Moving Pictures Of a Stately Send-Off
By Tom Shales
Saturday, June 12, 2004; Page C01
Strange how we bid goodbye to persons of peace with thundering band music, tumultuous mob scenes and earthshaking blasts from rifles and cannon. Television, perpetually chaotic backstage, nevertheless has the unlikely effect of imposing order and even decorum on such spectacles as they travel through the lens and out into millions of American homes.
And so the state funeral of Ronald Reagan, televised nationally on a galaxy of networks yesterday, came across as civil, stirring and even dignified. Would Reagan personally have liked it? He was no fan of movielike mush except in the movies, where it belonged, but most of those uttering encomiums at the ceremony in Washington National Cathedral kept them relatively light, and a few even told funny true stories.
What was missing, of course -- painfully and conspicuously -- was Ronald Reagan. Not a Ronald Reagan, the Ronald Reagan, as so far there has clearly been only one. If he had been present and alive, Reagan would probably have lent just the right amount of good-hearted humor and gentle skepticism to the event.
Even though Alzheimer's disease had kept him out of the public spotlight for the past 10 years, the unspoken theme of the pageant was simply that Ronald Reagan is irreplaceable. And with talk of his being a liberator of slaves ("the slaves of communism") and an ender of war (the Cold War), and with bells tolling all across the nation in his remembrance, one had to entertain the idea that for some people Reagan already ranks with the greatest and most pivotal presidents ever.
Naturally the celebrated tend to be overpraised upon their passing. But among the most telling points made in the procession of speakers in the cathedral were remarks made by former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, a loyal Reagan crony whose health required that her comments be videotaped in advance. Noting Reagan's "cheerful and invigorating presence," she praised his devotion to "the great cause of cheering us all up." Just the sight of him in video clips interspersed with her remarks further proved the point.
Illness had cruelly clouded that cheerful and invigorating presence, Thatcher said. It wouldn't, to coin a phrase, let Reagan be Reagan. "That cloud has now lifted," Thatcher said movingly. "He is himself again."
Thatcher unquestionably gave the best speech of the morning, the one that seemed most thoroughly to evoke the Ronald Reagan we all liked to think we knew. She spoke of his "large-hearted magnanimity" and his "firm and unyielding resolve" and said he won the Cold War and brought communism crashing to its doom "by inviting enemies out of their fortresses and turning them into friends."
The service in the cathedral started a little late, but considering the logistical challenges -- getting the motorcade, including the hearse, from the Capitol, where the body lay in state, to the cathedral -- it was a genuine accomplishment that the schedule almost prevailed.
On most of the networks, commentators and anchors maintained a respectful silence, exhibiting unusual judiciousness in their remarks. The theme for CNN's coverage might have been "the gang's all here," as the occasion became a kind of reunion for CNN staff members of now and then. In the afternoon, alumnus Bernard Shaw, famous for his meritorious service during the first Gulf War, was interviewed by CNN anchors as if he were a visiting potentate.
"Nancy Reagan invited me and [wife] Linda to be here," Shaw said. "How could we not come? How could we not come?" He dredged up a rather pointless anecdote about Reagan getting Linda a glass of water when the Shaws visited the Reagans in Bel Air once and self-aggrandizingly remembered the Reagans saying they'd watched him every day when he anchored "Inside Politics."
In the morning, the speakers in the cathedral were so auspicious that it's hard to think of another event that would bring them all together in common praise and paean. They included the Rev. (and former senator) John Danforth, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, George H.W. Bush (or "Bush 41" as he is now commonly known, for being the 41st president of the United States) and George W. Bush ("Bush 43," his son).
Barbara Bush, mother of the current president, made the curious choice of wearing a comparatively bright gray suit, oddly jolly and casual attire for such a supremely solemn event.
Neither of the Bush men is known as a spellbinding speaker, to put it mildly, but nothing makes Bush the elder look more impressive than being on the same roster with son George (both, as it happened, cited FDR in their remarks). Bush 41's voice cracked at an emotional moment, but the moment came in the middle of the speech, not at the end as would have been more dramatic. Bush 43's speech was a hodgepodge, delivered without emotion or conviction, and not in the ecumenical spirit of the occasion. A rabbi had spoken the invocation (from the book of Isaiah), and Danforth took pains to emphasize that all those in the cathedral answered to "one God." But George W. Bush chose to proselytize, theorizing that Reagan is now in Heaven having chats or perhaps playing cards with Jesus Christ.
"Now he sees his savior face-to-face," Bush said, "and we look to that fine day when we will see him again." Because of sloppy syntax, it wasn't firmly clear whether Bush meant we'd see Reagan again or Jesus again. There were several religious figures present to handle the theological aspects of the occasion; government officials and statesmen should confine themselves to secular, worldly matters or, if they do make religious references, at least try to make them in ways that will be as inclusive as possible.
For instance, Bush's close, "May God bless Ronald Reagan and the country he loved," was appropriate and direct.
Music during the service included the inevitable "Amazing Grace" (sung powerfully by Ronan Tynan) and Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."
Networks showed encouraging discretion in holding back on superimposed logos and graphic gingerbread during coverage of the service. Fox News Channel was the worst offender. The bottom of the screen was cluttered with a spinning "Fox News Live" cube and the caption "Farewell to President Reagan." By contrast, competitor MSNBC had its logo in the lower right and, in the lower left, the simple title "Ronald Wilson Reagan" above the word "Farewell." Among the minor mistakes was the caption "Episcopal Burial Anthem" at the bottom of the frame on CBS -- though no music was being played at that moment.
Through it all, Nancy Reagan was a commanding presence, her large eyes now plaintive, somewhat questioning, although at no time did she appear to be on the verge of losing her composure. Before the casket left the Rotunda, she touched the flag as she had done on Wednesday, then bent down to kiss it, very lightly, before being escorted from the hall by a military aide and out into the dark and rainy Washington morning. Even the weather seemed to have been programmed for the event.
Networks and their anchors and correspondents were mostly on their best behavior, and the day came off without serious technical hitches. Everyone seemed to be working hard to do credit to television and its ability to impart the spiritual and emotional essence of a historical event. If only the event hadn't had to occur in the first place. If only Ronald Reagan could have stood and smiled and reassured us just one more time.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company