Paying Respects to President Reagan

Our family paid its respects to President Reagan today.

It’s not very easy for four-year-old children to understand that a giant has left us, but as Ronald Reagan bequeathed to our children and millions of others a safer, more prosperous world, he deserved what thank you they could give him.

In this case, it was by hanging around a hot sidewalk at Constitution and Louisiana Avenues, essentially, at the bottom of the literal Capitol hill, for a couple of hours and generally behaving well despite a lack of toys and entertainments. And, I hope, by beginning to get a little germ of understanding that there is such a thing as a United States of America; that good men and women protect it, and great men and women protect it especially well.

Before we left, I showed the children the cover of Time magazine, with its 1980 campaign picture of Reagan. I explained that we were going to say “thank you, President Reagan.”

By some coincidence, on Friday evening our son Christopher had taken an interest in watching a Ronald Reagan video containing testimonials and speech clips. Our family had no advance word of the President’s then-approaching death. But Christopher saw the video in its case and wanted to view it. I explained that wasn’t a cartoon, but as he still wanted to see it, so I plopped him on the kitchen counter and he plugged it into our little kitchen TV/VCR. He watched the whole thing — about twenty minutes — much to my surprise. His twin, Jonathan, came by and wanted to look at the tape box, which contained a photo of Reagan with a horse. I pointed out both; he seemed to be interested in looking at Reagan.

Perhaps children know things we adults don’t, because the next day Christopher wanted to watch the Reagan video again. After he did, the video popped out, and the Fox News Channel announced that the President was gravely ill. We didn’t know whether to believe it, but by the time we came back home from an outing with the kids, we learned it had, indeed, been true. President Reagan was dead.

So, on the day of his funeral possession to the Capitol, armed with memories of video and photographic images, holding three small U.S. flags their father had bought for them, and remembering (maybe) my explanation that we were going to town to say “thank you, Ronald Reagan,” three little children and some somber adults went to pay our respects as the President’s caisson traveled from the Washington Monument to the Capitol building.

It was hot, and crowded, but we heard no one complain. No one talked about politics, either, or much that was specific about why they had come. Everyone was friendly, but somber. A woman next to me wearing a shirt that made it clear that she works for a labor union spoke to me about how she wouldn’t miss the opportunity to pay respects to President Reagan for anything. As a Reaganite, that’s not what I am used to hearing from professional labor union organizers. I wondered at her sentiments, but appreciated them.

It got increasingly crowded as the time for the procession drew near, but there was no pushing. Everyone respected those who had arrived earliest, and stayed in the spots they had found open when they arrived. The procession drew close. Police officers on motorcycles and vehicles; military men and women in formation; black cars whose occupants’ identities we could only guess at. A band marched by. Funny, I can’t remember what the music was, now.

Then the airplanes flew overhead. Loud, almost directly above us, perpendicular to the procession route. The missing man formation.

Then the caisson containing the President’s mortal remains. The honor guard; the horses, the caisson itself. The casket seemed smaller than I remembered Reagan being; my husband later said the same. He must have just seemed bigger.

Then a horse, sans rider; the rider’s boots on facing backward.

As the caisson approached and passed, the crowd was silent and respectful. Only children — not just ours — made sounds and were shushed by their parents. To paraphrase what a surgeon — a Democrat, if I remember correctly — reportedly told Reagan the day the President was shot: today, we’re all Republicans. Just not necessarily in the partisan sense.

I had told the children we were there to say thank you to President Reagan, but when the time came, I forgot to prompt them. Katie remembered. As the caisson was perhaps ten feet past us, her little voice floated out from her perch on Daddy’s shoulders: “Thank you, Ronald Reagan.”

When the caisson was out of sight, applause broke out. It lasted a while. As applause goes, it was rather somber. I think people were aware that this was a funeral, and did not wish to behave as if it were a hockey game — and yet, they wanted to do something to say goodbye.

As the crowd disbursed, we walked along. I kept expecting to see someone I knew. I worked in the Reagan ’80 campaign; I’ve run a conservative Capitol Hill organization for 22 years; we were at the foot of the Capitol building where I know so many staffers. However, except for people who work for or with our own organization, I didn’t recognize anyone.

We were still among the crowds when we heard the cannons begin the 21-gun salute. People around us stopped, and turned the face the Capitol. We couldn’t see it through the trees, but the sound was loud and clear. We counted, silently. No one moved until it was over.

On the walk back to the car, David and I compared notes. We’d both expected the sight of the caisson to be the most moving part for us. We found that it hadn’t been. Instead, that moment came while we were watching the missing man formation. The jets flew by, wave after wave. Then, in the last wave, one jet separated, and flew up and away.

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