Saturday, June 04, 2005

Reagan: Some more reflections (6/11/04)

I did a couple of things this week that were a bit unusual for me. First, I called my boss Tuesday to ask if I could have this Friday off. I said it was for a "personal matter," without specifying what it was, but added that it did not involve any kind of crisis or emergency, and that if the calendar was heavy and I was really needed at the office, I would gladly come in. About half an hour later I got a text message on my pager, informing me that my request had been approved. My sole reason for requesting the day off was that I wanted to watch Reagan's funeral. Such was my regard for the man that I felt I simply could not be doing anything else that morning. Moreover, when I do stay home tomorrow morning and watch the proceeding on TV, I plan to wear my best shirt and tie, and a pair of spit-shined shoes. I was impressed to learn several years ago that throughout his Presidency, Reagan so revered the Oval Office that he never even set foot in it without wearing a coat and tie. (As we all know, one of his successors apparently didn't wear much of anything as he conducted a kinky affair with a twentysomething intern in a hallway adjacent to the same office.) This will simply be a token of high respect on my part, although I do not intend to wear a coat or jacket. After all, I do live in Arizona, and I think Mr. Reagan would understand that.

The other unusual act involved a favorite piece of classical music which I rarely hear, but which had been buzzing around in my head ever since I heard the news that the 40th President had expired. It fit my mood so perfectly that I decided I simply had to have it, so during my lunch break on Tuesday I decided to go over to Border's and look for it. It wasn't there, so after work I tried a Wherehouse not far from where we live, again with no luck. Finally, that evening I took Vanessa over to a Barnes and Noble store several miles away, and this time I found a CD with the coveted piece on it, and I purchased it on the spot. It is the only music I have been wanting to listen to all week, and I have played it over and over again, mostly while driving. The piece in question was Aaron Copland's "Our Town."

I think I have read just about every written word about Reagan that has appeared this week in newspapers, magazines, and the Internet, and on occasion I have even spent up to a half-hour at a time watching his lying-in-state on C-SPAN. It was the closest I could come to actually being there, and it has been deeply moving to watch ordinary people pass his bier by the thousands and tens of thousands, all of them quietly and respectfully. Moreover, I love pomp and ceremony and ritual, and have always had a very strong sense of history, of connection with the past -- a sense which, in my case, was already quite well-developed by the time John F. Kennedy was assassinated 41 years ago. I was all of 10 years of age then, and although numbed by the tragedy, was mesmerized throughout the long weekend by the precisely-choreographed rituals associated with the state funeral. I recall being impressed at the time by the fact that Kennedy's caisson was the same one used in Franklin D. Roosevelt's funeral procession in 1945, and that the boots reversed in the stirrups of the riderless horse -- the symbol of a fallen warrior who would never ride again -- was a tradition dating from the time of Genghis Khan. Again, the link between the present and the past. Jackie Kennedy was justly credited with managing to convert this traumatic event into a moment of great dignity for the nation. Reagan's funeral procession yesterday was equally marked by dignity, but I was struck by the differences between his and JFK's. Kennedy, of course, was struck down unexpectedly in the prime of life -- he was five years younger than I am now -- whereas Reagan had served two full terms as President and died at age 93 after a lengthy and ravaging illness. In his case, there was a spirit of celebration -- or rejoicing, even -- for a life well and fully lived. One of the marching bands yesterday played "God Bless America," an almost cheerful tune which would have been unseemly in Kennedy's funeral, but which seemed entirely appropriate in Ronald Reagan's. I noted the number of people who applauded yesterday when the cortege passed, in contrast to the hushed crowds that lined Pennsylvania Avenue during that November weekend in 1963.

Two more observations, and then I will close. The first, offered in the same spirit as Peter Robinson's book, which I mentioned the other day, is personal, and might be summed up as what I myself have learned from Ronald Reagan. I have previously noted the similarities between this funeral and Eisenhower's, but there are others. Both men were perceived as embodying the small-town virtues of Middle America, and neither was born to wealth. (Reagan's father was an alcoholic, and I think Ike's was a bankrupt, although I am not certain of that.) Both came to the Presidency via unusual routes. As recently as the 1941 fall Army maneuvers, Ike was identified in a newspaper photo as "Lt. Col. D. D. Ersenbeing." (Ike noted that they at least had the initials right). Twelve years later he was President of the United States -- the only elective office he ever held. Reagan was a B-grade movie actor who once co-starred with a chimpanzee, and who was past age 50 when he entered politics. And most importantly, at the time of their deaths, both men were thought of as representing a sort of throwback to a simpler, more comfortable era.

It was never really so, of course, which brings me to my point. Reagan, for all his virtues and accomplishments, did not do everything right. None of us ever does, yet we somehow expect our Presidents to be something more than human, and refuse to allow them a courtesy that we want others to allow us. When Reagan took office in January of 1981, I was in my late 20s, still trying to figure out who and what I was, while only gradually managing to jettison some of the baggage left over from my past, which of course included a tormented adolescence. I have always been my own harshest critic, and I tend to brood more than I should over past failures and mistakes, whether real or imagined. Yet now, at age 51, I have learned a great deal, and in my more reflective moments realize I have perhaps done better than I have given myself credit for, and against rather formidable odds at that. I have to remind myself of this again and again. To try is occasionally to fail. Life is that way.

I owe some of this insight to Ronald Reagan. The era we are viewing with such nostalgia today, at the time of his passing, was sometimes not all that pleasant when we were living through it. The world is complicated and imperfect, just as are our individual lives. The '82 recession is not a pleasant memory at all; neither are the controversy over the Pershing missile deployment, the visit to the Bitburg cemetery, the budget deficits, the Beirut bombing, or Iran-contra. But Reagan did not dwell on his mistakes, nor did he waste time brooding over them or lose his essential optimism. We all make mistakes, and in an ideal world, we simply dust ourselves off, learn what we can from them, and move on. His attitude had much to do with the fact that his successes far outweigh his failures, in terms both of number and quality. I am only now figuring that out for myself, but Reagan knew it all along, and was able to accomplish great things because he knew it.

The other observation stems from an oversight in my previous one. I know next to nothing about the entertainment business, but acting was obviously an important part of Reagan's career. Thus, I realize now that famous statesmen would not have been the only ones welcoming him into Paradise: more specifically, I am sure Bob Hope was among the greeters as well. And a three-way conversation between Bob Hope, Ronald Reagan, and Winston Churchill -- can you imagine that?

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