Thanks From a Grateful Country
For a man who changed the world, Ronald Reagan sure was modest.
Monday, June 7, 2004
He was dying for years and the day came and somehow it came as a blow. Not a loss but a blow. How could this be? Maybe we were all of us more loyal to him, and to the meaning of his life, than we quite meant to be.
And maybe it’s more.
This was a life with size. It had heft, and meaning. And I am thinking of what Stephen Vincent Benet, a writer whom he quoted, wrote on the death of his friend Scott Fitzgerald. “You can take off your hats now, gentlemen, and I think perhaps you’d better.”
Ronald Reagan was not unappreciated at the end, far from it. But he was at the beginning.
His story was classically, movingly rags-to-riches; he was a nobody who became a somebody in the American way, utterly on his own and with the help of millions. He was just under 10 when the Roaring Twenties began, 16 when Lindbergh flew the ocean; he remembered as a little boy giving a coin to a doughboy leaning out a window of a troop train going east to the ships that would take them to the Marne and the Argonne Forest.
Ronald, nicknamed Dutch, read fiction. He liked stories of young men battling for the good and true. A story he wrote in college had a hero arriving home from the war and first thing calling his girl. Someone else answered. Who is calling? “Tell her it’s the president,” he said. He wrote that when he was 20 years old.
Many years later, in middle age, he was visited by a dream in which he was looking for a house. He was taken to a mansion with white walls and high sparkling windows. It was majestic. “This is a house that is available at a price I can afford,” he would think to himself. And then he’d come awake. From the day he entered the White House for the first time as president he never had the dream again.
His family didn’t have much–no money, no local standing–and they were often embarrassed. Jack Reagan was alcoholic and itinerant, a shoe salesman who drank when things were looking up. They moved a lot. His mother was an Evangelical Christian who was often out of the house helping others or taking in work at home. (Like Margaret Thatcher’s mother, and Pope John Paul’s too, Nell Reagan worked as a seamstress at home, sewing clothes for money.)
Dutch and his brother Moon were often on their own. From his father he learned storytelling and political views that were liberal for the time and place. In old age he remembered with pride that his father would smack him if he ever said anything as a child that showed racial or religious bigotry. His mother gave him religious faith, which helped him to trust life and allowed him to be an optimist, which was his nature.
He wanted to be an artist, a cartoonist, a writer. Then he wanted to be a sportscaster on radio, and talked his way in. Then he wanted to be an actor. He went to Hollywood, became a star, did work that he loved and married Jane Wyman, a more gifted actor than he. They were mismatched, but she proved in her way to be as old-school as he. In the decades after their divorce and long after he rose to power, she never spoke publicly of him, not to get in the news when her career was waning and not for money. She could have hurt him and never did.
He volunteered for action in World War II, was turned away by doctors who told him with eyesight like his he’d probably shoot his own officer and miss. But they let him join behind the lines and he served at “Fort Roach” in Los Angeles, where he made training and information films. After the war, Ronald Reagan went on the local speaking circuit, talking of the needs of veterans and lauding the leadership of FDR and Truman. Once a woman wrote to him and noted that while he had movingly denounced Nazism, there was another terrible “ism,” communism, and he ought to mention that, too. In his next speech, to industry people and others, he said that if communism ever proved itself the threat to decency that Nazism was, he’d denounce it, too. Normally he got applause in this part of the speech. Now he was met by silence.
In that silence he built his future, becoming a man who’d change the world.
The long education began. He studied communism, read Marx, read the Founders and the conservative philosophers from Burke to Burnham. He began to tug right. The Democratic Party and his industry continued to turn left. There was a parting. A word on his intellectual reflexes. Ronald Reagan was not a cynic–he did not assume the worst about people. But he was a skeptic; he knew who we are. He did not think that people with great degrees or great success were necessarily smart, for instance. He had no interest in credentialism. He once told me an economist was a fellow with a Phi Beta Kappa key on one end of his chain and no watch on the other. That’s why they never know what time it is. He didn’t say this with asperity, but with mirth.
He did not dislike intellectuals–his heroes often were intellectuals, from the Founders straight through Milton Friedman and Hayek and Solzhenitsyn. But he did not favor the intellectuals of his own day, because he thought they were in general thick-headed. He thought that many of the 20th century’s intellectuals were high-IQ dimwits. He had an instinctive agreement with Orwell’s putdown that a particular idea was so stupid that only an intellectual would believe it.
