The Passing of a Conservative
Editor's Note: The following is a chapter about Ronald Reagan's funeral from Alfred S. Regnery's 2007 book, Upstream: The Ascendance of American Conservatism, about the conservative movement in America.
Thirty-five years before he died, when he announced that he would seek the presidency, the scorn was almost universal. The wise men of Washington, joined by the media elite and the inhabitants of the colleges and universities, were condescending in their scorn. B movie actor, they said. Amateur cowboy. Simple-minded fool. Amiable dunce. Besides, he was an unabashed conservative. Remember what happened to another conservative, who had run for president in 1964? This was a liberal country, and the presidency belonged to the liberals. No conservative could ever hope to get elected president, they said. Republicans in the White House were acceptable, from time to time, they said, as long as they were not too different from the Democrats. But conservatives did not belong there.
But today Ronald Reagan is another Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was a transforming president who had changed politics, changed the country, changed everything. Ted Kennedy, the exhausted leftist icon who was expending whatever energy he still had to keep the old liberalism together, and who had earlier called Reagan’s foreign policy “unilateral, militaristic, reckless, and divisive” now joined the chorus. “On foreign policy he will be honored as the president who won the Cold War,” said the senior senator from Massachusetts, “and his 'Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall' will be linked forever with President Kennedy's 'ich bin ein Berliner'.” [insert endnote]
They were all there, the wise men of Washington, the media elites, and the intellectuals, to pay tribute to a departed president who had not only succeeded in what he set out to do, but had succeeded beyond anybody’s wildest dreams. And he did so without abandoning his conservative principles. As he left the White House nearly sixteen years earlier, he had mentioned that he had come here to change the country, and he left having changed the world.
First and foremost, the Soviet Union was gone. Out of business. Communism had been placed on the ash heap of history. And the economy? It had been nothing short of a disaster when this amateur cowboy entered the White House in 1981, and now was in the midst of the longest expansion in history. And the faith that the people had in the United States? When he was sworn in as president, fifty-two American diplomats had been held hostage by Iran for more than a year, utterly humiliating the United States. The hostages had been freed on the day he was sworn in, and by the time he left office citizens’ faith in the United States had never been higher.
And what were the critics saying now? Among presidential historians, the consensus was that Reagan was, along with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the most important president of the twentieth century. James MacGregor Burns, noted historian and a liberal icon, said, “I put him at a relatively high level among all American presidents...even if you are a liberal like me, you have to take your hat off to a man who stuck to his conservatism and won.” [endnote] Alonzo Hamby, a sympathetic student of American liberalism, wrote in 1997: “When passions cool after a generation or so, Ronald Reagan will be widely accepted by historians as a near-great chief executive....He may not end up on Mt. Rushmore, by more than any other president since Truman, he will be a contender.”
Now, that he was dead, they all came to pay their respects.
It was America’s finest hour.
The week in which Americans bid farewell to their beloved fortieth president displayed the best of everything American. In his last trip, from the Pacific coast, to the nation’s capital and back to the Pacific coast, the week belonged to Ronald Reagan. But then Ronald Reagan deserved nothing but the best from his fellow citizens.
Ronald Reagan was an American and a conservative. A pure, unapologetic conservative who had come to his beliefs by experience. In his younger years he had been a liberal and a Democrat, but that had changed, little by little, as he saw his liberal principles put into practice, and fail. He recognized the values that conservatives held, and he read their books and their journals, tried out their principles in his speeches, and became a true believer.
Ronald Reagan was the conservative movement’s president, but he was also America’s president, one of America’s great presidents, perhaps the greatest of the twentieth century. What he stood for and what he accomplished were more than conservatives could have ever wished for in a president, and put America back on track, after some difficult times.
The Reagan years had been both a conclusion and a beginning for conservatives. As we shall see later on, his administration was based on conservative principles that had been formulated over the previous thirty years, and thousands of conservatives had worked for years to elect a conservative president who would do more than pay lip service to conservative principles and then, after his election, implement liberal policies. For that reason it was a conclusion. It was a beginning because it meant that, for the first time, conservative principles could be turned into policy, and because conservative ideals could be articulated by a president, and because the conservative movement would be able to move forward, after the administration was over, and expand and feel its influence for years to come. As we shall also see, that is exactly what happened as the movement, in the twenty-five years following Reagan’s election in 1980, grew and gained influence previously unimagined by the founders.
More than thirty years had elapsed since the last state funeral. For many Americans, a state funeral was a new experience.
