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."
"Castro was poor," muttered his brother, who'd been roasting in the sun on the hottest day of the year.
Frank Maxant, 61, who came by train from Ayer, Mass., said his mother was an Iowa farm girl who, like Reagan, lived through the Depression. The lessons of that era still affect him. He always cleans his plate, and he'll eat a peanut if he drops it on the ground, he said. He was thinking about peanuts because they were sustaining him through a long day of waiting in line to enter the Rotunda. That and his fondness for Reagan: "We don't have leaders like him anymore."
Many of the people who stood in the sun along the processional route yesterday were in their 30s and early 40s, and volunteered that Reagan was the first president they voted for, the first politician they cared about. They had to come.
"Monday came around and I told myself, 'I miss too much in life.' And I wasn't going to miss this," said Scott Haymes, 33, who flew in from Springfield, Mo.
Reagan's body made its own epic journey yesterday. The casket holding the 40th president traveled across the breadth of the nation, first on a blue-and-white jumbo jet, then by hearse from the suburbs into the heart of the city, then on a caisson pulled by horses. Finally the pallbearers carried the casket into the Capitol. It was something of a trip back in time, technological progress demonstrated in reverse.
If some elements of the funeral looked antiquated, it was only fitting for a man who was born in the Taft administration, who remembered, as a boy, watching soldiers traveling by train to fight in the First World War.
Americans watching on television saw his frail widow slowly descending the seemingly endless red stairs of the jet onto the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base. She clasped the railing carefully as a military officer led her to the ground.
The first state funeral in 31 years was so extraordinary that some people weren't quite sure how to act. The music, the pace of the processional, the somber symbolism of the riderless horse, the caisson rolling slowly down Constitution Avenue, all spoke of a funereal moment, and yet many people clapped for the military bands, and when the caisson passed they held up cameras and took snapshots. A few held hands over their hearts or saluted. Most people dressed in sporting-event clothes (caps, T-shirts, water-bottle slings).
When Nancy Reagan got out of the limousine at one point the people in the crowd clapped, and shouted to her -- "God bless you, Nancy!" It might have been mistaken for an inaugural parade.
She looked every bit the grieving widow, but grief was not the emotion of the day. It was hardly mournful at all, but rather more a time of reflection, and celebration of a life well lived. And even some relief, suggested Kathleen Briggs, a pharmaceutical employee from Williamsburg.
"This entire event, even though it's a sad event, has brought the country together again. The world has been so torn apart and we've been so focused on the upcoming election, and everything has sort of ceased for the moment," she said.
Of course the people who never liked him probably didn't show up yesterday. A lone protester, thin and harmless, held a placard near the National Gallery of Art saying "Ronald Reagan Supported Saddam Hussein." About 20 cops seemed to have him effectively surrounded.
After the caisson passed, the crowds eventually began to drift away from the avenue. They were all headed back to their lives, some of them to restaurants and bars, others to the Metro.
But then the military jets flew overhead, roaring a tribute to the late president. One jet peeled off and flew straight toward the heavens, disappearing into the bright haze of the evening sky.
And for a moment no one moved.