He thought that intellectuals, like the great liberal academics of the latter half of the 20th century, tended to tie themselves in great webs of complexity, webs they’d often spun themselves–great complicated things that they’d get stuck in, and finally get out of, only to go on and construct a new web for mankind to get caught in. The busy little spiders from Marx through Bloomsbury–some of whom, such as the Webbs, were truly the stupidest brilliant people who ever lived–through Harvard and Yale and the American left circa 1900-90.
As president of the Screen Actors Guild he led the resistance to a growing communist presence in the unions and, with allies such as William Holden, out-argued the boutique leftism of the Hollywood salons. But when a small army of congressional gasbags came to town, Ronald Reagan told the House Un-American Activities Committee that Hollywood could police itself, thank you. By the time it was over, even his harshest foes admitted he’d been fair. In the ‘90s, an actress who’d been blacklisted, her career ruined, was invited by historians of Hollywood to criticize him. She said yes, she remembered him well. He was boring at parties. He was always talking about how great the New Deal was.
He wanted to be a great actor, but it never happened. He was a good actor. He married Nancy Davis, a young actress who’d gone to Smith. On their first date, she told me once, she was impressed. “He didn’t talk, the way actors do, about their next part. He talked about the Civil War.” They had children, made a life; she was his rock.
In 1962 he became a Republican; in 1966, with considerable initial reluctance, he ran for governor of California. The establishment of the day labeled him a right-wing movie star out of touch with California values; he beat the incumbent, Pat Brown, in a landslide. He completed two successful terms in which he started with a huge budget deficit, left behind a modest surplus, cut taxes and got an ulcer. About the latter he was amazed. Even Jack Warner hadn’t been able to give him an ulcer! But one day it went away. Prayer groups that did not know of his condition had been praying for him. He came to think their prayers healed him.
In his first serious bid for the presidency, in 1976, he challenged his own party’s beleaguered incumbent, the hapless Gerald Ford. Ronald Reagan fought valiantly, state by state, almost unseated Mr. Ford, and returned from the convention having given one of the best speeches of his life. He told his weeping volunteers not to become cynical but to take the experience as inspiration. He promised he wouldn’t go home and sit in a rocking chair. He quoted an old warrior: “I will lie me down and bleed awhile / And then I will rise and fight again.” Four years later, he won the presidency from Jimmy Carter after a mean-spirited onslaught in which he was painted as racist, a man who knew nothing, a militarist. He won another landslide.
Once again he had nobody with him but the people.
In his presidency he did this: He out-argued communism and refused to accept its claim of moral superiority; he rallied the West, rallied America and continued to make big gambles, including a defense-spending increase in a recession. He promised he’d place Pershings in Europe if the Soviets would not agree to arms reductions, and told Soviet leaders that they’d never be able to beat us in defense, that we’d spend them into the ground. They were suddenly reasonable. Ronald Reagan told the truth to a world made weary by lies. He believed truth was the only platform on which a better future could be built. He shocked the world when he called the Soviet Union “evil,” because it was, and an “empire,” because it was that, too. He never stopped bringing his message to the people of the world, to Europe and China and in the end the Soviet Union. And when it was over, the Berlin Wall had been turned into a million concrete souvenirs, and Soviet communism had fallen. But of course it didn’t fall. It was pushed. By Mr. Know Nothing Cowboy Gunslinger Dimwit. All presidents should be so stupid.
He pushed down income taxes too, from a high of 70% when he entered the White House to a new low of 28% when he left, igniting the long boom that, for all its ups and downs, is with us still. He believed, as JFK did, that a rising tide lifts all boats. He did much more, returning respect to our armed forces, changing 50-year-old assumptions about the place of government and the place of the citizen in the new America.
What an era his was. What a life he lived. He changed history for the better and was modest about it. He didn’t bray about his accomplishments but saw them as the work of the American people. He did not see himself as entitled, never demanded respect, preferred talking to hotel doormen rather than State Department functionaries because he thought the doormen brighter and more interesting. When I pressed him once, a few years out of the presidency, to say what he thought the meaning of his presidency was, he answered, reluctantly, that it might be fairly said that he “advanced the boundaries of freedom in a world more at peace with itself.” And so he did. And what could be bigger than that?
To be young and working in his White House at that time in human history, was–well, we felt privileged to be there, with him. He made us feel not that we were born in a time of trouble but that we’d been born, luckily, at a time when we could end some trouble. We believed him. I’d think: This is a wonderful time to be alive. And when he died I thought: If I’d walked into the Oval Office 20 years ago to tell him that, he’d look up from whatever he was writing, smile, look away for a second and think, It’s pretty much always a wonderful time. And then he’d go back to his work.
