Why Ronald Reagan Still Matters

Even in death Reagan's words found themselves inserted into an extraordinary week.

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The man who stopped Washington in its tracks two dozen years ago did it again. And not just the traffic. Like a gentle storm, he took charge of a city not known for its generous spirit. The streets of the capital were empty last week largely because hundreds of thousands of "nonessential" federal workers were given time off. Could there have been a more wry tribute to the president who said in his first inaugural address, "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem" ? Plain old Americans took center stage, lining up for hours in the thick heat to troop silently by the flag-shrouded coffin of Ronald Reagan. They wore Old Navy and real Navy, flip-flops and T-shirts advertising beer. A police officer in dress uniform stopped at the head of the casket to snap off a last salute. "He brought a lot of class to our country," said Nan Kester, who traveled from North Carolina. "He made us proud." For Greg Williams, a lifelong fan who came with his 2-year-old daughter, Sarah Beth, "Reagan put a face on freedom."

The other Washington—the one of public figures, deep thinkers, and pulse takers—was also stopped by the realization that Reagan had grown in his absence. The consensus quickly formed that this improbable politician, who had swept out of the West to the surprise of the wise men of both political parties, had now become a president of great consequence. There were few dissenting voices; this was not a week to debate the fine print. "He was a providential man," said Dick Cheney, "who came along just when our nation and the world most needed him."

And still needed him. Reagan was always the master of timing, and even in death his words found themselves inserted into an extraordinary week in which the United Nations and the United States smoothed over some deep antagonisms that have at their root an ambivalence about and misunderstanding of America's role in the world. The day after his death, TV replayed Reagan's famous D-Day anniversary tribute to the "boys of Pointe du Hoc," who acted, he said, in "the deep knowledge—and pray God we have not lost it—that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest." There may not have been full agreement, but there was full clarity when George W. Bush eulogized Reagan: "He believed that America was not just a place in the world, but the hope of the world."

Both the style and the substance of Reagan were inescapable as the tributes unfolded with one-take precision. This was, after all, a man whose Lincolnesque state funeral was attended by revered Baroness Margaret Thatcher, teetering Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and former talk show host Merv Griffin. No one could say the Gipper hadn't left his mark on America and the world.

Except, perhaps, Reagan himself. In his farewell address from the White House, Reagan minimized his own role. "I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn't spring full bloom from my brow; they came from the heart of a great nation." It was the same sentiment he expressed in his final words to the nation, a courageous letter he wrote a decade ago when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. "When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future. I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright new dawn ahead."

Perhaps he was thinking of that moment when he told his wife, Nancy, that he wanted to be buried on a California hillside as the sun set over the Pacific Ocean. When he played his final scene on Friday evening, there wasn't a dry eye in the house.