When his body was brought to his library, on the misty shore of the Pacific Ocean, shortly after he died on June 6, 2004, more than 100,000 people came to pay their last respects to Ronald Reagan. They came carrying flowers which they dropped at the base of a statue of their beloved president, dressed as a cowboy from his days in Hollywood. They brought little American flags, and they took pictures that would no doubt adorn mantles and pianos for years to come. “When I think of him,” said one mourner, “I think of America. What is that saying – American like Mom and apple pie? He should be in that, too. Because he represented what this country is all about.”
Tremendous crowds, often waiting for eight or nine hours, came to the library in buses, to the top of a hill just outside of Los Angeles to pay tribute to him. “It has been really almost flawless, considering that we are bringing 100,000 people up to a mountaintop with almost no parking,” said a volunteer press officer at the library.
The next morning his body was taken to Point Magu Naval Air Station, twenty-five miles away and past tens of thousands who stood on the roadside, waving American flags, saluting the president they loved and already missed. An honor guard stood by, soldiers, sailors, Marines, as the first of the day’s three twenty-one-gun salutes was fired. Nancy Reagan, dressed in black, slowly climbed the long stairway, turned to wave, and disappeared into the huge air force plane that would bring Ronald Reagan, for the last time, to Washington.
Tens of thousands of his old friends and admirers lined the streets as the motorcade made its way slowly from Andrews Air Force Base, past Reagan National Airport, across the Memorial Bridge and past the Lincoln Memorial to Constitution Avenue. There, in direct sight of the White House, where Ronald Reagan and his beloved Nancy had lived for eight years, the motorcade stopped. It was just six o’clock in the evening. Right on schedule.
A beautiful black standardbred named Sgt. York stood waiting, looking as if he were standing at attention, his saddle shining in the late afternoon Washington summer sun. The saddle was empty; the leader would never ride again. The tradition of the riderless horse dated back to the time of Genghis Khan, when a horse was sacrificed in order to serve its master in the next life. The stirrups held a pair of well-worn and still-scuffed high brown riding boots. They faced backwards, symbolizing a fallen warrior, a custom dating back to the funeral of Abraham Lincoln. They were Ronald Reagan’s favorite boots. Nancy Reagan got out of the car to applause, and someone yelled, “God bless you, Mrs. Reagan!” The crowd cheered, and the greeter later explained to a reporter: “They put the red, white, and blue back in our flag. I know that sounds corny, but it’s true.”
The honor guard represents America’s best, and it looked it. Every crease was perfectly straight, every piece of brass perfectly shined, every shoe without a blemish. They removed the casket from the hearse and placed it on a caisson, originally built to carry a cannon. Six immaculate horses, perfectly trained and perfectly groomed, slowly began to pull the caisson, bearing its precious cargo, up Constitution Avenue toward the Capitol. It is a trip that Ronald Reagan had made hundreds of times, but this would be the last. In all the others, never had tens of thousands of somber people lined the streets, paying their respects to their leader, never had the trips been the subject of such ritual, not even during his inauguration. Twenty-one of America’s finest jets roared overhead, one veering off to symbolize a missing man. Sgt. York, still without rider, walked slowly behind the caisson, the boots still facing backward. When the procession reached the west front of the Capitol, the place where Ronald Reagan had been sworn in as the fortieth president nearly a quarter century earlier, another twenty-one-gun salute sounded and six strong servicemen slowly carried the 700-pound casket up the ninety nine steps to the Capitol. Each step was perfectly timed, perfectly coordinated.
The casket was placed in the Capitol Rotunda, perhaps the most ceremonial and dignified space in all of the United States. It rested on a pine bier constructed for the casket of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, and dignitaries and honored guests gathered to give eulogies. Nancy Reagan, dressed in black, paused at the coffin, draped with an American flag, rested her hand on it as if she were smoothing out a wrinkle, and leaned over to kiss it gently. Before turning away she whispered a few words only known to her. Slowly she and the others left, leaving the leader with only his honor guard standing at perfect attention.
Then the doors opened, and a stream of ordinary Americans filed in. Until the casket moved onto the National Cathedral two days later, they would continue to file past. Thousands upon thousands of people, who traveled thousands of miles or traveled a few blocks. They filed slowly through long lines, often waiting for four to six hours in unbearable heat, and finally through the marble corridors of the Capitol and into the Rotunda. Silently filing past the flag-draped casket, paying their last respects, each had a story to tell, a journey to recount, a reason for coming. Mostly, they loved Ronald Reagan, and just came to say goodbye.