And now he has left us. We will talk the next 10 days about who he was and what he did. It’s not hard to imagine him now in a place where his powers have been returned to him and he’s himself again–sweet-hearted, tough, funny, optimistic and very brave. You imagine him snapping one of those little salutes as he turns to say goodbye. Today I imagine saluting right back. Do you? We should do it the day he’s buried, or when he lies in state in the Capitol Rotunda. We should say, “Good on you, Dutch.” Thanks from a grateful country.
Ms. Noonan is a contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal and former Reagan speechwriter.
The Ben Elliott Story: What I saw at the funeral
Monday, June 14, 2004
What was the meaning of the past remarkable nine days? You cannot stop the American people from feeling what they feel and showing it. From the crowds at Simi Valley to the hordes at the Capitol to the men and women who stopped and got out of their cars on Highway 101 to salute as Reagan came home–that was America talking to America about who America is.
It was a magnificent teaching moment for the whole country but most of all for the young, who barely remembered Ronald Reagan or didn’t remember him at all. This week they heard who he was. The old ones spoke, on all the networks and in all the newspapers, and by the end of the week it was clear that Ronald Reagan had suddenly entered the Lincoln pantheon. By Friday it was no longer a question, as it had been for years, whether he was one of our top 10 presidents. It was a question only whether he was in the very top five or six–up there with Lincoln and Washington. An agreement had been reached: the 20th century came down to FDR and RWR.
What is important now is that we continue to speak of the meaning of his leadership. Not bang away about what a great guy he was–there are a lot of great guys–but what huge things he did, not because he had an “ideology” but because he had a philosophy, a specific one that had specific meaning. He was the great 20th-century conservative of America. He applied his philosophy to the realities of the world he lived in. In doing so he changed those realities, and for the better. This is what we must pass on.
I think of the moments of the past week in Washington: George Shultz reaching out spontaneously and with such heart to touch the coffin in the Rotunda. Al Haig too. I was there and saw how moved they were.
Walking into a room in the Capitol Wednesday before dusk: A handful of people were standing together and gazing out a huge old white-silled window as the Reagan cortege approached down Pennsylvania Avenue. The sun was strong, like a presence. It bathed the women in glow. One was standing straight, with discipline. Her beige bouffant was brilliant in the sun. I approached, and she turned. It was Margaret Thatcher. It was like walking into a room at FDR’s funeral and seeing Churchill.
The cortege was coming toward the steps. We looked out the window: a perfect tableaux of ceremonial excellence from every branch of the armed forces. Mrs. Thatcher watched. She turned and said to me, “This is the thing, you see, you must stay militarily strong, with an undeniable strength. The importance of this cannot be exaggerated.”
To my son, whose 17th birthday was the next day, she said, “And what do you study?” He tells her he loves history and literature. “Mathematics,” she says. He nods, wondering, I think, if she had heard him correctly. She had. She was giving him advice. “In the world of the future it will be mathematics that we need–the hard, specific knowledge of mathematical formulae, you see.” My son nodded: “Yes, ma'am.” Later I squeezed his arm. “Take notes,” I said. This is history.
Inside the Washington National Cathedral the day of the state funeral: When the television cameras broadcast from inside the cathedral at 11:30 a.m., everyone–dark clad, many distinguished, all 3,000 of them–stood in complete silence as the doors opened for the Reagan family. It was so silent that all you could hear was the metal point of the vicar’s staff hitting the marble floor as he processed down the aisle. Oh what a sound. It sounded like tradition. Majesty.
But before the cameras were there, an hour and two hours before, it was the last gathering of the clans. The room rocked with affection and laughter. We were hugging and shaking hands. Oh, it was beautiful. I saw Mari Maseng Will, whose job I had taken in the White House when she moved up from speechwriting. In those days–only 20 years ago, and yet in some respects so long ago–there were, as there are now, a half dozen White House speechwriters, and, by what was then fairly recent tradition, one woman among them. I hadn’t seen Mari in years. She looked beautiful and tall but also now distinguished. I asked how she felt after the past few days, our lives passing before our eyes. “I feel young again,” she said. I laughed and said “God, me too.” I hadn’t thought of it that way, but yes, all the people of 1984 were there again, and talking and gesturing, but now after all these years they were free, unburdened, fully able, and eager, to appreciate each other. Man, the love and respect in that room.
