The ritual is familiar: A larger-than-life figure dies. Shocked, we mull the many ways that person touched us, how he or she evolved: Princess Diana from vulnerable bride into sophisticated do-gooder; JFK Jr. from saluting toddler into graceful hunk.
As sentimentalized media tributes feed our grief, the departed person's humanity -- the inevitable complexities that leaven and deepen everyone -- is lost. In death, the departed becomes smarter, greater, kinder and more irreplaceable than in life.
On Friday, a much-loved president was laid to rest in a breathtakingly beautiful and reverent ceremony. In a world in which slain gangbangers are described at their funerals as sensitive would-be entrepreneurs, and in which we all ignore our great-aunt's snappishness to extol her unmatchable apple pie, Ronald Reagan certainly deserved many accolades.
But unlike our kin, presidents belong to all of us. I'll never forget Election Day 1980. Researching a story in Pittsburgh, I'd popped into a shoe store, where a clerk was discussing the presidential contest. Asked for whom he'd voted, the clerk replied, "Reagan, of course!" as if no other choice existed.
Nearly 44 million Americans agreed. My hotel -- site of the local Republican Party celebration -- rocked all night as revelers cheered the election of a man I wasn't sure had the credentials to be on the ballot.
I didn't get it. Try as I might for the next eight years, I never did.
Someone once told me about a couple who threw a party celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. Few took pleasure in Reagan's passing after the incalculable tragedy that is Alzheimer's. Indeed, many who never "got" Reagan understood the acclaim heaped upon this still-popular president.
The millions who loved him had every right to venerate their hero, who'd been blessed with a life that -- until its devastating end -- was enviable: long, successful, true to its ideals, wrapped in the love of an adoring wife and worshipful admirers.
But during the umpteenth hour of uninterrupted praise, I felt much as I had that night in Pittsburgh and during Reagan's presidency: left out of a celebration that I didn't understand, wasn't invited to and that was going full blast around me.
My feelings aren't a "black thing," despite a white acquaintance's quip about the thousands who queued up to pay their respects: "A door prize will be given to the first black person in line." They aren't a godless-bleeding-heart-liberal thing, either. Religion and personal responsibility are paramount to me.
It's more of a walking-in-someone-else's-moccasins thing. Shouldn't presidents, who wield tremendous power over a diverse citizenry, be capable of shedding their skins, putting aside the experiences that molded them to understand the lives of the strangers whom they affect?
President Reagan, it seemed, often had difficulty thinking out of the box of his own experience, his sepia-toned image of a monolithic, retro America. Newt Gingrich suggested Wednesday that Reagan, surrounded for decades by wealth, simply didn't know poor black people hamstrung by racism's effects.
Does that explain why he kicked off his campaign by talking about "states' rights" in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were slain in the 1960s? Or why as president he reversed a long-standing policy of denying tax-exempt status to racially discriminatory private schools by granting an exemption to Bob Jones University, which forbade interracial dating?
There were many such unnecessary slaps -- and they hurt. Some people came to see Reagan as the man who, as one of my friends put it, "made it okay to hate black people again." For us, listening for what was supposedly reassuring in speeches by "the Great Communicator" was like straining to discern the sound produced by those whistles only dogs can hear.
The pitch of Reagan's charm was beyond us. Descriptions of its "universality" seemed absurd.
The test of any nation is its treatment of those who have less -- less money, less prestige, less opportunity. Under Reagan, many who started with less lost more -- the physically and mentally disabled, the urban and rural poor, farmers. Meanwhile, the rich and much of the middle class flourished as a president who wore $1,000 cowboy boots classified ketchup as a vegetable for needy children's school lunches.
Bill Fletcher, president of TransAfrica, the lobby for Africa and the Caribbean, believes that Reagan's appeal was based on telling many Americans what they longed to hear: Bigotry was a thing of the past, so there was "no need to redress the problems resulting from slavery, Jim Crow segregation, institutionalized racism," Fletcher recalls. Despite growing worldwide repugnance, the Reagan administration aggressively continued the Cold War policy of supporting South Africa's apartheid government.
That South Africa's black majority lived in de facto slavery "made absolutely no difference" to Reagan, Fletcher says. Should we forget that?
"It's almost as if there's been a decision made by somebody who's not accountable that Reagan's legacy will only be of this great, warm person who connected with people," says Fletcher, whose organization yesterday concluded a conference commemorating the 10th anniversary of apartheid's end.
In fact, the Reagan administration's anti-union tactics and illegal sale of arms to Iran to fund the Nicaraguan contras outraged millions. Under Reaganism, the number of families living below the poverty line increased by one-third, the AIDS crisis was ignored and the national debt nearly tripled.
The many who deeply admired Reagan should praise him -- and the incontestable accomplishments that have been lauded all week. Yet this beloved man was president. Assessments of his legacy should be tough and uncompromising. Princess Diana didn't craft hurtful policies; JFK Jr. never signed a bill that took food from a child's mouth. Those disenchanted with our 40th president aren't a marginal subgroup. When Reagan left office, his approval rating was lower than Bill Clinton's when he stepped down, Monica Lewinsky notwithstanding.
Which in one way doesn't matter at all. The last week has proven that many who disapproved of Reagan the president loved -- no, adored -- the man. I can't and won't judge them. Who can talk anyone out of, or into, loving someone? Negative views of Reagan's legacy, and the facts that explain it, won't loosen the former president's hold on many citizens' hearts.
A president has been laid to rest. In addition to the deferential and the truly grief-stricken, there are millions who can't pretend that this gifted politician's policies didn't wound and puzzle them -- and they shouldn't pretend. If they're silenced, what is democracy worth?
If Reagan's undeniable, very human complexities are ignored, what's history worth?