Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Day Reagan Died

"I was friends with President Ronald Reagan, and he once said to me, 'I don't know how anybody can serve in public office without being an actor.'"

Warren Beatty

Ten years ago tomorrow, Ronald Reagan died at the age of 93.

I remember when I heard the news. It was a Saturday afternoon in early June — kind of hot, too, which isn't unusual in Texas — and I was watching TV. All of a sudden, there was a news bulletin announcing that Reagan had died.

A press statement made on behalf of Nancy Reagan was read on the air: "My family and I would like the world to know that President Ronald Reagan has died after 10 years of Alzheimer's disease at 93 years of age. We appreciate everyone's prayers."

I didn't expect it. Often, it seems, famous people get sick and then linger for awhile before they die. You get some warning. That's how it was with Richard Nixon. He had a stroke, then he lapsed into a coma, and then he died.

But I don't remember being aware that Reagan had been sick. Oh, I knew, like everyone else did, that he had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for several years, but, as anyone who has watched a family member with Alzheimer's can tell you, that can go on for a long time.

I learned later that he had been suffering from pneumonia in his final days. (I didn't know that at the time, but I had no trouble comprehending it. Much the same thing happened to a good friend of mine years after Reagan's death. My friend had cancer, which seemed to be in remission, but the aggressive treatment she had received had compromised her immune system, and pneumonia finished her off.)

At the time, no president had lived longer; Gerald Ford has since replaced Reagan as the longest–lived president. (Reagan's vice president will turn 90 a week from tomorrow — and that will be a first in American history, a president and his vice president both living into their 90s.)

There is a certain irony in that since Reagan was the oldest person to be elected president when he won the office in 1980 — and, before he became president, I had often heard it said that the presidency was a man–killing job, that those who held the office tended to have shorter lives than most of their contemporaries after they left the White House.

When Reagan became president, I was convinced he would not live to the end of his four–year term, that the presidency would crush him, and his vice president, George H.W. Bush, soon would be our next president.

Yet, Reagan lived more than 15 years after serving two complete terms as president. Bush did become our next president — but not right away.

Reagan was always defying my expectations. I wasn't one of his fans when he was in office so my expectations for him usually weren't too high to begin with, but he not only exceeded them, he did so with considerable room to spare on many occasions.

I'm not speaking of policy. I'm speaking about those times when Reagan really earned his reputation as the Great Communicator because he communicated with everyone — not just those who were his admirers.

On those occasions that called on his communication skills — two of the most noteworthy, I suppose, were when he spoke on the 40th anniversary of D–Day (just about 20 years to the day before his death) and when the space shuttle Challenger blew up in 1986 — he made just about everyone, even those who frequently disagreed with him, feel a little bit better or a little prouder.

I considered myself a Democrat during Reagan's presidency. (I now regard myself as an independent.) And, when I look back on his presidency, I remember being envious of his speaking skills. He was able to reach out to those with whom he disagreed — without feeling compelled to belittle them. When he did poke fun, he did so with a gentle kind of wry humor that he often aimed at himself.

That's always been a rare trait, I guess. It seems to be in particularly short supply today.

Ten years ago, the television coverage — of Reagan lying in repose in California, then being transported to Washington where he would lie in state, then finally his return to California for one last memorial service prior to his burial at the Ronald Reagan Library — was pervasive. After awhile, it all looked the same — except for the backdrops and the faces in the crowds. There were processions and eulogies and a flag–draped coffin.

If you weren't paying close attention, it could be mistaken for footage from previous days.

I'm sure it was all a blur for the Reagans. I remember watching Ron Reagan being interviewed later about the funeral and observing that it occurred to him, as the motorcade made its way through the streets of Washington, that there were two people being mourned — the private Reagan, the one he knew, and the public Reagan. He said he saw someone holding a sign that said, "Now there was a president" and realized what his father meant to the people of his country.

Even his detractors.

The most memorable moment — for me — came at the end of the final service, which came at the end of what must have been a very long week for the Reagan family.

Nancy Reagan, who will never be on my list of favorite first ladies, was given the folded American flag that had adorned her husband's coffin, and she was escorted to the casket to pay her last respects. She placed the flag on it, then rested her head on the lid of the coffin and whispered to it. A thought that flashed through my mind as I watched was that she must have placed her head on her husband's chest at times when he was alive.

She remained that way so long that, finally, her children, Ron and Patti, came to her, embraced her and whispered to her, apparently nudging her away from the casket. She seemed hesitant to leave her husband. I'm only guessing now, of course, but it's a guess born from experience. I've been in similar situations in my life — although not with hundreds of people, most of them dignitaries, watching in person and millions more watching on TV — and I think I can imagine what her children said to her.

"We can come back later, maybe tomorrow, when no one else is here, and we can stay as long as you want."

As they spoke to her, she kept rubbing the lid of the coffin, almost as if she was dusting it, which makes no sense, but it was clear from her face that she was not focused on what she was doing, anyway. It was an absent–minded sort of thing, a reflex.

I remember my grandmother doing something like that after my grandfather died.

Whatever was said, it coaxed Mrs. Reagan away from the casket. She nodded at something her daughter whispered in her ear, bent to kiss the coffin and allowed herself to be led away.

After she had gone, I kept watching — and I saw members of the Reagan family who were seldom, if ever, seen during his presidency. I guessed, based on those I could identify, that we were looking at Reagan's grandchildren, some nieces and nephews, perhaps, maybe some close friends.

It was a reminder that, when someone dies, many people are affected. When that person has been president, regardless of politics, the sense of loss is even greater.

It was a poignant scene.

Mrs. Reagan recently said that she finds it difficult to believe her husband has been gone for a decade.

"I still feel his presence every day," she said, "and often find him in my dreams at night."

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