Just in my line of sight was an extraordinarily wide variety of people in the assemblage. The people inside that cathedral who were not there by virtue of their position–senators, congressmen, diplomats–were people who actually loved the Reagans. My eye went from a grieving Mikhail Gorbachev to Joan Rivers to Jim Billington of the Library of Congress to Oscar De la Renta, from Antonin Scalia to Buffy Cafritz, from Clarence Thomas to Merv Griffin, from Prince Charles to Oatsie Charles.
The Reagans knew everyone; they really reached out into all spheres. The Carters didn’t know everyone; they were Georgia. The Bushes don’t know everyone. The Clintons knew Hollywood, but Hollywood didn’t love them; it just embraced them. The Reagans were loved by the ones who knew them. It’s nice when you see this. The last first couple of whom I think it could be said were the Kennedys.
I was walking down the aisle when someone called to me and said, “Peggy, Natan Sharansky”: a small balding man who looks like a shy accountant. He was in the gulag when Ronald Reagan was president. He was in solitary confinement, and when word would reach him of Reagan’s latest anticommunist speech, he would tap out in Morse code a message to his fellow prisoners. And now he was here, a free man, at the funeral of Ronald Reagan, who got him out of the gulag, which was run by Mikhail Gorbachev, who was right over there. Oh life, what a kick in the pants it can be. All I could do as it all flashed through my mind was ask if I could put my arms around him, and all I could think of say was, “Oh, Natan Sharansky.” A beautiful moment for me.
When the funeral was over, when we came down the steps and out of the Cathedral, I saw Tom Daschle and Byron Dorgan and Sen. Reed from I forget where, standing together, talking. I thought: Good for them for being here and showing such respect. So I went over and introduced myself and told them it was great to see them and it was a beautiful day for all of us. They were sweet and friendly and we all laughed and shook hands. This was another good moment to have at Ronald Reagan’s funeral.
Many great things were said about Reagan, especially the words of Baroness Thatcher, the Iron Lady. What a gallant woman to come from England, frail after a series of strokes, to show her personal respect and love, and to go to California to show it again, standing there with her perfect bearing, in her high heels, for 20 hours straight. I wonder if the British know how we took it, we Americans, that she did that, and that Prince Charles came, and Tony Blair. One is tempted to fall back on cliché–“the special relationship.” But I think a lot of us were thinking: We are one people.
The morning Americans stood in line and filed in to see the flag-draped coffin in the rotunda, Sen. Rick Santorum called together some old Reagan hands to speak to senators and staff about the meaning of Reaganism. It was one of those moments when everything seemed to come together. Ed Meese spoke so movingly of the Reagan he knew, the one who came out of the Midwest and into California. Jim Miller, his former budget director, spoke with bracing clarity of the real economic facts of American life before Reagan, and American life after. Richard Perle, who had been in the Defense Department, spoke of Reagan the tough negotiator of the end of the Soviet Union. I spoke on a lesson we can draw from Reagan’s life. C-Span was there and, I’m told, used our remarks as a kind of voiceover for the pictures of people going to the and viewing the flag draped coffin. I felt blessed to be there. This is what I got to say:
Thank you. I am honored to be here. After the drama of the past few days I am officially farklempt, and I fear I may perhaps lose my voice this morning. I am very happy to see the senators here, but I am happiest to see Orin Hatch, because if I lose my voice he can stand up and sing. I speak on Mr. Reagan. In such a big life, such a multifaceted life, there are many lessons. And you can wonder which One Big Lesson you should take away from watching him. I have a thought, but I think it is perhaps personal, or in a way intimate. It has to do with how we live our lives. Which is always the great question of course, How to live?
Ronald Reagan once summed up John F. Kennedy. He went to a fund-raiser for the JFK Library at Ted Kennedy’s house in 1984. Reagan said of Kennedy, “As a leader, as a president, he seemed to have a good, hard, unillusioned understanding of man and his political choices… . [He] understood the tension between good and evil in the history of man–understood, indeed, that much of the history of man can be seen in the constant working out of that tension… . He was a patriot who summoned patriotism from the heart of a sated country… . He was fiercely, happily partisan, and his political fights were tough–no quarter asked and none given. But he gave as good as he got, and you could see that he loved the battle… . Everything we saw him do seemed to show a huge enjoyment of life; he seemed to grasp from the beginning that life is one fast-moving train, and you have to jump on board and hold on to your hat and relish the sweep of the wind as it rushes by. You have to enjoy the journey; it’s ungrateful not to. I think that’s how his country remembers him, in his joy.”
