When President Ronald Reagan passed away in 2004, I was still living and working in the Baltimore-Washington area. Reagan’s passing triggered something not just in me, but in the whole country.
Reagan was president when I came of age politically. I was too young to vote for him, but like many my age, I saw him as the champion of America. Reagan-Bush ‘84 signs dotted the fruited plains then and are icons of our past now. They even turned up in Stranger Things.
Reagan restored America’s pride after Watergate and Vietnam. Many Americans saw the Soviet Union as ascendant before 1980. He saw it as an evil empire to be defeated. He rejuvenated the economy. He rebuilt the military. And though it officially ended on his successor’s watch, he won the Cold War. His eight years in the White House were important.
Sure, sure, Iran-Contra. He also told the Soviet premier to “tear down this wall” in Berlin. And a few years later, down the wall came, and we witnessed a new birth of freedom with our own eyes. For those who did not live to experience the wall, the Cold War and all that, it is hard to put that astonishing moment into proper words or perspective.
During those eight years, the Democrats opposed everything Reagan did, lobbed every insult at him and suggested that he was a madman who would blow up the world. The media hammered him relentlessly. Comedians mocked him. The Great Communicator communicated. As life goes in these United States, a Republican president in death is treated far better than he ever was in life.
When Reagan’s body lay in state at the capitol, a friend of mine and I decided this moment was worth whatever it took to visit him. He was, for those of us of a certain age, the president. Even though he had been out of office for more than a decade, and had suffered tragically from Alzheimer’s over the final years of his amazing life.
So we stood in line overnight for more than 8 hours, with thousands of other Americans who wanted to pay their respects. Despite the wait, there was no complaining among the more than 100,000 in line. Every minute was worth it. Surely not all of those who stood in line voted for him, supported him, or even liked him. We all wanted to be part of this moment.
This week we said goodbye to Reagan’s vice president and successor, former President George H. W. Bush. The 41st president’s passing marked the final end of an era: He was the last of the World War II generation to be elected president. That generation, the Greatest Generation, defended the world from tyranny and will pass from this earth soon. We lose so much every time a veteran of that war departs us. He could be called the greatest of the Greatest Generation, so rich was his service.
Like Reagan’s passing, Bush’s presented the nation a rare moment of unity. He lived a very full life. Former Sen. Bob Dole movingly saluted Bush’s casket. The two had been rivals within the Republican Party for decades. But time has a way of salving wounds and statesmen such as Dole and Bush eventually come to terms with one another. And they were both veterans of the war. Bush had been shot down over the Pacific. Dole had been left for dead on a hill in Italy. Both carried that war with them for the rest of their days and it informed their public service in ways the rest of us cannot fathom.
In life, Bush was a patriot, a statesman, a father, a husband – a good and decent man who served this nation from his 18th birthday to his last. His career stirred all the usual sturm and drang of politics and culture. Every president has successes and failures – 41 had both David Souter and Clarence Thomas. The media dubbed him a “wimp” despite his being a volunteer for the war and a hero in it. He was vilified and praised, and never deserved the extremes of either. That’s politics in a free republic.
But now that he has gone, for a brief moment this week we were a unified nation eulogizing not just the passing of a man, but a moment in all of our lives. A moment in our nation’s history. We recognize the passing of leaders as a mile marker toward our own mortality, and hopefully, the strength of the nation that survives us.
May we never stop noting these moments. These moments are not, as some surmise, times in which we over-glorify a specific man for specific things. They are times in which we are reminded that we are in fact a people, a nation founded on ideas, ideas which should never perish from the earth.