The Only Statue That Is Smiling

“You are there.” The rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, that great, sandstone-walled, light-filled hall ringed with statues of the great of American history—Jefferson, Washington, proud Andrew Jackson in his flowing cape, Eisenhower, U.S. Grant, his eyes surveying the terrain as if he sees something out there in the wilderness. It’s 11 a.m. Wednesday, June 3, 2009, and Ronald Reagan marches in, surrounded by his peers. Actually his newly installed statue is unveiled there, in a ceremony attended by officials of both parties (including the speaker of the House and the leaders of the minority), his wife, Nancy, and a few hundred of his friends, appointees, staffers and cabinet members. It was standing room only.

The mood: mellow, proud and modest with the increased modesty of age. “How lucky was I to walk into history when Ronald Reagan was in the room?” The speeches ranged from the heartfelt to the appropriate, with two (James Baker and Mrs. Reagan) being outstanding. It is usual, after formal ceremonies with their frozen rhetoric, to come away feeling that no cliché was left untouched. In some cases here they were quite thoroughly molested, but no matter. The general feeling was that Ronald Reagan restored America to itself, and that’s what people more or less said.

It was a great day and almost a decade in the making. Each of the 50 states is allowed two statues in the Capitol, they are sometimes but not frequently changed, and the changing process is complicated: Both chambers of a state legislature must vote, the governor must agree, the federal government is petitioned. A California congressman told me the hardest part was explaining to the people who the man being replaced was. (Thomas Starr King, a Universalist minister; he helped keep California in the Union during the Civil War.)

Unveiling of Ronald Reagan statueThe statue was covered by a blue felt drop cloth. The dignitaries walked to the platform—Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, the Republican senate leader, John Boehner of the House. Mrs. Reagan walked slowly onto the platform in a bright white suit. At public events Mrs. Pelosi always tries to look engaged, a pleasant half-smile on her face. This is a courtesy women in their middle years unconsciously give to the world. It is precious and largely unremarked. You see it on the street in small towns. Mr. McConnell had a good speech. Rather than recite a history lesson, he said, he’d note that in the 1980s, when the world said America was over, America said not quite, and when they said freedom was yesterday, America said I don’t think so. Reagan “stood taller than any statue.”

The colors were presented. The U.S. Army chorus sang the national anthem so beautifully, with such harmonic precision and depth, that some dry eyes turned moist, including those of the crusty journalist to my right. Congressmen hear choirs sing patriotic songs all the time and grow used to it. The rest of us do not and are stirred. Tourists walk through the Rotunda and think to themselves that they’d die for the signs and symbols of this place. Lawmakers experience the Rotunda as a connecting point between House and Senate that’s too often clogged by overweight tourists in shorts from Bayonne. We need term limits. When the music no longer moves you, you should leave. When you cannot leave, you should be pushed.

James Baker, who served as Reagan’s Treasury secretary, was elegant in his remarks. To Mrs. Reagan he said, “You created that secure space from which he ventured forward to change the world.” And, “If anyone deserves to be in Statuary Hall it is Ronald Reagan,” a “principled pragmatist” who would fight for the right, push hard, get the best deal possible, accept it at a crucial moment, “declare victory and move on.” The Reagan that Baker presented was a romantic who lived in the real. The nation said goodbye to him when he lay in state in the Rotunda five years ago, but he stands now “a silent sentry in its hallowed halls.”

Mrs. Reagan had a bit of a one-minute masterpiece. Her face said it all. It was her first time in the Rotunda since her husband lay in state. History had come to endorse what she and her husband’s supporters long thought: that he was great. “The statue is a wonderful likeness of Ronnie, and he would be so proud.” And at the end she said, simply, “That’s it,” and the crowd erupted in applause. She turned, helped pull the big blue drop cloth down, and there he was. That was his posture, that was the way he held his arms as he walked, that was the two button suit. The Gipper will be the only statue in the rotunda that is smiling. (In Statuary Hall, Will Rogers bears a look of wry amusement.)

Mrs. Reagan looked up at the statue, leaned forward, patted the right knee, and wiped her eyes.

The sculptor, 42-year-old Chas Fagan, was in college when Reagan was in the White House. Mrs. Reagan, he said, had input. She wanted a “positive, upbeat visage.” Mr. Fagan studied pictures, campaign videotapes and old films of the president making speeches, telling jokes. A smile on a statue can look frozen; he wanted to get Reagan on the way to a smile, the moment before it is “fully expressed.” He worked on the model in the Reagan library. It was made from clay and then translated into bronze, with a high patina. “He’s in his brown suit again,” Mr. Fagan laughed.

*   *   *

That night there was a candlelit dinner in Statuary Hall. Mrs. Reagan told me of being in the Rotunda again, after five years. “That was hard,” she said in a soft voice. A line of well-wishers spontaneously formed around her chair, and she greeted senators, governors, former cabinet members and old White House staffers by name. She embraced Mrs. Pelosi. There was a lot of happiness at the dinner, but a lot of concern expressed too, privately, about the economy and our security. There was a feeling of well-wishing toward President Obama—it is a difficult world he faces—but concern as to his decisions and direction. Does he understand, fully, all that is at stake in his new approaches to the Arab world? Are we spending ourselves into bankruptcy? Will California’s government be the first terrible test case of the new era?

There were a number of toasts. Ronald Reagan had been rightly lauded all day, but my thoughts were on what a beautiful bipartisan moment we had all experienced, for Republicans and Democrats together had formally embraced the Gipper’s memory, and a Democratic House had made the ceremonies possible. “This is one of those nights when you remember, when the information pierces you, that we are a great nation, a vibrant, peaceful nation of two parties and much bipartisan affection.” My thoughts too were on California, the Golden State, where he’d come to full adulthood, where he came first to see himself as a leader as a union president. California, full of pioneers and originals and artists, which was open to him as he entered politics, which elevated him to two terms as governor, and which had sent the statue of its beloved son to grace our Capitol. And my thoughts were on Mrs. Reagan, whose contribution had been summed up by James Baker. Looking back, she made it all possible. Without her there was no him.