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Nation’s Farewell to Former President Reagan

June 9, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Watching the procession with me are journalist and author Haynes Johnson, he wrote “Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years.” And Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. He covered foreign policy in both the first and second Reagan administrations.

Gentlemen, we’re watching the rite of mourning here. It seems like we’ve been here before but not as expansively. Haynes?

HAYNES JOHNSON: No, there has never been anything quite like this. We’ve had ten times of these state funerals but this is different because of the length of it, the pageantry of it and this is the oldest man that ever lived in the White House, the oldest man to be president of the United States, and the last time my memory of these things, the riderless horse, is Jack Kennedy. That’s 41 years ago.

The last time we watched the state funeral was Lyndon Johnson in ’73, and I don’t have much of a memory of that, frankly. It was there and I wrote his obituary in the paper, but I don’t remember this sort of… but of course this is from coast to coast, too.

We’ve seen for days now, this wonderfully reverent almost the symbols of the country are being played out before us. We are a very untidy democracy. We’re ebullient and messy and so forth. This is so perfectly dignified and respectful and that’s true of whoever had the office.

GWEN IFILL: Doyle, there were 100,000 people who went to the Reagan library in Simi Valley to pay their respects. We expect at least that many more, 5,000 an hour they are saying at the U.S. Capitol.

You see the people standing five and ten deep at the base of the white house. What is it about this pageantry that is so appealing? Is it mourning per se or is it respect?

DOYLE McMANUS: I think it’s several things. You’re right, Gwen. At the Reagan library they had to extend the hours they had planned to accommodate people who had stay in line for hours and hours and hours to get in there.

I think two things — one is that Ronald Reagan really was a pivotal figure in the second half of the twentieth century. President Kennedy was well-loved and still in the polls as the best loved of former presidents. But his presidency was tragically short.

Ronald Reagan turned American history on a kind of pivot, both in the way the parties were organized, in the way we looked at the size of government. But clearly, his accomplishment in helping the Cold War come to an end will stand as a kind of monument. I think that’s part of this.

The other thing in a sense is we have been in a year where there has been plenty of bad news abroad — economic bad news, foreign policy bad news, and Iraq. Ronald Reagan was such a positive and optimistic figure, I think there a national desire to… I don’t think nostalgia is a diminishing word here.

GWEN IFILL: Now we see as the casket has been transferred from the hearse to the caisson. Spontaneous applause breaking out.

HAYNES JOHNSON: I think you’re right, Doyle. Reagan came to office at a time of great distress in the country. Hostages had been taken, the Cold War was still there, fighting communism and all of these things, and the worst unemployment and inflation rate was the greatest since the Civil War. And we were down. The assassination, failed presidency and he was the sun king. He lifted up the spirits of the country.

GWEN IFILL: But there was actually a state funeral, there was a presidential funeral not long ago nobody seems to recall because it didn’t happen in Washington and there was no lying in state. That was for Richard Nixon.

HAYNES JOHNSON: That’s true, but the difference then, Richard Nixon it is true it was a state funeral. But Richard Nixon wasn’t beloved as Reagan is. Whatever you felt about Reagan….

GWEN IFILL: Let me interrupt you, we just saw the riderless horse which we mentioned earlier, we invoke the memory of President Kennedy but it actually has appeared in other presidential corteges – it’s been a tradition in military funerals like this one since the late 19th century.

It follows the casket of any Army or Marine Corps commissioned officer but presidents, of course, are commander in chief.

And the boots, these are apparently a pair of the late president’s riding boots, cowboy boots. They’re in stirrups facing backwards. One reason they say is that it signifies the leader’s march has ended and other is that the commander is taking a parting look at the troops he will no longer lead.

Doyle, is nostalgia part of what we are seeing? President Reagan was 93 years old. He had been sick and we knew he was dying for ten years. So is it grief or is it respect? I wonder if that’s what we are seeing.

DOYLE McMANUS: I think it’s grief. I think it’s respect I think there is also enormous respect for the way Nancy Reagan cared for her husband and spoke for her husband over the last ten years.

GWEN IFILL: We heard someone yell out “God bless you, Nancy,” there.

DOYLE McMANUS: Nancy Reagan, like her husband, was often a controversial figure when they were in office. Like her husband, she has grown in stature since then.

I think the other element here may be that as Haynes said, one of Ronald Reagan’s great achievements was restoring American confidence and American optimism, but his politics was also very good natured.

