Of all the stirring images from this month's farewell and funeral for Ronald Reagan, none may be more enduring than this: five presidents, sitting in church pews, bent in prayer for one of their own.
The death of a president is always a poignant moment. It is the rare time in our civic life when remembrance trumps recrimination, when reflection and reconciliation prevail. It is a reminder, too, of the special burden of the presidency, and of how the 43 men who have shared that burden have shared a special bond as well.
Presidential reunions are rare, coming only at the opening of presidential libraries and at funerals. One of the most striking glimpses of the Kennedy years comes from a picture taken at the funeral of House Speaker Sam Rayburn. Crammed into a North Texas church were three presidents (Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy) plus a man who, on another day in Texas in another year, would become president himself (Lyndon B. Johnson). One of the most affecting images of the Reagan years came at Andrews Air Force Base in 1981 shortly after the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. There, in the twilight gloam, were three presidents entering the familiar silver-and-blue aircraft for the trip to the Cairo funeral: Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, and Jimmy Carter.
Earlier that evening, remembers Fred Upton, then a young White House aide, President Reagan met solemnly with Messrs. Nixon, Ford, and Carter, and he remembers Mr. Reagan ushering the three to the South Portico for the brief helicopter ride to the presidential aircraft. It was, he says, the first time four presidents were ever captured in the same picture.
"These men - the former presidents - are a symbol of the country's past but also a symbol of its unity, " says Mr. Upton, a Republican congressman from Michigan. "They've beaten each other up, but when they get together you see that they all, in their own way, put the country first."
The gathering in Washington National Cathedral this month was, along with the funeral of President Nixon, one of the rare times that five presidents have ever been seen together.
The Reagan rites were a serious occasion, but there were a few light asides, and in their lightness they were illuminating. It was at Mr. Reagan's funeral that the first President Bush and President Clinton shared a laugh. This is more telling than it may appear.
Ponder this for a moment: Mr. Clinton's victory in 1992 came at the expense of Mr. Bush's re-election effort. Mr. Clinton was succeeded by Mr. Bush's son. Throughout the 1990s, the elder President Bush made no secret of his contempt for the way his successor comported himself in the White House.
And yet this month, both Bushes spent time - enjoyable time - with the man whose presidency was squeezed between theirs. Just last week, President Bush the younger invited Mr. Clinton to the White House for the unveiling of the 42nd president's official portrait. Mr. Bush saluted his predecessor for "far-ranging knowledge of public policy, a great compassion for people in need, and the forward-looking spirit Americans like in a president." Mr. Clinton thanked the President for "all those kind and generous things you've said." The men believed what they said.
There were multiple messages from the memorial week for President Reagan. One of them was how the passing of time dulls the partisan rivalries and political wounds that once seemed so toxic.
In life, Mr. Reagan was a figure of contention, his critics believing he was disengaged and unfeeling and the more strident among these critics contending that he deliberately favored the interests of the rich over the appeals of the poor. In death, Mr. Reagan was a figure of peculiar political and moral power.
That phenomenon helps underline an important aspect of the American presidency since the nation came into maturity: The remarkable thing about America's modern presidents is how remarkable they were, even those who fall short of the historians' highest estimation.
Mr. Carter and Mr. Ford seem the smallest to us now, perhaps because their presidencies are the furthest away, perhaps because they served during a time of peculiar tension for the nation.
But Mr. Carter will be remembered, along with another reviled president, Herbert Hoover, as among the finest ex-presidents the country ever had. When he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, there were no wisecracks about cardigan sweaters or gas lines or malaise, only words of admiration for his efforts to promote democracy around the world and justice at home. And Mr. Ford, whose presidency occupied just a speck in a troubled time, will be remembered for six words ("our long national nightmare is over") and for the way he helped heal the nation after Watergate. When Mr. Ford received a Profile in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Library in 2001, no one made caustic asides about golf balls and football helmets.
Think about America and its presidents and you may conclude that they all seem inevitable and indispensable, even by many who didn't vote for them, didn't support, and still don't like them. Try imagining America without the quiet courage of Mr. Ford, the moral power of Mr. Carter, the uplifting optimism of Mr. Reagan, the stubborn pragmatism of the first President Bush, the commitment to diversity of Mr. Clinton. The United States may not always have been lucky in its presidents, but it has been fortunate in the legacy of its former presidents. Our inclination is to say thanks for the memories. We should instead say: Thanks for the legacies.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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