Into the sunset

Ramirez cartoon, LA Times
(Michael Ramirez cartoon, Los Angeles Times)

That's a wrap!

According to the Bible, it took God just a week to create heaven and earth and everything else. It took equally long to bury Ronald Reagan. What was that all about?

Make no mistake: Reagan's was an important presidency, and it is fitting to note his death. But the bi-coastal funeral observances were clearly over the top, and it took me a bit to figure out why.

Another surprise
I watched on Fox News, a channel I normally scorn, because it was the only channel that had the good sense to let events speak for themselves. All the other broadcast and cable news channels had people babbling non-stop with irrelevant color commentary ("The top of the National Cathedral is the highest point in Washington") or gushing about how great Ronald Reagan was, conveniently ignoring many unpleasant facts and rewriting history on the fly. Even C-Span had voice-over call-ins when I checked.

I was so shocked that I sent a complimentary email to Fox News.

I confess that I watched more of the proceedings on television than I expected to, and I found to my surprise that I was affected more than I expected to be. I had grieved when John Kennedy was assassinated and shed some genuine tears. But Ronald Reagan?

The "aha!" moment finally occurred Friday when television began to show the people at the Reagan Library already assembled and in their seats while the plane was still an hour away. These were mourners, to be sure, but they were also extras in the making of a movie with a cast of thousands that would end with the hero going off into the sunset.

My mind quickly went back to other scenes of people all positioned, waiting for something to happen: the military band, caisson, and color guard standing on Constitution Avenue, waiting, long before the plane carrying the coffin ever landed at Andrews AFB; visitors to the Rotunda shepherded behind the ropes waiting for W to make an entrance; practically the entire US government cooling their heels in the National Cathedral, waiting. This was, indeed, a cast of thousands, everybody from dignitaries and notables to nobodies.

It was the Reagan White House, after all, that perfected the art of "staging" the presidency, arranging for "photo ops" that would project just the right imagery. Take, for example, Reagan's speech at the Berlin wall when he challenged Premier Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union to "tear down this wall."

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, 1961-1989
Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, as it appeared 1961-1989 (Photo: 6913th.org)
Reagan at Berlin wall
Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, as it was dressed for Reagan's speech (Photo: 6913th.org)
Reagan  at Berlin wall
Close shot, Reagan giving speech (Photo: 6913th.org)

For Reagan's speech, a pale blue wall was erected in front of the actual wall, the better to show off the rows of people and flags. Then, a big window was made in the blue wall so the columns of the Brandenburg gate and a bit of the actual wall would show behind Reagan for tight shots of him giving his speech. The vertical line of the podium and the columns of the gate are emphasized by the contrast with the horizontal black, orange, and yellow bunting, giving the appearance of majestic height to both the man and the gate. Voilà! Perfectly composed photos for world consumption.

So in the end, Reagan's funeral was one last photo-op, painstakingly choreographed and staged to yield images to be imprinted on our subconscious:

  • The flag-draped coffin in the rotunda of the Capitol
  • Military body bearers executing precise 16-legged, robot-like maneuvers
  • The horse-drawn caisson bearing the flag-draped casket
  • The riderless horse with Reagan's boots turned backward in the stirrups
  • Ruffles and Flourishes followed by Hail to the Chief heralding every move of the casket
  • World and national leaders paying homage
  • Twenty-one gun salutes
  • The grieving widow caressing and kissing the coffin, and talking to it
  • Lady Thatcher dressed in black from veiled hat to toe eulogizing, curtsying, and accompanying the body back to California for burial
  • Thousands lining the highways to catch a glimpse of the procession
  • The children comforting their mother
  • The setting sun completing the metaphor of Reagan's self-described journey "into the sunset of my life"

For all these scenes, the cast and crew followed a 300-page script, aka funeral plan. (NY Times). (The script for Wag the Dog was only about 85 pages.) Presidents start planning their funeral right after they take office, so the Reagan plan was refined over 20 years. Any slight misstep was immediately corrected. (I am thinking here about Michael Reagan who was relegated to a back row in the rotunda but was subsequently moved front and center, after his position in the rotunda drew attention from commentators.) Give them credit: It was a masterful production.

This, then, accounted for my surprisingly emotional response. I had been manipulated in the same way that I am manipulated by a very good movie that wrings an emotional reaction from me. The Reagan funeral was a very good movie, shown real-time, as it were, while it was being filmed.

Some may think I'm being harsh, but the Reagan funeral went far beyond a respectful observance of a president's death. It was produced to create images to sustain a story of "great leader of the 20th century." There's no doubt Reagan cast a big shadow, but before we start carving another face on Mt Rushmore, let's take time to sort out what his legacy really is. There will be some good things, to be sure, but it's also clear that some parts of his legacy do not advance the causes and ideals he spoke of so often and earnestly.

There was a lot of talk this past week about the Reagan personality — about his optimism, his decency, his love for Nancy. There was less talk about his policies, and some of those tarnish badly the "shining city on the hill." As Jonathan Turley put it, writing in the Los Angeles Times, it's "A Bit Too Early for Sainthood."