The life and career of President Reagan spanned two centuries--- the 20th and 21st---and history records that he was a rousing success at every enterprise that he pursued: lifeguard, radio sports announcer, movie actor, television star, product endorser and spokesman, politician, Governor of California and two-term President of the United States, the first elected since Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956.
Well into his political rebirth, his critics mocked him as the B-movie actor who co-starred with a chimp in Bedtime for Bonzo, yet he was the man who ended the Cold War that virtually no one in my generation expected to witness in our lifetimes---much less over a decade ago, now! Today, as I write this, serious discussions are underway to place his face on Mt. Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and the US Postal Service just now (June 17th) has announced plans to issue a Ronald Reagan Commemorative Stamp, an honor reserved for national heroes and other celebrities.
It is also significant to note that he died the week after the dedication of the US National World War II Memorial, and the very day before the 60th anniversary of the Allied D-Day invasion of Nazi-Occupied Europe. In a very real sense, President Reagan began his own government service in that same war as a US Army Air Force officer making wartime training films at Culver City, CA, a career on which the Reagan Library at Simi Valley, CA now has no less than 177 pages of documentation to answer those critics who might be inclined to scoff at his wartime role.
I first became aware of then private citizen Reagan when, the night before the November 1964 Presidential Election, the actor gave his famous TV address in support of then-GOP nominee Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona. A liberal Kennedy Democrat at the time, I nevertheless thought that it was one of the best speeches by anyone that I had ever heard; I still do, too.
After the death of Sen. Robert Kennedy in 1968, I was for Richard Nixon for President, but I nonetheless paid strict attention to then-Gov. Reagan’s address to the Republican National Convention at Miami Beach when he asked his famous rhetorical question, “Who weeps for the innocent?” Who, indeed ! I am proud to say that I not only voted for President Reagan twice, in 1980 and 1984, but also endorsed him as a then Democratic Congressional candidate the latter time as well.
As a medical journal editor when he was shot in 1981, I was one of the first to realize that his condition was far worse than the public was being led to believe. I knew that the man had almost been killed by John Hinckley’s bullet, although this fact did not become generally known until much later.
The whole nation---indeed, much of the world, too--- watched on TV as I did the impressive ceremonies both in California and Washington, DC as the country’s revered 40th President was ceremoniously laid in state at The Capitol under the Rotunda where before had lain two Presidents and Gen. Douglas MacArthur since 1963. Having personally seen the 1963 State Funeral in detail, I could not but make comparisons between it and that of this year.
For me the most impressive moments were hearing Mrs. Nancy Reagan being applauded by the crowd as she exited her limousine in front of The White House, something that had not occurred 31 years before---but then, of course, the circumstances were vastly different, too. Nor do I remember the casket traveling on its UA Army artillery caisson being applauded as well from The White House down Pennsylvania Avenue to The Capitol Building. That, too, was unique. I suspect that, for this generation of Americans, the Reagan State Funeral will be just as important to it as the earlier one was to mine.
As with the passing of all American Chief Executives, the Military District of Washington was responsible for the rendering of the solemn State Funeral of its former Commander-in-Chief, and, as on the other occasions, did its usual magnificent job. What made this occasion again unique was the fact that it was the late President’s own riding boots that were reversed in the stirrups of the black riderless horse which followed behind the American Stars and Stripes flag, the blue Presidential banner flapping in the breeze behind. The formal procession to The Capitol was at once simple, grand, majestic and profoundly moving.
Having been to The National Cathedral before myself, I personally cannot think of a grander locale for the church services to have been held---“a tough act to follow,” in show business terms. The President and Mrs. Reagan had planned every detail of his formal ceremonies, and they delivered like the true troupers that both always were. Another moving memory for me was Mrs. Reagan kissing and lovingly patting and
stroking the flag-bedecked casket of her late life’s soulmate. It brought many people whom I know to tears.
Inside the Cathedral, numerous fine eulogies were delivered, by both Presidents George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, former British Prime Minister Baroness Margaret Thatcher and former Canadian PM Brian Mulroney, as well as Speaker of the US House of Representatives Congressman Dennis Hastert, US Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska and all three of the late President’s surviving grown children: Patti Davis, Michael and Ron Reagan, Jr.
The Canadian former Prime Minister quoted poet Thomas Darcy McGee, who wrote, “Am I remembered in Erin? I charge you speak me true. Has my name a sound, a meaning in the scenes my boyhood knew?” He then answered his own question thus: “Ronald Reagan will not have to worry about Erin because they remember him well and affectionately there---indeed, they do. From Erin to Estonia, from Maryland to Madagascar, from Montreal to Monterrey, Ronald Reagan does not enter history tentatively. He does so with certainty and panache.
“At home and on the world stage, his were not the pallid etchings of a timorous politician. They were the bold strokes of a confident and accomplished leader.”
Noted his former rival, Vice President and successor---President George H. W. Bush---in his moving eulogy, “Our friend was strong and gentle. Once he called America hopeful, big-hearted, idealistic, daring, decent and fair. That was America and, yes, our friend.” As Marc Antony asked of Julius Caesar in Skakespeare’s epic play, “When comes such another?”
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