyes could see.
"Oh, my G-d!" people in the vicinity gasped, suddenly grasping that we would
be there for a long while.
After walking west between two rope dividers for another block or two, we
then turned around and moved east the same distance between another pair of
ropes. Then west. Then east. Then west. And so on. And so on. And so on. And
Returning near Jefferson Drive and 7th Street, where we had stood perhaps an
hour earlier, we asked a uniformed officer, "How much longer?"
"About six hours from here," he replied matter-of-factly.
We now entered another group of roped-off rows that ran east-west. We
traversed these for hours, advancing a little bit at a time, but always with
enough momentum to stay motivated.
Glimpses of the U.S. Capitol were encouraging. On that fairly dry and
comfortable night - - with temperatures in the mid-70s and a light breeze
caressing the leaves above our heads - - the Capitol at a distance resembled
President Reagan's oft-mentioned shining city on a hill. Its dome was
brightly lit, as usual. In addition, the lamps were on in many of the
Capitol building's offices. This produced a soothing, golden glow, as if the
late president's legendary warmth beckoned us from within.
As for the crowd, its collective mood combined the solemnity of the occasion
that convened us along with a positive sense that we all were sharing an
unusual and special experience, and were fortunate to do so. A few people
wore shirts that read "In Memory of Ronald Reagan" with his smiling face
inside a red border. Another man who pushed a woman's wheel chair wore a
Reagan-Bush '84 T-shirt that was in immaculate condition, even if he outgrew
it years ago.
Three young women walked among the countless rope lines, each with a plastic
water bottle balanced on her head. They may not have arrived with excellent
posture, but certainly left with it.
Their water most likely was given to them by the Red Cross. At numerous
spots along the way, the relief group did a fine job of handing free bottles
of water to anyone who wanted them. Red Cross volunteers did this patiently
and with smiles on their faces.
While one young man proceeded on crutches, another absorbed an American
history book with a small, battery-powered reading light attached to its
pages. Others succumbed, at least briefly, to the challenges of standing and
walking for hours upon hours. They sat down on the grass or napped under
trees. Zigging and zagging among the rope lines sometimes became dizzying.
By about 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. one's head spun easily with a sort of giddy
This disorienting series of pedestrian advances and reversals added a hint
of personal sacrifice to the occasion, as if we all were on a pilgrimage
that asked something from each of us.
So, move ahead we did.
By about 4:30 a.m., the skies started to turn from black to navy blue. We
emerged from under the trees along Jefferson Drive to skirt the Reflecting
Pool at the foot of Capitol Hill.
We wound our way past the statue of Ulysses S. Grant, beyond a spot where
cameras and recording devices were surrendered and finally up Capitol Hill's
comparatively steep terrain.
After we passed through a bank of 12 metal detectors lined up side by side,
we walked along the outside of the Capitol and its west front. Just beneath
the dome, we worldlessly climbed a steep set of stairs and stepped past a
Capitol Police officer in a black uniform.
We entered the Rotunda.
An all-encompassing hush gripped the huge, round room beneath the Capitol's
soaring dome. Perhaps 100 of us were in the Rotunda that instant, and there
was no sound beside the shuffle of our feet, the soft whoosh of the air
conditioning, and the ultra-high-pitched hiss of video gear, namely two
stationery TV cameras that carried this event live on C-Span.
In the middle of everything was the focus of the nation's attention
throughout last week: Ronald Reagan within a casket draped in a crisp
American flag. It was "a banner of bold, unmistakable colors with no pale
pastel shades," as he once described the cause for which he fought.
Spotlights illuminated the scene from above. A soldier, sailor, airman, and
Marine each guarded the casket, in utter silence, bolt upright, and with
hardly a quiver of their bodies until they were relieved during a changing
of the guard. This was done with total deliberation, as the four new
servicemen moved in extremely slowly, stood at length beside those who were
concluding their duty, then assumed their watch as their colleagues wheeled
around and walked away in a whisper.
We then were asked quietly to proceed, moving clockwise in a semi-circle
just beside the casket, then counterclockwise around a velvet rope while a
new group occupied the space between us and President Reagan's Earthly
remains. We were in his presence for the last time, in surroundings as
dignified as he deserved.
Down a flight of stairs we went, and afterward, along a hallway. Four
volunteers distributed small, elegant handbills printed on card stock.
Beneath the presidential seal each read:
Ronald Wilson Reagan
February 6, 1911 - June 5, 2004
Fortieth President of the
United States of America
In Final Tribute from a Grateful Nation
The Lying in State of President Reagan
The Rotunda, United States Capitol
June 9, 10, and 11, 2004
We moved silently toward a small door that exited the Capitol. A sublime
sight stood directly ahead: The Washington Monument and, along the Mall,
this country's cultural and historical treasures within the Smithsonian
museums and the National Archives.
It was 6:10 a.m. as birds chirped serenely and gentle sun rays peeked
through the thin clouds that rippled across patches of blue sky. Exactly
seven hours after we had arrived to say goodbye and thank you to President
Reagan, he reassured us once again.
It was morning in America.
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JWR contributorDeroy Murdock is a columnist with the Scripps Howard
News Service and a Senior Fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation
in Fairfax, Virginia.
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© 2004, Deroy Murdock