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Waiting hours in line for President Reagan

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, September 2, 2004

This liberal Democratic writer stood with thousands of Americans for nearly seven hours to view former President Reagan’s casket lying in state at the Capitol rotunda. Anyone in Washington during the 1980s knows that Reagan never had a mean bone in his body, nor stooped to personal attacks on his political opponents. So in June, for both professional as well as personal reasons, I participated in a unique historical event by standing in line on the Mall and the Capitol lawn from midnight until 6:30 a.m.

It may be out of character for such a Democrat to mingle with the loyal legions of Reagan followers. Certainly, I will no time soon attend another Republican’s funeral. The contrast of Reagan with today’s politicians is striking, especially after watching the Republican convention this week. Senator Zell Miller and Vice President Dick Cheney spoke in vicious, personal, ascorbic, visceral untrue straw man issues against Democratic presidential nominee Senator John Kerry.

Two decades ago, I opposed almost every Reagan policy. Reagan, like President Kennedy, has been idolized far beyond the man’s public accomplishments. In hindsight, I believe that today’s terrorists first perceived our nation as militarily weak when Reagan responded to the deaths of more than 250 U.S. troops in Lebanon by withdrawing the remaining soldiers. Many forget how Reagan turned inward and almost retreated from his engaging self after the Iran-Contra arms for hostages affair became public. Even Reagan’s son, Ron, acknowledges the change in his father.

Nobody should fault human frailties, but they should serve as a reminder that Reagan was at times not larger than life. Those who advocate renaming buildings and airports or stamping his image on currency should pause to face the facts. Yet despite all of my disagreements with Reagan, I joined a friend, a glossy-eyed Reagan worshiper in his late twenties, and stood until my legs ached to pay my respects in the procession past his casket.

In 1980, Congress and the executive branch played a cat and mouse game. It was a time when political parties left dissent at the office door as Democrats and Republicans treated each other as the loyal opposition during office hours but socialized as friends during the evenings. I worked as a legislative director at the U.S. House of Representatives for a committee.

Reagan appointees blatantly disregarded the law by refusing to fund certain programs in favor of lumping the moneys into block grants. If the committee requested documents for a hearing, seven boxes of documents arrived at close of business on the evening before the hearing. On several occasions I would scour through the papers until 7 a.m., go home to shower and return for the 9 a.m. hearing. It was frustrating, but not rancorous.

Reagan championed tax cuts, but also recognized that deficits were ballooning beyond comprehension. Many forget that during Reagan’s eight-year term, he signed into law 13 “revenue enhancements,” better known as tax increases. He explained that he needed to fine-tune the cuts. To his credit, Reagan foresaw the enormous harm deficits would wreak on the economy and tried to manage them.

Granted, Reagan bankrupted the Soviet Union leading to the collapse of communism. I salute his optimism and uplifting personality that elevated our national spirit in a time of trouble. Yet, I resent that his supporters tried to question the patriotism of Democrats, but that has little to do with why I inched through the night with thousands of others along seven blocks to the Capitol.

Reagan was a true professional and one of the last Republican presidents who held no personal grudges but tried to work with his adversaries. For example, during his first month in office, Reagan met in the morning with labor unions who supported him and then with unions who opposed him in the afternoon. He reached out to work with others as much as possible. Unlike the current president who steamrolls his policies, Reagan actually tried to garner consensus.

On a personal level, I found closure for my own father’s passing through the similarities of the Reagan funeral. My father was mayor of our city when he passed suddenly in 2000. My mother is Nancy Reagan’s age and build. With Reagan’s funeral, I finally stepped away from my ordeal by watching the Reagans run on pure adrenaline through a grueling public ceremony like my family had done four years earlier. When Ron eulogized his father, I could finally release my eulogy of my father into the echoes of the past. I only hope that someday soon Ron and his family can experience the same peace that eventually overtakes survivors of high-profile funeral ceremonies.

In retrospect, my nearly seven-hour physical ordeal with my conservative Republican friend was well worth the effort. On several occasions during the overnight hours I told him and a retired Marine in front of us that they both were full of “it,” but our bond in line was always friendly.

While I may have had personal ghosts to exorcise that long night, I was paying tribute to a decent man with no capacity to hate his political enemies. That is the difference between today and 20 years ago. For once upon a time, Democrats and Republicans were friends after work … and the goodwill emanated from the White House. From this liberal Democrat to conservative Reagan, “I disagreed with your policies, but thank you for being my friend one last time from midnight to sunrise in early June.”

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at hottline@aol.com.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.