The nation mourned its fallen leader. Tearful millions watched as the president's coffin traveled across the country. Public sorrow was everywhere. A caisson carried the casket through the streets of Washington as somber crowds followed the procession's slow progress. Newspapers spoke of a beloved chief executive whose passing had touched the nation's heart. It was, in the words of one politician of the president's party, "a great calamity" for the United States. Efforts to memorialize the dead executive occurred spontaneously in cities and rural areas.
Nothing, it seemed, was too much in the rush to enshrine the memory of Warren G. Harding in August 1923. Within a year, however, Harding's historical image had frayed as the scandalous record of his administration was exposed. The Teapot Dome oil reserve fiasco came to embody what he had stood for. Periodic efforts to rehabilitate the disgraced president amounted to little. Eight decades later, historian Paula Fass delivered this stinging verdict, so different from the perception at the time Harding died: "The presidency of Warren G. Harding began in mediocrity and ended in corruption."
State funerals for dead presidents are one of the great communal rituals of democracy. From the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 to the murder of John F. Kennedy 98 years later, Americans have marked the passing of their leaders with elaborate ceremonies that reflect a president's place in society. But the ceremonies don't always reflect the place of those leaders in history. Some are for presidents who will achieve unquestioned greatness, as Lincoln did. Other rites will take place before the deceased chief executive is revealed to have feet of clay, as happened with Harding and to a lesser degree with Kennedy. The moment when a president dies, whether suddenly or after a lingering illness, is one in which to ponder how history will judge his record, even as he is being memorialized.
In the case of Ronald Reagan, the past week has seen an exceptional effort to use the prolonged period of mourning to shape the historical picture of the former president for the next generation. If journalism is the first rough draft of history, this presidential funeral week offered a second draft. In this process of interpretation and reinterpretation, the media and Reagan's admirers have tried to fix in the popular consciousness the portrait of a president on the threshold of, or fully inducted into, the pantheon of great White House occupants.
For Reagan partisans, the motives are obvious. This will be their last chance to make the case for their hero's greatness before a national audience. The same team that stage-managed Reagan's most famous moments in office choreographed last week's "legacy-building event," as one former official was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as calling it, from handing out 50,000 American flags to bystanders to timing the seaside sunset backdrop for the late president's interment. For the media, sensitive always to the charge that they are too liberal, the Reagan obsequies provided a superb opportunity to demonstrate fairness, or perhaps latent conservative sympathies, by showing that cable channel and network anchors could also envision a fifth face on Mount Rushmore or a new visage in place of Alexander Hamilton's on the $10 bill.
Among the general public, the outpouring of affection for Reagan may be more a snapshot of our collective frame of mind than a judgment on his presidency. With the nation bogged down in Iraq, deeply divided over cultural and political preferences, and anxious about the economic future, people need a history that reassures and comforts. What better time to summon up a figure from the past who is remembered for his good humor, optimism, common values and an ability to steer clear of foreign conflicts that he might not win? Whether that is an accurate or complete portrayal of Reagan doesn't matter. By mourning him for these attributes, Americans are making a statement about what they want now. The act of grief is not necessarily for him but for the loss of the ideas he has come to represent.
Though Reagan has been out of office for 15 years, historical writing about him is not yet based on scholarly inquiry that has explored the presidency and its record in depth. Major biographers such as Lou Cannon and Edmund Morris have offered their interpretations of Reagan's enigmatic character and his performance in the Oval Office. Monographs have begun to appear along with collections of documents and speeches Reagan gave in the 1970s and the letters he exchanged with a variety of correspondents. Perhaps because of the decline of political history as a discipline or because of difficulties with mastering the extensive primary sources on Reagan and his time, we don't yet have any satisfying, wide-ranging examinations of the 40th president and his two terms. These gaps underscore the opportunity that Reagan's advocates seem to sense to etch their historical judgment into the national mind.
The stakes are high for Reagan's reputation, because enough time has passed for a generation of younger Americans to have grown up with only a vague sense of what made him so controversial in his day. For those approaching 30, who were in their mid-teens or younger when Reagan gave way to George H.W. Bush in January 1989, the "Great Communicator" is a historical figure speedily receding into the past. Those who will be entering college this year were born in 1986, as Reagan's second term was winding down. Making the episodes of the Reagan years come alive for that new cadre of undergraduates will not be easy. Nothing is quite so dead for young people as the stale disputes of a vanished era, even one that was, in human terms, not so long ago. What was PATCO anyway, or Gramm-Latta, or Iran-contra?
The additional problem for those who are endeavoring to fix in stone the image of Reagan as a flawless exemplar of a golden age of conservatism is that seemingly secondary episodes and controversies can rise up unexpectedly to confound their best-laid plans. Who would have guessed when Franklin D. Roosevelt died that his alleged failure to stem the Holocaust would become one of the issues defining his place in history? Or that Judith Campbell Exner would come to symbolize the Kennedy presidency as much as the Cuban missile crisis did? On the other hand, who would have conceived in 1961 that Dwight Eisenhower would rise in the popular estimation because of his farewell address on the military-industrial complex and eventually be regarded as an excellent, though "hidden-hand," president?
To see the ruthless effect of unchecked and unanticipated historical revisionism, look at the fate that befell Kennedy's image in the decades after his death in 1963. For a few years, the "Camelot" theme bestowed on his presidency by his widow a week after the assassination informed writing about him. Then, as scholars probed Kennedy's tangled and often sordid personal life, uncovered the less savory aspects of his Cold War plots to topple Fidel Castro and asked tough questions about his record on civil rights, his place in history eroded. To much of the public he remains a national hero, in part because of his glamour and suspended youth. Even after the balanced assessments of such perceptive biographers as Herbert Parmet and Robert Dallek, however, Kennedy seems unlikely to regain, among historians, the mythic status he acquired 40 years ago at Dallas.
For Reagan, one point of potential vulnerability is Lebanon and the bombing of the Marine barracks in 1983. Withdrawing American troops after the death of 241 Marines seemed politically prudent in light of public opinion wary of involvement in that volatile region. Yet in the Middle East, some terrorists concluded that the United States would wilt in a crisis. If the war against terrorism drags on, this episode could acquire greater significance and alter the note of triumph that has dominated the past week. Success in the Cold War, which seemed so pivotal after Reagan left office, could come to be seen as something that was likely to have occurred in due course anyway. Victory or defeat in Iraq could also influence the way Reagan's presidency is evaluated. A protracted national debate over "Who Lost Iraq?" would detract from the historical Ronald Reagan, whose administration furnished military equipment and intelligence to Saddam Hussein.
Eighty-one years ago, when President Harding died, the nation paused during the days after the sad event. A national moment of silence marked his passing. In today's politicized world, when cable television thrives on the live pictures of every aspect of Reagan's journey from California to Washington and back, the task of embedding a favorable view of Reagan's place in history during this presidential election year seems an urgent one to his champions. Other presidents made, in death, the slow journey through Washington that Reagan traveled this past week. The fate of their reputations shows that the second draft of history, like the first, often yields in the long sweep of time to judgments that are more nuanced and textured than the tributes paid when these presidents were laid to rest.
For Reagan, that's a journey that still lies ahead.
Author's e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org