On Thursday the world leaders, friends and adversaries, the people Reagan had known and dealt with as president, came to pay their respects to Nancy Reagan. She was at Blair House, the presidential guest house across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. First came Margaret Thatcher, now seventy-eight and in failing health. To call her relationship with Reagan special would be an understatement. Thatcher and Reagan shared the convictions of committed conservatives -- free markets, economic decentralization, peace through strength, anti-Communism and traditional values -- and their convictions were at the heart of their leadership. Thatcher, who had been known as the Iron Lady, walked slowly now. She comforted Nancy Reagan, and in the leather-bound condolence book quoted from the parable of the talents from Matthew’s Gospel: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
Next came Mikhail Gorbachev, now seventy-three, accompanied by the translator who had served him at five summits with Reagan. Gorbachev had never known quite what to expect from this actor and cowboy from California, but he had discovered that Reagan was no pushover. In their first meeting, in Geneva, on a cold and damp January day, Reagan gained the upper hand as he strode out to meet him without an overcoat, looking healthy and robust while Gorbachev huddled in a long, wool coat, a fur hat pulled down over his ears. Later, in words that resounded around the world, Reagan, speaking in view of the Berlin Wall, said, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” With the Soviet Union now gone, and with Eastern Europe now unchained and free, Mr. Gorbachev had come to wish Nancy Reagan well.
Another visitor was former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, who was also a close friend of both Ronald and Nancy Reagan. He would recall, during his eulogy in the National Cathedral the next day, that once, as he and Reagan were standing together, their wives walking toward them, Reagan had looked at him and said, “You know, Brian, for a couple of Irishmen, we sure married up.”
The Capitol City stopped that Friday, a national day of mourning. As the funeral procession made its way through central Washington and on to the National Cathedral, it passed hundreds of people who had come for a last glimpse, many huddled under umbrellas and rain parkas. Outside a small group of protestors had staked out a position in sight of the cathedral, carrying signs that read “God Hates America” and “It’s Fascism Again in Amerika.” Another read “Reagan’s Legacy = Feeding the Greedy, Not the Starving.”
Inside, Ronald Reagan was eulogized, remembered, and praised. Among the 3,700 invited guests sat each of the living ex-U.S. presidents, twenty-five heads of state, and eleven former heads of state; 180 ambassadors and foreign ministers, countless heads of large corporations, power brokers of every sort, journalists, and friends. For more than two hours of eloquent prayers, choruses, organ music, and testimonials, Ronald Reagan was mourned and remembered.
Margaret Thatcher, in a eulogy taped months earlier, when her voice began to fail, said, “He had firm principles and, I believe, right ones. He expounded them clearly. He acted upon them decisively.” “Others saw limits to growth,” Thatcher observed, but Reagan “transformed a stagnant economy into an engine of opportunity.” And on Communism Thatcher said, “Others hoped for an uneasy cohabitation with the Soviet Union,” but it was Ronald Reagan, she reminded the mourners, who had won the Cold War when it seemed lost to détente: “He sought to mend America’s wounded spirit, to restore the strength of the free world and to free the slaves of Communism.”
Thatcher continued: “He did not shrink from denouncing Moscow’s ‘evil empire.’ But he realized that a man of goodwill might nonetheless emerge from within its dark corridors... And when a man of goodwill did emerge from the ruins, President Reagan stepped forward to shake his hand and offer sincere cooperation.”
That man was, of course, Mikhail Gorbachev, who was seated nearby, as was Lech Walesa. One could not help but wonder what might have gone through their minds.
If the former prime minister hadn’t made the point, President George W. Bush did:
. He acted to defend liberty wherever it was threatened....When he saw evil camped across the horizon, he called that evil by its name. There were no doubters in the prisons and gulags where dissidents spread the news, tapping to each other in code what the American president had dared to say. There were no doubters in the shipyards and churches and secret labor meetings where brave men and women began to hear the creaking and rumbling of a collapsing empire. And there were no doubters among those who swung hammers at the hated wall that the first and hardest blow had been struck by President Ronald Reagan.
President Bush also spoke of Reagan’s ideals, his grace, and his religious faith, and praised Reagan for his role as the leader of the modern conservative movement.
Former Senator John Danforth, an Episcopal priest, officiated at the ceremony. He spoke of the Sermon on the Mount.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid." It was his favorite theme, from his first inaugural address to his final address from the Oval Office. For him, America was the shining city on a hill…If ever we have known a child of light, it was Ronald Reagan. He was aglow with it. He had no dark side, no scary, hidden agenda. What you saw, was what you got. And what you saw was that sure sign of inner light, the twinkle in the eye. He was not consumed by himself. He didn't need to be president to be a complete person. The only thing he really needed was to be with his wife.