When it was over, Mrs. Kennedy, Mrs. Onassis, walked up to President Reagan and said, “Oh, Mr. President, that was Jack.
And now I think: that was Reagan, too. And that should be us.
It’s a short ride. Even the longest life is a little too short. You get some time; what do you want to do with it? You want to bring your love to it. And by bringing that love, be constructive, add to, help build and rebuild just by your presence, just by showing up.
How did Reagan do this? He felt something was true. He studied it; he questioned it; he read about it. He concluded it really was true. But he knew that what was true was unpopular, and it would hurt him if he held it high. He held it high anyway. That was his way of showing his love.
Are we a government that has a country, or a country that has a government? We are the latter; hold it high. Can dictators who run a country the size of a continent in the name of a life-killing ideology, can they push freedom around? They cannot. Say it, hold it high. Is there a natural thing within man that tells him God is real and good, real as a rock, good as clean water–is that thing, that knowledge, natural to man? Yes it is. Hold it high. Should we as a people try to rid ourselves of the natural expressions of this natural knowledge? No. We must keep that and guard it and love it. We must hold it high.
And in the meantime–in the meantime life is not all seriousness and a somber understanding of history, and the work of making life better. Life is beautiful. Life is the best horse on the best ranch and the best ride to see the best sunset. Laugh, have a good time, enjoy it–it’s beautiful.
And so he said of John Kennedy, "Sometimes I want to say to those who are still in school, and who sometimes think that history is a dry thing that lives in a book, I want to say that nothing is ever lost in that house, the White House. Some music plays on. I have been told that late at night when the clouds are still and the moon is high, you can just about hear the sound of certain memories brushing by. You can almost hear, if you listen close, the whir of a wheelchair rolling by and the sound of a voice calling out, 'And another thing, Eleanor!’ Turn down a hall and you hear the brisk strut of a mustachioed fellow saying, ‘Bully! Absolutely ripping!’ Walk softly now and you’re drawn to the soft notes of a piano and a brilliant gathering in the East Room, where a crowd surrounds a bright young president who is full of hope and laughter. I don’t know if this is true, but it’s a story I’ve been told. And it’s not a bad one, because it reminds us that history is a living thing that never dies… . History is not only made by people, it is people. And so history is, as young John Kennedy demonstrated, as heroic as you want it to be, as heroic as you are.”
Well, Ronald Reagan’s music plays on. That’s a wonderful thing. I hope tomorrow we give him a standing ovation. I hope speakers say things that make us laugh. And afterwards, have a good lunch with your friends and raise a glass to him, and to his era, and its meaning. And then go, and have a meeting, and make a plan to make our country better. Thank you.
It was wonderful to be in the Capitol that day, the day everyone was coming to see him. The old halls echoed.
I will probably be telling, in this space, more as the weeks and months go by. I hope you don’t mind, but there are so many stories. Let me end here with one. I had one of the greatest moments of my life in Washington as we laid Ronald Reagan to rest.
The Heritage Foundation and the White House had quickly thrown together a gathering of Reagan alumni in the Old Executive Office Building, which I noticed the old-timers still call “the Old EOB” but which has been renamed the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, and which President Bush calls “the Ike.” I have a feeling that’s going to stick.
It was a great group. Former secretary of state George Shultz spoke, and domestic advisor Marty Anderson, and Reagan’s final chief of staff, Ken Duberstein. Judge William Clark spoke about Reagan’s religious faith, and Michael Reagan came in, embraced everyone and talked about his love for his father and his gratitude to God. It was beautiful. Karl Rove spoke too, impromptu, about how Reagan remade Republicanism. Dick Cheney came and listened. A lot of people did.
When I stood to speak, I looked out at the hundreds there, and what I saw when I looked at them was what I knew to be true. These people had suffered for Reagan. They were the midlevel people, the special assistants and deputy assistants and counselors in the offices and departments. They had thrown themselves on hand grenades in that White House, they had taken hits. They were conservatives in the 1980s who believed in Reagan. And they were unsung.
Schultz, Anderson, Clark, me–we were sung. But these people …
And as I looked out at them I thought of the most unsung hero of all. His name was Bentley Elliott. He went by Ben. He ran Ronald Reagan’s speechwriting department from 1982 through 1986. He hired most of the speechwriters. He shaped and refined Ronald Reagan’s speeches, directing themes and approach. He was a great writer. Ronald Reagan said a lot of famous things, and he said them in part because Ben Elliott got them past the bureaucracy, past the powerful so-called pragmatists, so Reagan could consider them, rewrite them, underscore them. But Ben is the one who got the draft to him.
