Because I Am Not Done

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.