An American Journey

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 10, 2004

It was a day of epic journeys.

Andrew Drake came from Tulsa, racing halfway across the continent in his Chevy pickup, surfing the conservative talk shows with his satellite radio.

Henry Hatter left his home in Michigan at 11 p.m. Tuesday, rolling tirelessly in his Buick on dark interstate highways all through the night.

Brent Mayor left Lexington, Ky., at 3:30 in the morning yesterday, winding his way through the backcountry of West Virginia and across the Appalachians, a toddler in the back seat.

The longest and most dramatic journey was that of Dutch Reagan. He came from a bleak childhood in small towns in the Midwest all the way to Lincoln's pine-board catafalque in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol.

"He encompassed what it is to be an American," said Cindy Carter, who took Amtrak from New York. "He symbolizes the American Dream."

The American Dream is a cliche, a myth, built around the notion that anyone can make a good life in the land of promise, and any child can grow up to be president of the United States. Not everyone believes it, but Reagan did, and the tens of thousands of people who stood in the sweltering heat yesterday believed it, too.

Americans have always been a people in motion, eager to leave their drab surroundings behind and light out for new territory, and few people embodied that instinct more than Reagan. Time and time again, he eventually found what he was looking for.

"He saw what he wanted to do, and he went and did it," said Ryan Morgan, 26, who'd driven to Washington from Albany, N.Y. He said he took a pay cut himself recently to transform himself from an engineer to a schoolteacher. "There's this possibility out there. As long as you know what you want, you can go get it."

In his long and varied life Reagan was a radio broadcaster, movie star, TV pitchman, and even hosted a variety show for a couple of weeks in Vegas. He went from being an actor to a union leader to a middle-aged corporate mouthpiece for General Electric. He liked to talk about politics, and he kept talking about it until California made him governor and then the entire country made him president.

The stale notion that Reagan was just a B-movie actor who became a politician hardly captures the scrambling nature of Reagan's life. His father was a drunk, his mother a pious church lady, and as a child he moved from town to town, living in rented apartments. He was so awkward in the world that he didn't even realize he was half-blind and needed glasses. "Ronald Reagan's beginnings were the most modest and lacking of any president of the past hundred years," Peggy Noonan writes in her biography "When Character Was King."

"He was poor and he became president," said Frank Halecki, who drove from Cinnaminson, N.J., with his brother Rich, and planned to apologize to Reagan for not voting for him in 1980. "In no other country is that going to happen."

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