Ronald Reagan could do and say anything he wanted–he was the president. But every time Ben fought the bureaucracy to get the right draft to Reagan–to get the president’s own conservative views to him–Ben made an enemy. He faced a million swords, and without bureaucratic protection. In politics, friends come and go but enemies accumulate. By the time the bad guys got him, Ben looked like a human pincushion.
We owed him so much. Making his position even more difficult, and painful, there were those on his staff and around him who wanted his job, or who wanted him removed because he didn’t assign them enough speeches. They were right, he didn’t. He didn’t because he was protecting them. Dick Darman, our boss of all bosses, would read a draft from one or another of them and he’d call Ben and say, “If I see another speech by him I will fire him, he is over.” And he meant it. So Ben would hide them to save their jobs.
Only he made one bureaucratic mistake: He didn’t tell them. Because he didn’t want them to feel insecure and oppressed. He didn’t want to add to the bitterness of that tough White House. Ben was like “Mister Roberts” in the 1955 film–he protected the crew but the crew didn’t know, and some didn’t care. Some of the writers were so gifted–Mari, Josh Gilder. Ben worked Josh to the bone. But they were a mixed group, as all groups are. There was one speechwriter who wrote the same speech over and over, or rather he wrote a good one in 1982 and a good one in 1988, and I think he spent the rest of his time getting haircuts. There was another who didn’t write but only kibitzed. When Washington gets around to a National Hack Memorial, and it no doubt will, he’ll probably pose for the statue. Another looked like a malignant leprechaun and spent most of his time on the phone telling columnists what the president was about to say. What a crew. And Ben protected them all. And me, too, and not only because I was a conservative but also because I was the only woman there.
Ben kept it all together. And it worked. When he left the White House he never said a word, never spoke of his experiences, never went on TV for interviews, never wrote a book. He left Washington, burrowed down into corporate communications, worked for two families, and became a serious and ardent Christian, so that his faith, and not politics, became the central animating fact of his life.
At that great gathering of unsung heroes of the Reagan era, I got to speak of Ben. I got to sing him.
And when I said his name the crowd burst into the biggest applause of the day. Because they knew who Ben Elliott was. Becky Norton Dunlop, who had taken her own hits for RR, took to her feet for her own standing ovation.
And Ben Elliott was there. He was in the audience with his wife, Troy, and his daughter Grace, 11, who did not know her father was a great man, or rather might not have known he was great in this particular way.
It was one of the most wonderful moments of my life to give this man a small part of his due. When it was over, we hugged–what a hugging time it has been–and I told him I loved him.
And there followed, for me, the sole unaffectionate moment of the whole three days. In honor of Ronald Reagan, it was candid.
The Hack was in the audience. He approached me in his greasy political style and said, “I’m so glad you honored Ben.” He put his hand on my waist. This was a mistake.
“It’s more than you ever did,” I pointed out. Hack had been on TV with pictures of him and Reagan, recalling with modesty his small contribution to the president. He was right. It was small.
He said that he’d always tried to honor Ben. I pointed out that this was a lie. Nor had haircut boy in his book. Didn’t they know Ben had saved their jobs? They were only there because of him.
At this Hack smiled slyly. “Well, I never wrote a book,” he said.
“No, you’d have to be literate to do that,” I pointed out.
Afterward I told old Reagan hands about our exchange. They would laugh and say, “Yes!” Because, as I say, they knew the Ben Elliott story. And now someone has put it in print.
Ms. Noonan is a contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal and former Reagan speechwriter.
Because I Am Not Done: What I saw at the funeral, part 2
Thursday, June 17, 2004
All week people who had waited in line to see Ronald Reagan’s casket at the Rotunda would walk up to me wherever I was, introduce themselves and say, “There were these young soldiers and sailors, we waited on line six hours, and we all got in at 2 a.m., and as they rounded the casket they would stop, every one of them, and salute.” Or, “Did you see the American Indians in full ceremonial dress who came and stood in silence?” And, “We were in bed at home and it was 10 at night and we were watching the news and suddenly we looked at each other and said: We gotta go. So we got the train schedule and took the overnight and got to Washington at 7 a.m. and stood on line.”
All week I received e-mails from strangers.
