A June 7 Style article referred incorrectly to a fountain in front of the Ronald Reagan Building that memorializes Oscar S. Straus. Straus was not a composer. He was a career diplomat who served as the secretary of commerce and labor under President Theodore Roosevelt. (Published 6/8/04)
At the massive Ronald Reagan Building there's a kiosk in memory of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and a memorial to Woodrow Wilson. There's the International Trade Center and offices for various agencies of a federal government that Reagan desperately wanted to shrink. There's a fountain that trumpets the accomplishments of composer Oscar S. Straus.
In the courtyard is a modern sculpture resembling an enormous shoe.
One of the building employees came outside around noon yesterday to check out a rumor of some candles. Supposedly someone had lit them in memory of the 40th president. They were nowhere to be seen.
A rumor of flowers on the fence at the South Lawn of the White House a few blocks away also proved unfounded. The sidewalk outside the fence was jammed with people, few speaking English, most taking pictures of the mansion. "It's a symbol of power," said Paulo Ferroni, a tourist from Italy.
By 7 p.m. a couple dozen people had arrived for a candlelight vigil in Lafayette Square. They listened to a Reagan speech coming from a tiny purple boombox. The park was hardly a Reagan landmark; it's known better as a place of protest. Construction on Pennsylvania Avenue largely blocks the view of the White House.
The simple fact is that Reagan doesn't have a shrine in Washington. The White House transcends any single occupant. The airport is named after him, but controversially so, and many locals are not eager to call it anything other than National.
The Reagan Building in the Federal Triangle has nothing to do with him, other than serve as an easy point of irony (the second largest government building -- after the Pentagon -- is named for the man who said government was not the solution but the problem).
"When I think Reagan, I think Hollywood, I think the ranch," said Debra Martin, a Silicon Valley executive heading to the FDR Memorial.
There will someday surely be a memorial of some kind to Reagan, too. Although this is a town of intense, seemingly incurable political rancor ("Ding-dong, the witch is dead!" blurted one man near Dupont Circle, refusing to put his name to the quote), no one can doubt that Reagan was a towering figure on the political landscape. Even in a liberal Democratic town, people of all political stripes seemed affected this weekend by his death.
Carol Knight, a government worker hustling past the Reagan Building, said, "I warmed to him. I thought he was right-wing at first, but he looks pretty moderate compared to some of the folks we have now."
Jennifer Krysa, catering manager in the building, said, "He was an integral part of bringing down the Berlin Wall. Everybody thought he was just an actor who stumbled into politics, but he proved everyone wrong."
"He was a small-town person," observed Ed Vane, visiting from Sacramento and using a wheelchair. "He was comfortable with himself. He didn't need to follow the trappings of Washington."
"He had a long, good life. I didn't know he was 93. I'm hoping to get half that," said Roderick Burton Jr., a Metrobus driver who, at 43, is almost to his goal.
This was not Reagan's town. Though he spent two terms in the White House, he never really lived here. He existed in that special presidential dimension of reality, moving through the stage sets of power, places that from the inside might well have been hammered together on a Hollywood back lot.
All presidents exist in a bubble, but Reagan did so more comfortably than probably any other, with less restlessness. Nancy Reagan may have been a regular at the Jockey Club (now kaput), but her husband had no great yearning to hit the town, preferring to entertain in the mansion and host state dinners. His iconic appearances in the real world took place somewhere else: telling Gorbachev to tear down this wall in Berlin, walking the beaches of Normandy, chopping wood and riding horses at his California ranch.
Most of all, we remember him as he was on TV, acknowledging the cheers of a packed convention hall, devastating a debate opponent with a sound bite, mourning the space shuttle Challenger. We remember the twinkle in his eye and the trademark tilts and shakes of his head.
Perhaps in the same way that the huge federal bureaucracy is a monument to Roosevelt, the modern presidency, with its dominating power over the news media, is part of Reagan's legacy. John F. Kennedy may have been the first chief executive to exploit television, and Nixon understood the power of the medium, but Reagan fully inhabited the role of the television president, always looking ready for a close-up. A fitting memorial to Ronald Reagan would somehow have to include a giant camera.
One place in town that evokes Reagan, albeit in a macabre way, is the driveway of the Washington Hilton, where he was shot in 1981 by John Hinckley. Yesterday two men sat on benches a few feet from where Hinckley had lurked, and as a reporter approached they happened to be having a discussion about the former president.
"May not have liked everything he did, but we liked him," said Bob Snover, visiting from New Hampshire.
Zekarias Asfaw, a Washington resident sitting on the other bench, said, "I give him credit for what he did, calling the Soviet Union an evil empire."
When Snover learned that he sat at the site of the attempted assassination, he said, "Oh, my God!" There's no plaque, nothing to mark the spot, though the beige stone wall, curving slightly, is instantly recognizable. One can still imagine Reagan striding toward his limousine with one arm raised, waving, as a handgun starts popping and everyone begins spinning, falling, leaping, shoving.
"I always think about it. I remember seeing it on TV . . . the chaos," said Carol Palmer, a World Bank employee on her way to the Hilton's tennis courts. People don't call the hotel the Hinckley Hilton as much as they used to, she said.
Of Reagan, she said, "I think people grew to like him more. Because of his optimism. The clarity of his ideology, up against the cynicism of the post-Vietnam thing."
She remembered another image of Reagan: taking the oath of office, standing with Nancy on the west side of the Capitol. It set a new standard for inaugurations, majestic, looking west. "They were so kind of sweet and innocent, standing there," she said.
The body of Ronald Reagan will soon lie in state in the Capitol, and the seat of government will officially say goodbye. In time all the memories and thoughts will be memorialized, transferred to concrete and steel and carved inscriptions, and there will be a dedication ceremony, and people will try to capture who Reagan was and what Reaganism meant.
For the moment a person can go down to the Ronald Reagan Building and stand in the courtyard. The place screams big government. The facade of the adjacent Postal Service building boasts of the agency within: "The Post Office Department, in its ceaseless labors, pervades every channel of commerce and every theatre of human enterprise, and, while visiting as it does kindly, every fireside, mingles with the throbbings of almost every heart in the land."
But the Reagan building is blank.