A column in the June 10 Style section on television coverage of Reagan mourners at the Capitol incorrectly reported that a Fox 5 reporter told viewers, "If you've ever been to Disney World, you've probably got an idea of what they've got going here." The line was spoken by a Fox News reporter, not someone from the local station. (Published 6/17/04)
Nancy Reagan ran her hands over the flag-covered coffin, smoothing the fabric, then bending close as if speaking to the sleeping figure inside. To those watching at home, as millions undoubtedly were, it was not clear what she was saying, and yet the moment was still undeniably indelible, a moving part of the nation's heartfelt farewell to Ronald Wilson Reagan as televised from California and Washington yesterday.
To an encouraging degree, broadcast and cable networks were on their best behavior. Dan Rather on CBS dared to allow long periods of respectful silence during the ceremonial parts of the day's events and other networks followed suit, sometimes to excess. It would have helped to have more expertise at hand so viewers at home would always know what was happening and about to happen, what traditions were being observed.
Most of the heart-tugging -- even heartbreaking -- moments of the day involved Mrs. Reagan and the 40th president of the United States, with whom she made the long journey from California for the first of three days of tribute. As most of the world knows, he died Saturday after a long struggle with Alzheimer's disease, a struggle no human being has ever won (though we're inclined to think Reagan put up a better fight than many).
But there was a particularly nostalgic sequence during the ABC News coverage when Sam Donaldson, who'd been the president's friendly foe as a star in the White House press corps, returned to the airwaves to talk about his old friend the Gipper. Donaldson recalled the once-familiar sight of Reagan cupping a hand to his ear as he walked to a waiting helicopter because he'd heard a question, from Donaldson or someone else, "that he wanted to answer."
Then he'd come over to the reporters and chat. If he didn't want to answer the question, he managed not to hear it. Though an unpretentious and down-to-earth man who liked wearing jeans and doing work on his ranch, "he loved pageantry" too, Donaldson said. It was good to hear Sam's voice again. If only we could also have heard Reagan merrily parrying with him as he used to do at press conferences.
Historian Michael Beschloss told anchor Peter Jennings another anecdote about Reagan, who found himself riding with his grumpy and bitter predecessor, Jimmy Carter, on Inauguration Day of 1981. To ease tension in the car, Reagan tried telling some of his crowd-pleasing anecdotes from the old Hollywood days. Apparently most of them went over Carter's head, because when he got out of the car at the Capitol, he asked an aide, "Who is this 'Jack Warner' he keeps on talking about?"
For the most part, the coverage kept a tasteful balance between loving and spirited remembrance of Reagan and the deep sorrow that his death evokes. One very common error made by many commentators, however, was the statement that Reagan had been as one dead for the past 10 years, as if he had been a mindless zombie through that entire period. Reports suggest he had lucid periods, as Alzheimer's patients do, when memories were clear to him. He went for daily walks until a few years ago, and in the summer of 1997 was touchingly photographed next to a 12-year-old boy from Toledo who was visiting the same park in Santa Monica as the president was.
The photograph circled the globe, a reminder that Ronald Reagan was neither literally nor virtually deceased.
Since the coverage was live, mistakes were inevitable. "The crowd grows on Constitutional Avenue," Jennings said. "Constitution Avenue," he corrected himself. CNN's emotionless and expressionless Wolf Blitzer tripped over his tongue on at least one occasion as he tried to describe what was happening for viewers at home. On the constantly improving MSNBC, Chris Matthews at one point welcomed viewers to Reagan's State of the Union address, then quickly retraced his steps. Matthews also lauded the sight of the Capitol dome "in Technicolor," even though it's white.
On CBS, Bob Orr ran into trouble when filling time by interviewing the proverbial, and often vapid, man on the street. This one said with an unfortunately dopey grin, "It's just exciting to be here!" A similarly grinning young woman on MSNBC said, "We didn't think we'd ever have another exciting opportunity like this."
Some of these people sounded as if they were at a circus or a rock concert. Were vendors selling hats and T-shirts commemorating the funeral?
Washington's often over-eager local stations stayed with network coverage for the most part. But between 5 and 6 p.m., Channels 4, 5 and 7 unwisely decided to make the occasion a local story -- and, unlike the networks, squeezed in as many commercials as they could. There were also the usual giddy weather reports and inane remarks, none inaner than that of a Fox 5 reporter stationed at the Capitol and anticipating a big crowd: "If you've ever been to Disney World," he told viewers, "you've probably got an idea of what they've got going here."
The pro-Bush Fox News Channel seemed to be playing the pomp and pageantry fairly straight, without trying to inject political subtext -- although time was found for a gushy report on President Bush's meeting with the president of Iraq and how swimmingly the war was going. Then just after 8 p.m., station mascot Bill O'Reilly appeared for his nightly report, saying that such ceremonial events as had been seen that day were moving and dignified -- "although the press, of course, ruins it." The press ruins it? Oh, he meant the evil and malevolent "liberal" press. Two of O'Reilly's resident sycophants agreed with him.
"I don't want politics to intrude in any way," O'Reilly said, thus hypocritically forcing a political intrusion himself, just by making his idiotic remark.
This was hardly a day for the usual testy babble or simplistic wars of words. The network news boys and girls stepped back, for the most part, and let the cameras and microphones tell the story in a way that made this an example of pure television, untainted by personal interpretation. Of course there were stories about Reagan the man and Reagan the politician. CBS's Bill Plante conceded there were times when Reagan had a temper tantrum or two, but then added quickly, "He was a very easygoing, genial fellow."
That's another reason we miss him so very, very much. Easygoing, genial fellows seem in shorter supply than ever.