Ms Noonan, I thought you should see this–an e-mail from my brother’s friend: “I just witnessed something truly touching. I’m in Anchorage on business and I was sitting in a noisy restaurant when someone turned the TV to Ronald Reagan’s sunset burial service. The entire restaurant went quite. The noisy weekend crowd, full of jaded, cynical business travelers like me, went almost completely silent. When they lifted up his casket to carry it to his final resting place, the crowd spontaneously stood up. It was truly a remarkable moment. I don’t suspect I’ll see anything like it again.”
And this, from a woman who watched the proceedings on C-Span:
Between 2 and 4 AM the mourners were continuing through the rotunda, with quiet shuffling sounds of the changing guard, and little else. I prayed with mourners, for the Reagan’s but also my family intentions. Then all of a sudden I could hear a young child crying moderately loud. It continued, evidently as the family walked thru and paid their respects, for some time. It was not rash, but a little distracting, and I did turn the sound down so as not to wake my husband in the middle of the night. I thought, “Here came a family in the middle of the night, with a young child, and was not turned away, even though the child made some noise. Ronald Reagan would have approved.” I was moved to tears.
Then I went about my night work of changing loads in the washing machine, and was getting my yogurt snack from the refrigerator, when I heard the unmistakable voice of a young toddler “talking.” For the next few minutes (as long as it took to get thru the prayerful line) the child said in a delightful, sweet voice; dah! Dah! DAH, in different inflections and tones, sometimes a little softer, but mostly in positive, questioning, curious, joyous, and uplifting sounds about every 3-4 seconds. Dah! dah! … DAH! I laughed, AND cried. Ronald Reagan would like this too. How wonderful to have this young, happy sound to honor a very positive leader.“
And this, from a New York-based Wall Street Journal editor who stood in line at the rotunda:
I stopped by to see what the line was like to view Reagan’s casket in the Capitol at 3 a.m.–there were still tens of thousands of people and more showing up. The amazing thing was that everything was so orderly. There were hundreds of children some five and six years old or younger waiting in line and some people sleeping in the grass and some older people sitting down, looking dehydrated (and being cared for). But everyone was filing through the line, following the rules. No one seemed to be ducking through the ropes to cut ahead as the line zig zagged ahead, even as everyone was told the wait was five or six hours more–so long that they would likely not reach the front of the line before viewing hours were over. Water was handed out, but those waiting in line didn’t toss the empty bottles on the ground. They piled them as neatly as they could in piles interspersed through the line. Although sometimes the mood was somber, people were mostly happy, telling stories. Some were telling stories about Reagan.
I’ve never felt so comfortable in such a crowd and I think tens of thousands of people had an experience last night that they will not soon forget. They were all there to pay their respects to President Reagan. The lines though were long, arduously so. But the wait shaped the mood and after several hours it became part of the experience, instead of something that must be endured on the way to something meaningful. I think the behavior of the crowd spoke to the innate goodness within people, a message central to Reagan himself.
We all experienced history together the past week. We were all part of it. Didn’t matter if you were watching at home sitting in a big brown La-Z-Boy or getting to salute the old man in the church as they brought him back down the aisle. Some were lonely because they weren’t there; some were lonely because they were. Life is complicated. But he brought us all together for one last time, wherever we were, didn’t he? I could feel it. Everyone could feel it.
The morning of the state funeral hundreds and hundreds of us were in line to get into the Cathedral. It was to start at 11:30, but we are Republicans: we were in line at 9:15. I saw Bob Kimmitt, formerly of the National Security Council, and Marlin Fitzwater, former Reagan press secretary, who sometimes came into my office to lie on the couch and smoke his cigar and hide out from reporters. Hundreds who worked in Reagan’s White House were in line, on the sidewalk. Six or seven feet above us, to the right, was a black cast-iron fence that marked the beginning of the high lawn of the Cathedral. Suddenly at the fence, looking down at us, were Sam Donaldson and Barbara Walters. They had come by to say hello. Sam called down to us in a merry way, and we answered. Then I said to everyone around me, "In honor of the boss, when Sam talks to us let’s cup our ears and say, ‘I can’t hear you!’ ” Everyone laughed.
Sam said something. We put our hands to our ears. “We can’t hear you!,” we chanted. Sam called down something else. “We can’t hear you!,” we chanted. “It’s the helicopter! Sorry!”
It was so small and yet it was a lovely moment. Reagan would have laughed. Did Sam understand it? Ah, not really, I don’t think. But we did.