After all was done the cathedral’s deep Bourdon bell rang forty times to mark Ronald Reagan’s place in presidential history. The military pallbearers, in their best dress uniforms, slowly carried the casket to the great west door of the cathedral, where it would be taken back to Andrews Air Force Base and, for the last time, to the California coast so beloved by Ronald Reagan, where he would find his final place of rest.
Ronald Reagan restored faith in America. He put the red, white, and blue back in the flag. He reaffirmed the validity and vitality of the American Dream. There were other accomplishments, to be sure, but that was his enduring claim to greatness and his greatest legacy.
When he was elected president in November 1980, the United States was in the depths of the worst economic recession since World War II. The financial state of the nation was measured by a misery index, and inflation, interest rates, and unemployment were in the double digits and at all time highs. When he left, eight years later, the country was experiencing the greatest sustained economic expansion in the century. Reagan’s fiscal policy, at first derisively called “Reaganomics,” had as its centerpiece a massive tax cut, which Congress enacted in 1981. That tax cut was enormously successful, just as predicted by his conservative economists. It was conservative fiscal policy at its best.
When Reagan entered office in 1981 the Soviet Union was continuing its quest for world domination. He confronted the Soviet Union at every turn, and did everything in his power to accelerate its fragmentation. In what has become known as the Reagan Doctrine, the United States supported anti-Communist insurgents, wherever they might be. President Reagan announced, early in his presidency, a massive buildup of U.S. forces and nuclear weapons and vowed to roll back the “Evil Empire,” breaking the forty-year doctrine of “containment.” Hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops were in Afghanistan. He sent over $2 billion in covert aid, sophisticated weapons, and covert advisors to help the Afghan freedom fighters resist the Soviet invaders. Soon after he left office, the Russian troops left Afghanistan, defeated and in disgrace. Within a year after of leaving Washington Soviet Communism was beginning to crack, and soon thereafter the it disintegrated. Not one shot had been fired.
He had presided over what became known as “the Reagan Revolution,” and inspired a generation of conservatives who today hold countless elected offices and government jobs, and who dominate every aspect of the Republican Party to this day. Political analyst Michael Barone has concluded that more Reagan Republicans won congressional seats in 1994 than when he was president. In fact, “Reagan Republican” has become a term of art within the political world. Although few ‘Roosevelt Democrats” may exist, no other twentieth century president has been so honored.
Even Reagan’s political adversaries -- Democrats, liberals, former political opponents -- could find few bad things to say about the departed president, and some even begrudgingly praised him -- something which, as we will see, was inconceivable a few years earlier. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., for example, the dean of American liberalism and one who had been consistently critical of every conservative idea and principle, said, “It is probably true that Reagan’s intensification of the arms race...hastened the collapse of the Soviet economy. In a reversal that did him enormous credit, he...outdistanced his own national security bureaucracy in taking Mikhail Gorbachev seriously and in moving to end the Cold War.”
Yale Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis, a consistent Reagan critic and a liberal, said:
Historians are taking Reagan much more seriously...There are very few who would still say what most were saying when he left office, which is that he was a cipher when it came to foreign policy. He was much more of a force than people gave him credit for at the time...Consider the way things were when he came into office and the way things were when he left – totally different. The Berlin Wall came down less than a year after he left. The fact alone means we have to get over our preconceptions about this guy and acknowledge that something substantive occurred.
Ronald Reagan’s success was the success of the ideas he believed in, and those ideas were the ideas of the conservative movement. They were ideas that had filled books and countless articles, and Reagan applied them to political problems. Peter J. Wallison, Reagan’s White House counsel, said, in talking about the president’s steadfast belief in principle, “The economy did not surge ahead because of one man’s optimism, and the Soviet Union did not collapse from force of personality. It was his ideas that ultimately account for his success. Reagan said he was not a great communicator, he said instead that he communicated great ideas.”
Ronald Reagan was a conservative first, and a Republican second. His administration was the realization of the dreams and the work of hundreds of thousands of conservatives who had labored for decades to turn their ideas into policy. Anti-Communism, traditional values, and free markets were his watchwords, were his campaign promises, and were the principles that his administration used as the foundation of its policies. It was the work of Russell Kirk, of William F. Buckley Jr., of Milton Friedman, of Friedrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, of James Burnham, Whittaker Chambers, Henry Regnery, Frank Meyer, and countless others. As President Bush said, in his eulogy of Ronald Reagan at the National Cathedral, “In the space of a few years, he took ideas and principles that were mainly found in journals and books, and turned them into a broad, hopeful movement ready to govern.”