What I Saw at the Evacuation

June 9, 2004, approximately 5 p.m., U.S. Capitol:

What I was thinking was: Everyone here brought their souls. We are all these physical repositories of ourselves, of our characters and personalities and ambitions. But everybody is a soul, has a soul, and all these people gathered for the funeral of the great man of their lives, and they brought their souls.

I tell you this because it somehow has to do with what followed.

Many, not all, were aging or old. They had run the country 20 and 30 years ago. They had lived lives of import and meaning. But they were not this afternoon their official selves, their old formal selves, but something else.

*   *   *

We were in the Mansfield room, just off the Capitol Rotunda, a big tall gold-trimmed room ringed with old oil portraits of great men—Jefferson, Adams. The ones who made their country. As I stood near the entrance looking out at them, I had a visual memory of a book party long ago, in 1990 I think, in the sizeable outdoor yard of William Safire’s house in suburban Maryland. It was late springtime or early summer. A sudden breeze came up, strong and out of nowhere, and hundreds, thousands, of small petals and pieces of pollen filled the air, and fell upon our heads. Like a benediction. It seemed barely noticed by the busy talkers, who laughed and shook their heads and continued talking. But it was beautiful. God is here.

At the Capitol, there were 100 or so of us in the room, friends and colleagues and co-workers of Ronald Reagan. Air Force One would soon bring back to Washington his flag draped coffin. From Andrews Air Force Base a cortege would take him to the Capitol. The senators and congressmen were already massing in the Rotunda, where they would receive him. There would be a ceremony, and speeches. Then the politicians would leave, and the friends and colleagues of Ronald Reagan would depart the Mansfield Room to enter the Rotunda and say goodbye to the old man we loved, and loved in a way, some of us, that we didn’t even understand until we saw the coffin.

In that room, the Mansfield Room, there was a lot of laughing and remembering. “Remember the time . . .?” “Were you here when they put Jack Kennedy to rest?” Over here Jack and Joanne Kemp, leaders of the 1970s revolution that became part of the ‘80s revolution. Richard Allen, Reagan’s first national security adviser. Judge William Clark, his second. Ed and Ursula Meese, who were there from the early days, in California. Paul and Carol Laxalt—Paul was a senator from Nevada, part of the Western rebellion that lit the country in the 1970s, Carol bubbly as champagne. Jim Miller, Reagan’s budget director, still a big serious man in a big serious suit, and his wife. Bill Bennett, Reagan’s education secretary, and his wife, Elaine.

Jeane Kirkpatrick, dignified, gutsy, with great cheekbones and still-saucy or potentially saucy eyes. Somewhere along the way, I have always felt, she made a decision. She chose to follow the academic and analytical part of her nature—”There is a difference between totalitarian governments and authoritarian governments and we must acknowledge it”—and not perhaps other parts of her inner self, parts perhaps less definitive and constructive, and perhaps more merry. But that kind of decision was true of a lot of people there, and always is when leaders are gathered. The pope felt the promptings of an artist, and followed call. Life is options up to a point, and then it’s decisions made.

Ann Dore McLaughlin, Reagan’s labor secretary, and her husband, Tom Korologos, just back from Iraq for George W. Bush. They stood together looking beautiful. A late marriage; they glowed. Al Haig and his wife. I am fascinated by Mr. Haig. Portrayed as rather too intense in Oliver Stone’s cinematically dazzling and historically demented “Nixon,” Mr. Haig did in fact help run the government as the Nixon administration ended, and helped talk him into resigning when that was the right thing to do for the country. He earned his pride. By the time he was Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state it was clear he did not enjoy what might be called creative chaos in foreign affairs, and his pride at that point was such that he regularly threatened to resign. Reagan was patient, for a while. And then Mr. Haig was gone, and George Shultz, standing right over there, took his place.