It was a time when President Reagan and Tip O’Neill, the very partisan Democratic Speaker of the House, would get together for drinks after work, would sing old Irish songs, and our national politics has lost that element of camaraderie.

HAYNES JOHNSON: Yes. Absolutely. It was interesting watching earlier, Ted Kennedy praising him with the words he used. He use the phrase, that special grace, which was said about his brother.

This here is the Kennedy, the liberal, Reagan the conservative. Sure. They’re both Irish background but it’s more than that — they respected each other.

GWEN IFILL: And also today Kennedy said on the floor today he made us believe that there was morning in America .

It is hard to imagine that Ted Kennedy the partisan Democrat would have said that when Ronald Reagan was actually president.

HAYNES JOHNSON: He wouldn’t have said it about Richard Nixon and that’s where Reagan transcended and there was a lot of bitterness during the Reagan era.

Let’s not pretend there wasn’t. Strong debates about ideology, about policies, foreign and domestic, but in terms of the presiding over – the ceremonial role of a president who touches the country and sort of helps to bind it together, I think he did in a wonderful way.

GWEN IFILL: No one did ceremony better than the Reagans. When they came to Washington , the city was transformed.

HAYNES JOHNSON: Absolutely.

DOYLE McMANUS: A statement of Ronald Reagan’s that is one of my favorites. I am a Californian. He once said he could never imagine how anyone who had not been an actor could be successful as a president. He was wonderful at those ceremonial and representational functions.

HAYNES JOHNSON: And it’s easy to be cynical about the actors and Hollywood on the Potomac and set stage and all of the prop.

There were brilliant uses of television and the cameras to everything was beset by the camera. All those things were done. And yet he was a master at that. He was very good at what he did, and I don’t think you can just be an actor to do that. I think you have to have something more than that.

GWEN IFILL: Is timing parts of it as well? We have been mired in daily reporting about bad news from Iraq , bad news around the world. And here in the middle of this is a death that for a lot of people evoked perhaps a sunnier time.

DOYLE McMANUS: This is also of course bad news, but it’s a unifying event. This has been a very divisive political year. We are back to the 50-50 nation. People are angry at each other about Iraq . Supporters of President Bush are angry at critics of President Bush. Here at least is something that we can all get together on.

HAYNES JOHNSON: I was struck by… I’m old enough to be a boy when Franklin Roosevelt died. And I remember people weeping in the streets and so forth and Arthur Godfrey gave a great radio broadcast.

He broadcast the Roosevelt funeral behind the scene — the riderless horse, the caisson and all that — and he said crowds were weeping and he said, everybody is having a hard time seeing, as I am, tears streaming down his face. There’s not the sense of grief because he was an older figure, he had been around a long time, tragedy of Alzheimer’s. But there is a sort of looking back, we got through some bad times.

GWEN IFILL: You know, when Ronald Reagan came to Washington, his reputation was of someone who was going to come and make Washington a less powerful force in people’s lives yet he returns to Washington today with all of the trappings, and , in fact, he will probably be a block or so away from this huge office building named after him in downtown Washington. It seems like… and an airport named after him. All of the things that seem in some way to clash with his reputation.

DOYLE McMANUS: He came to Washington to shrink the federal budget, shrink the federal government. Didn’t succeed in either one of those, but he did change American politics to the point that one of his successors, Bill Clinton, gave a state of the union address in the punch line was the era of big government was over. So his accomplishment was there.

HAYNES JOHNSON: No question about the political impact and still playing off the Reagan era as in fact the conservative era which began with Reagan played off the New Deal.

And the irony here, Ronald Reagan, the great New Dealer – his hero — four times he would have won, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So from the liberalism of the New Deal to the Reagan era we are seeing an interesting sort of similar history spun together.

GWEN IFILL: When the funeral procession arrives at Capitol Hill, we will be hearing tonight in the program from Vice President Cheney who is standing in for the president who is still at Sea Island, Georgia. We will be hearing form Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert and speaker pro tempore of the Senate, Ted Stevens of Alaska.

The chaplains of the House and Senate will also deliver closing and opening invocations and then at about 8:30 Eastern Time, the president’s…will be made open to the public. First, friends of the Reagan and then general public who will be allowed to file by and pay respects all night long. We’ll be back with you later in the program. Thank you.