TCS Daily

A Nation Turned its Lonely Eyes (and Sore Feet) to Him

By Ilya Shapiro - June 16, 2004 12:00 AM

They came from all over the country and all walks of life. Hill staffers and lawyers in suits, tourists in T-shirts and shorts, military men of all ranks in dress uniforms, women of a certain age in silk blouses and pleated skirts. Grandmas in wheelchairs and babes in arms, black and white, rich and poor. To pay their final respects to a great man and a great leader.

I got in the line that lead to his casket at about 11:30pm Thursday. It was then that I found the source of the vast stream of humanity that was snaking its way down the Mall under the glare of klieg lights and the shade of mighty trees I never paused to identify. I did not know that it would not be until exactly 6:00am that I would finally arrive in the great rotunda on the second floor of the Capitol.

Like many others, I had promised myself that when the sad moment came, I would go to Washington to see him lie in state. And so we booked last-minute flights from far-flung locales, took spur-of-the-momentous roadtrips up and down I-95, begged, borrowed, and hitchhiked our way across the nation or rode the Metro downtown. Our Western brethren had had a chance in Simi Valley, but that was but a poignant crescendo to the grand mourning in America.

In the second hour, my cellphone died. I was now stranded alone in one of the warmest multitudes I have ever populated. No more nervous chitchat with friends who thought I was insane (but who were envious nonetheless); I would have to make new friends among this great community of strangers.

There were two men from Pennsylvania, one in his forties, one in his fifties. They talked about high school football and the corruption of small-town education by big-time sports. I put in my three cents. There was a tall man from Vancouver, Washington (near Portland), who was "out here on business." He loved talking about his hometown, but his pride really shone through when discussing his daughter, who played on three basketball teams and whose first softball game of the year he would hopefully see that weekend. We joked till the end about how tired we were and how we were gonna quit right then and there.

Then there was a guy about my age in tan slacks and a button-down blue shirt. He seemed hip and stylish but incongruously spent much of the time playing video games on his silver cellphone; he neither talked nor inquired. There was also a tall woman-next-door blonde who had moved from Minnesota to Bethesda (one of Washington's trendy suburbs), but was now spending much of her time in Florida managing the construction of casinos. She gamely hobbled through our never-ending procession on a sprained ankle and flip-flops. We talked hockey; girls who know hockey are not something often encountered or easily passed up.

Once we got on the Capitol grounds, there were three post-collegiate frat boys who had driven up from Greensboro. They had not expected their wait to be longer than their drive, but it reminded one of them of that time his buddy had taken five hours to drive to Charlotte because he had to stop in Durham (decidedly not en route) to pick something up for his girlfriend. The buddy suggested that a free dinner "and the pleasure of my company" was more than recompense for the inconvenience. I was not convinced, but at 4:00am was neither interested nor energetic enough to argue.

I never got any of their names. I never asked. Neither did they. I wasn't shy, but on the one hand I didn't want to tinge this solemn occasion with even the appearance of a networking session, and on the other I liked the combination of relative intimacy and anonymity. I also didn't want to admit to myself that I was already thinking about this column.

Like the week in general, the experience was pretty surreal. There we were, blearily going back and forth, back and forth, across the multiple mazes roped out on the south lawns of the Mall. I kept waiting for Chevy Chase to appear like this was some crazy National Lampoon's Vacation: "Look, kids, it's the Air and Space Museum . . . look, kids, the Air and Space Museum." Each maze took about an hour and a half, but the last one by that pool in front of the statue of U.S. Grant seemed to go quicker, if more painfully as far as feet and lower backs were concerned.

People were jovial but subdued at first, walking zombies toward the end. There was no pushing, no rushing -- nor did I hear any kids whining. When dawn cracked it first rays upon what would be the day of the funeral, we were already at the Visitor Center, and there was no turning back.

I'd been inside the Capitol, inside the rotunda, many times. But this was unique. It was quiet, and nobody was trying to locate the acoustically fortuitous spot John Quincy Adams used to overhear his opponents. It was dark, but lit up by the light of the various cameras beaming this living history to the outside world. My group caught the changing of the guard: majestic, haunting, exquisite.

I turned around one last time to salute my first and most significant hero. And then I was down the steps, left with but an awesome memory and a little card commemorating the event.

He was gone, though it only began to hit me that night when watching the Pacific sun make its rather shorter goodbye. That private service concluded the most elegant, elegiac, overwhelming state ceremony in this country's history.

To paraphrase one of his memorable lines, he left the surly bonds of his Earthy illness to touch the smiling face of his Creator. And so I wrote in one of the manifold guest books at the steps of the Capitol, "Godspeed, President Reagan, Godspeed."

Ilya Shapiro was among the TCS contributors who commented on Reagan's legacy last week.


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