Tricia Nixon Cox her husband, Ed, and their son, grown taller now than his father, were there. I said hello. She is a New Yorker, as were many in the group. Her father was the last president before Reagan to die. He did not have a state funeral. He was buried instead in relative quiet, in his beloved California. He had been the first and only president to resign from office, and thought putting the country through a state funeral was the wrong thing to do. In 1960 he had refused to contest an eminently contestable presidential election because he didn’t want to put the country through it, he felt it was the wrong thing to do. Richard Nixon, even when portrayed compassionately, is shown bathed in sweat and resentment. But he had a class—a patriotism—that has not been appreciated and understood. I said to Tricia that I would never forget the last time I saw her father, in a news clip on television, sobbing great racking sobs at the funeral of his wife, Patricia. I had been taken aback by his heartbreak. “Thank you,” Tricia said. “It’s really not known—no one knows how much he loved her, and what a good marriage they had. He adored my mother.” It is a wonderful thing to know that about your parents.

Dan and Marilyn Quayle were sitting over there—he grayer and she unaged, with short, chic hair. Their son studied in China and married a Chinese girl. Everyone talks about globalization and immigration, and these are fine abstractions, but the Quayle family is now part Chinese and the Bush family is part Mexican, and maybe you think that means nothing but it means plenty. Over here in a corner Sen. Pete Dominici watched the TV monitors waiting for Air Force One to land with the Reagans at Andrews. He had tears in his eyes. They were the only unexpected tears I saw that day.

Over here the great Hugh Sidey, historian of presidents, tall and gray. And Gayle Burt, former social secretary for Nancy Reagan and former wife of Richard Burt, of the famous-in-the-’80s two Richards. Richard Burt was at State (squishy! soft! an establishment-loving undersecretary for George Shultz), and Richard Perle was at Defense (hard liner! prince of darkness! Right wing nut!). I watched them both in those days. They had quite a bureaucratic war. And you know what? They were a good team. Maybe they fought each other, but they were a good team, as pragmatist Jim Baker and conservative Ed Meese were a good team, and conservative William Clark and pragmatist Mike Deaver. You know why? Because it all worked. Life is a mess and nothing is perfect and there were zigs that should have zagged, and no one got everything he wanted, but it all worked, and the country profited. You need 20 years of looking back to figure this out.

It was such a coming together.

*   *   *

I was standing looking out the big entranceway toward an arched and high-ceilinged hall. There a beautiful young man in a white jacket was giving my son a ginger ale from a small bar just beyond the doorway. My son—6 feet tall, in his first suit, with a sober tie and cufflinks, also his first—was taking the plastic cup of ginger ale in his hand and talking to a very beautiful woman, Blaine Trump, down from New York with her husband, Robert. I saw them say hello, say my son take the ginger ale when a rude man rushed by and knocked the glass from his hand.

Only he wasn’t a rude man. He was a frightened man, and he was trying to save our lives.

The man walked quickly and heavily and placed himself in the huge doorway of the Mansfield room. He had on a brown wool sports jacket.

“Excuse me! Excuse me!” he barked. The old lions in that room looked at him and turned away. They thought him a functionary sent to tell us the body would soon land in Andrews. They continued talking.

“Quiet! Quiet!” He was ordering us now. I was standing just to his left, and when he said “Quiet” the second time I looked at him. His voice was under control and his face was inexpressive, but his carotid artery, just above his collar, was pounding. As this thought registered—something is wrong—he said, “We are evacuating the Capitol! Now! This is not an exercise! We are evacuating. Leave the Capitol. Now.”

My eyes met my son’s and I gave him the chin up-deadeye look that parents give children to say: I’m coming.

I walked through the doorway and took his arm. In the halls there was running and shouting, scores of people rushing by. Someone in a uniform called out, “Incoming unidentified aircraft, 60 seconds out.”

We were moving now, down the hall and toward an exit onto the great Capitol steps. There someone called, “Aircraft incoming.” George and Charlotte Shultz were behind me, Joan Rivers was over there with Tommy Corcoran. You never know who you’ll die with.

As we moved down the Capitol steps a guard yelled “Run for your lives! Ladies, take off your shoes, run for your lives! Go north. North!”

Ed Meese ran with two new knees—he’d just had replacement surgery. Oatsie Charles, a great Washington social figure, a friend to all for a long time, was in a wheelchair pushed by her grandson Nick, who is at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. When they got to the Capitol steps two cops stood at each side of the wheel chair, picked her up, and carried her down the long steps.

