An Ode to Ceremony

The first instant message of 2007 came up on my screen just after midnight. It said, “Noony there is much love in the world.” I immediately thought this must be a lovely drunken person, but it was from a journalist broadcasting the festivities in Times Square. He’d been watching a live feed in his studio, and the sight of all the young people massed before the camera—“beautiful full of joy full of hope”—suddenly brought tears to his eyes, and he was taken aback. As I read, tears came to mine.

Why do they mass in Times Square and count the New Year in? There are no symposiums on this question, but I believe the answer is: to gather and mark something big beginning, to share a sense of expectation. If you had a bad year, it’s over, change is on the way—“Five, four, three, two”—and if you had a good year you’re on a roll—“one!”

They do it to start out on the right foot, with a cheer.

It’s not just an event, it’s a ceremony.

*   *   *

A few days later, the great state funeral of Gerald Ford. I didn’t plan to watch it, but every time I saw it I couldn’t stop. Why do we do this, dust off the pomp and circumstance and haul out the ruffles and flourishes? It’s not only to mark a death, even of so respected and highly charged a figure as a former president. Why do network television chiefs and newspaper editors decide not to leave the story until it’s over, even when from day one it seems stale?

Because it’s not stale. We’re renewing.

The Marines snap their salutes and bear the flag-draped coffin up the marble steps and we hear the old hymns—“Going Home,” “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” “The Navy Hymn”: “Oh hear us when we cry to thee / For those in peril on the sea.” We don’t hear these songs much in modern life, only at formal occasions like this. We lock them in a closet until a state funeral, and then they come out and we realize how much they meant, and how much we miss them.

The ministers speak of God’s grace and ask him to welcome his humble servant home. Which suggests, and in a formal state occasion, that there is a God, a home, a soul. The eulogists speak of the wonders of the human personality, and of a specific and particular life in the long continuum. They praised Ford’s honesty, his modesty, his patience. They said he always put himself second. They said he loved his country. In doing so they reminded us that effort is rewarded, patriotism is praised.

We do all this to remind ourselves who we are. We do it to remind ourselves what we honor, and what we believe, as a nation and a people. We do it to remind ourselves that America yields greatness, that here a seemingly average man raised in decidedly average circumstances can become someone whose passing deserves four days of a great nation’s praise.

Praising these things reminds the old of what it is we should be aiming for each day, and instructs the young on the elements of a life well lived.

We do it to make the picture broader for a moment, and free ourselves of our cynicism. And we do it finally to enact what so many feel and rarely say, not only because it’s corny but because if you mean it, it’s beyond words.

*   *   *

Ford’s was the most human of presidential funerals. Maybe because the Fords wanted so little done, so insisted on modesty, all that was done was genuine and sincere, and perfect. The Ford kids, now middle-aged, seem to be genuinely close, and love their mother. The old guard, those soft old faces with soft gray hair, looked genuinely moved. And Jimmy Carter’s remarks were wonderful. He and Gerald Ford spent 1976 beating each other’s brains in. It was a sharp and personal campaign. And here he was speaking of “the intense personal friendship that bound us together,” as Rosalyn Carter wept in her pew.

Good for them. Good for all of them. Such affection and dignity isn’t only about them, it continues the long and very human line of old political enemies who came to see each other’s humanity, and then see beyond that. “Jefferson still survives.”

It is a tricky thing. No one likes the buddy-buddyness of the elites. But we are all moved to see that foes who fought bitterly but meant well can in some way find common ground.

At the end, at the gravesite in Michigan, a military officer, in accord with old tradition, folded the flag and marched it softly to the vice president, who then walked it over to Betty Bloomer Ford, who took it in her hands and quietly brought it to her lips.

Oh, it was beautiful. A friend who wasn’t much impressed by Ford or the ceremonies emailed me. “I’m bawling,” she said.

*   *   *

Nancy Pelosi taking the gavelTime moves, life moves, we grow older together. And now a new era begins, and with another great ceremony. As I write, a new Democratic speaker of the House is about to be sworn in. The great hall of the House is full and teeming—members have brought their children in brightly colored dresses and little jackets and ties. Nancy Pelosi in a russet suit and pearls is standing, laughing and holding a grandchild.

Now a clerk with a high voice is reading, “Therefore the Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi is duly elected . . .” and the House has erupted in cheers. She is escorted to the back of the chamber. And now the first woman to lead the House of Representatives is being handed the gavel by John Boehner, the leader of the opposition. He kisses her. She holds it high. And now she speaks. “I accept this gavel in a spirit of partnership . . . for the good of the American people.” “In this House”, she says, “we may be different parties but we serve one country.”

And so again we remind ourselves who we are. We “show an affirming flame.” We are a great republic and a great democracy. We are a great nation and a great people. We peacefully—gracefully—pass power from one group to another. And we start this new time on the right foot, with a cheer.