One of the things not sufficiently remarked upon the past week: The music, from California to Washington and back to California again, was old music, old American music, and it was beautiful. We have abandoned so much of the core of American music. And then a state funeral comes and the death of a president, and suddenly we are allowed to hear the old songs. “Going Home,” the hymn they played for FDR as they took him from Warm Springs, Ga., to Washington. All the stanzas of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”–“In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea.” “The Navy Hymn,” also known as “Eternal Father Strong to Save.” “Abide With Me.” “Ave Maria”–a great song of the Catholic Church, and yet they don’t play it unless it’s a special person’s wedding or a special person’s funeral.
This music is part of our patrimony, every bit as much as the trees and mountains. Our children, in our civic life, have for a generation been denied these songs. The moral and artistic equivalent of river polluters have decided we need to hear–I don’t know, what songs do they play now in school, at events? “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”?
We need a new environmental movement–a musical conservation movement aimed at saving and preserving the old songs. The rivers and mountains and plains are so beautiful and need saving. But what have you lost if you lose the sound of your ancestors’ souls singing? Even more, I think.
Another happy moment: The Washington social figures Buffy and Bill Cafritz–“social figures” doesn’t quite express what they are, which is Washington people in a position to keep it going who do keep it going–called a dinner in a Capitol Hill restaurant for their friends, the old Reagan California hands, on Wednesday night, when they all arrived in town.
It was a dinner for the old kitchen cabinet–the ones who were there 40 and 50 years ago to tell Ronald Reagan: Please, enter politics. Charlie Wick and his wife, Mary Jane, Reagan friends since the 1950s, were there. The Deavers, Merv Griffin, Oscar and Lynn Wyatt. And others. They made toasts to each other that were sweet and intelligent. Mary Jane thanked Buffy for always being there when they came east; Buffy told her nothing was easier than being a friend of the Wicks.
I do not normally make toasts at dinners because my thoughts sometimes collide when my brain hears my voice; when I speak it’s from words on paper. But there was no paper. So this night I hit my fork against my glass and asked to be heard. I told them there was something I’d always wanted to say to them, to the old Reagan friends. I told them I had watched them for decades. I saw them be the Reagans’ friends when the Reagans were on top of the world. And I saw them be the Reagans’ friends when they were old and sick and out of power. I saw them be the Reagans’ friends when they were dancing in the East Room. And I saw them be the Reagans’ friends when each of them–all of them–became the focus of criticism and even disdain for their closeness to the Reagans. I saw them be the Reagans’ friends when there was everything in it and when there was nothing in it, and the quality of the friendship didn’t change. And this week, when we are toasting Ron and Nancy, I wanted to toast them for the kind of friends they were.
Everyone nodded, and then Mary Jane Wick, who carries within her face the perfect architecture of lost beauty that will never leave, explained to me what the friendship was about. It wasn’t just affection, though it was affection, she said. It wasn’t just that the Reagans themselves were loyal, though they were. And it wasn’t just that they were easy to be with and fun. It was that early, back in the kitchen cabinet days, in the 1950s and ‘60s, they put their lives behind Ronnie because they felt the country needed what he stood for. It needed him! They felt California needed his leadership. It wasn’t just him, she said, it was what we knew he would do–shrink government, expand freedom.
I hadn’t quite known they felt that way, or heard anyone say it. Friendship as a patriotic act.
Then the dinner broke up and there was a lot of laughter and at the end Charlie Wick, who loves to sing, who burbles with the old standards, sang some songs, and Oscar Wyatt and I joined in. It was some kind of wonderful evening and some kind of wonderful history as they told stories of their friend and governor and president.
I’m afraid there is yet more I want to say about the past 10 days, so soon I’ll have a piece called “What I Saw When We Were Evacuated From the Capitol the Afternoon Reagan’s Cortege Arrived.” Subheadline: “ 'Unidentified aircraft one minute out, run for your lives!’ ” It was something, and worth trying to capture, I think, for those who’ve never witnessed or been part of such an evacuation.
Here’s a preview: There is something in American staff and security workers that continues to be coolly, calmly, even unthinkingly heroic. As all the visitors and guests and tourists ran from what they were told was the imminent impact of a presumably enemy aircraft, the Capitol staff stood their ground. Better. I saw a young black woman in a Capitol Police uniform simultaneously point tourists toward safety as she ran, resolutely, toward the Capitol she thought was about to be leveled. They were like New York City firemen. They are something.
Ms. Noonan is a contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal and former Reagan speechwriter.