I said to my son, “Hold my hand and don’t let go, we can’t get separated.” About halfway down the steps I suddenly wanted to share some thoughts on history. I slowed a little. I was very angry to be driven from our Capitol by terror scum. My son was too, and said of them words boys don’t normally say in front of their mothers. I wanted to speak to him about the vagaries of history, how it is a wonderful and exciting thing but there are moments when it gives you agita. I literally said “agita,” a word I don’t use much, a word from my childhood listening to the Italians next door. I had slowed my descent, and people were rushing past. This is when a generational transfer of power occurred within my family.

My son turned to me and in a tone both soft and commanding he said, “Mom: Move it.”

And I realized: Yes, son, of course, this is no time for a disquisitions. We ran to the bottom of the steps and toward the street. By now I was thinking that perhaps 60 seconds had passed. I was also thinking: These things are not exactly precise. I thought: I did not expect when I put on my shoes this morning that I might die in them today. I thought: Medium-sized plane, an imperfect hit—our guys are scrambling up there now. Above the dome—we will get it, and it will come down. But if a medium-sized plane hits the Capitol grounds, exactly what happens? That is, how wide the conflagration? How wide the fireball? Would we be safe in the park over there? Where?

A Capitol Hill cop was yelling, “This way, this way!” Another yelled, “Run for your lives!” A Capitol Hill worker, a young heavyset woman in what I think was a cafeteria uniform, broke down in sobs. I wanted to go to her. A friend ran to her and put her arms around her and walked with her. My son and I holding hands and moving fast as we could. I thought of the scene in “Empire of the Sun”—I did not want to lose my son in the melee, and if it came to it I didn’t want him to die alone. People were running and yelling and sometimes screaming.

We wound up in a group—Oatsie and Nick, Robert and Blaine Trump. We met up after a few blocks and surveyed the options. If the plane was going to hit and the plane was carrying bad stuff, nukes or chems or bios, we’d want to be in a big solid place. Union Station, three blocks away. Run for it. Inside is coolness and marble and communications and TVs in a nice cool bar. We all thought: They might bomb the station. I thought: If they’re gonna take out the Capitol with nukes, they won’t bother with the station today.

So we ran there. I heard reports later of pushing and shoving and people falling as the evacuation from the Capitol began. I saw none of this. I saw people running. And I saw Capitol Police standing their ground, directing people toward what they thought was the safe area, and I saw them running toward the Capitol to help people who needed them. I saw nothing but excellence. If these people had been at Pearl Harbor they would have manned the guns. I’ll tell you who else stood their ground: the photographers for the news services and newspapers. Those crazy bastards took pictures of us running and then moved closer to where we were running from to get more dramatic pictures of the last to leave. Shooters, they are something.

*   *   *

We got to the station, got Oatsie and Nick up the right ramps, got into some tall cool bar. We were dripping with sweat, which soaked through OUR shirts. I forgot to tell you it was 92 degrees at 3 p.m. We were heaving from running and catching our breath. The bar had kids and commuters talking on phones and flirting and drinking, they had no idea what had happened we asked that they put their big Jumbotron TV on. When Oatsie was rolled, in she was asked by a waiter what she would like. She said, “I would like a cool, dry chardonnay.” I said that sounded just about right. My son wanted a Japanese beer. He had earned it.

We settled in. I asked Oatsie Charles who was the first president she’d ever seen with her eyes. She said, “Franklin D. Roosevelt.” She told us of him, and of her friend JFK. “He had natural charisma—just natural charm.”

We listened to her stories of history as the drums beat for Ronald Reagan on the jumbo TV. And at that moment on a Sony Jumbotron in a little table in a railroad station bar, we watched the body of Ronald Reagan arrive at Andrews and be met by a car. There were other people there in the bar and they were young office workers, commuters talking on cell phones and flirting and laughing. I got up and went to the bar, I introduced myself and told them we’d been evacuated and now we were watching our friend who we’d loved come home to us from California and I asked if they’d like to join us. I asked if they’d like to join us. They were so wonderful—kind and sweet, and they nodded and lowered their voices. And a few came and turned their seats to join our small group and watch our friend come home.

And so we mourned Ronald Reagan, in a room full of strangers who for once were not strangers, in Union Station, as Oatsie Charles told us about FDR and JFK and what it was like to know history. We were all together. And let me tell you: Our souls were there.