He could always draw a crowd. And the long lines of Americans who paid their respects to Ronald Reagan last week demonstrated again his remarkable grip on the public imagination, even though he had been out of office for 15 years and out of public sight for nearly a decade. Yet there were 100,000 mourners in California, another 100,000 in Washington, teenagers in shorts, men in fancy suits, women in summer dresses, fathers and mothers carrying their infants and toddlers as they passed his flag-draped coffin. There were few black or brown faces in those crowds, a reminder that many felt left out of Reagan's world. And while the mourners were respectful and somber, few wept openly, since Reagan's passing, at 93, came after a long twilight fight against Alzheimer's disease.
But thousands felt the need to make a final gesture of solidarity, to connect with him one last time. "He's one of the greatest heroes of the 20th century," said Taryn Solcoff, a 33-year-old financial analyst who traveled from Boston with her mother to the Capitol to watch the funeral procession. "He shaped the way I saw the world."
He had that effect on millions, but what tends to be forgotten is that when the former film star and California governor took office on the unseasonably warm afternoon of Jan. 20, 1981, he was seen by much of the country as a curiosity, an intellectual lightweight, or a dangerous cowboy who might lead the nation to ruin and war. He had defeated Jimmy Carter, in large measure, because of public disdain for his Democratic predecessor's failures and because Americans, frustrated with the status quo, wanted to try something new. Unlike the down-to-the-second choreography that characterized his meticulously planned funeral services last week, the course of his presidency was full of potholes, wrong turns, detours, and unexpected obstacles.
At the start of the Reagan era, many social critics feared that the presidency was too big a job for one person and that the United States was on an inexorable slide from greatness. Inflation and unemployment were in double digits. The nation was still reeling from a series of international embarrassments that reached their nadir in the Iranian hostage crisis, when 52 Americans were held for nearly a year. Oil shortages, symbolized by soaring prices and endless gas lines, had decimated national morale. Life, it seemed, was spinning out of control.
Into these darkling skies, Reagan's optimism struck like summer lightning. "We have every right to dream heroic dreams," he said in his first inaugural address. "We're not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline. I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing."
The attempt on his life came on March 30, 1981, the 70th day of his presidency. When Reagan arrived at George Washington University Hospital with a bullet lodged in his chest, Secret Service agents tried to help him out of his limousine; Reagan waved them off. Slowly, the president climbed out of the car, hitched up his pants, buttoned his suit jacket, and walked stiffly through the hospital doors. Inside, he collapsed to one knee. It was only then, in private, that he allowed the agents to help him. "He believed it was part of the role of the president of the United States to show strength and confidence to the American people," recalls former White House media adviser Michael Deaver. "You never saw weakness."
Yet there were extraordinary tensions at the core of Reagan's presidency. He called America a "shining city on a hill" but showed little sensitivity to the poor, the homeless, and others who needed help from their government. Critics charged that his embrace of laissez-faire attitudes promoted an atmosphere of greed and profligacy. He talked of fiscal sanity but allowed the deficit to balloon, cutting income taxes while he ramped up defense spending. He left the federal government with enormous structural budget deficits and an immense national debt, but still, the economy boomed.