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Lying in State 

This bier’s for you, Gipper

Thursday, Jun 10 2004
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The handmade banners began appearing on freeway overpasses long before the turnoff for Moorpark College. “God Bless You, Nancy and Ron,” said one. I was heading to view the late president’s casket at the Ronald Reagan Library and, like everyone else, had to inch my way off the 118 toward the school’s parking lots, where buses shuttled people up to the library nine miles away. The 90-minute wait began with people searching for the end of a serpentine line that wound back upon itself several times. Not much to do except drink bottled water given out by the Red Cross or read the L.A. Times, distributed free, or, like each of the five boys in front of me, play with Gameboys.

People took the tedium good-naturedly, and the line shuffled along quite merrily as though heading into a county fair or revival meeting. There were Boy Scouts and kids in strollers, a grandma in a motorized cart accented with leopard-skin print; there were also middle-aged biker couples in buffed leather, old, old men in VFW caps and people wearing Bible T-shirts — one young man came in a dark suit and fedora, holding roses. Planning for this public procession and the Pharaonic pomp scheduled to unfold during the week probably began the day after Reagan’s first inauguration, judging by Monday’s intricate choreography of people, police and transportation.

Still, there was the usual big-event array of puffed-up volunteer cops, clueless reserve sheriffs and campus-parking tyrants. Perhaps most irritatingly, people were informed, just as they finally approached the metal detectors leading to the buses, that they had to take any cameras and camera cell phones back to their cars. (The kids’ Gameboys had already been banished.)

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The truly odd thing, in fact, was the day’s intense security. Reagan, after all, was dead — what could anyone do to him now? Perhaps a terrorist with a Nikon or Super Mario Brothers game could somehow hijack a bus to Fillmore or hold one of the police dogs at the library hostage.

On the bus ride to the library I sat next to an older woman who had emigrated from Poland as a girl — “Legally,” she emphasized, “not like . . . this,” she continued, nodding vaguely to the California that lay outside the bus windows. “I am against that.” Once we arrived, visitors filed into a chamber holding the flag-draped casket, which sat on a mahogany base draped in black; two white roses lay at its base. An intense quiet filled the room, broken only by the scrape of an elderly woman’s walker on the tiled floor and the clicking of a lone photographer’s camera. We had about 90 seconds to walk around the coffin — slightly longer than visitors get to see Lenin’s body in Red Square; some crossed themselves on the way out.

 

“And how would you talk to your kids about Ronald Reagan?” a theatrically earnest Fox TV reporter had asked one mother back at the Moorpark College parking lot. Up until then the mom had been happily chatting with friends, but now, aware of the media, she became serious and spoke of leadership and history — even her kids, who had been running loose, suddenly huddled in front of the camera.

I probably would have given the Fox reporter a different opinion. I might have told her that it was Reagan’s presidency that first truly made me question this country’s sanity — an uncertainty that has never ended. It wasn’t that America had chosen a wrought-iron conservative (that came with election cycles), nor because Reagan had been a movie actor (he and his Republican pals George Murphy and Shirley Temple Black had already broken that ground in the 1960s). Even Iran-contra and Reagan’s indifference to the poor, minorities and people with AIDS had seemed to be the misguided prerogatives of a chief executive who at heart had no heart. What epitomized to me why Reagan was so despicable was his 1985 visit to a Nazi cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, and his earlier bald-faced lie of having been present at a liberated concentration camp during WWII; what made me question the future of America was its response — nothing.

The last quarter-century has seen the rise of the Liar’s Republic, founded when Reagan began reflexively dissembling or because, in the early stages of senility, he had forgotten how to tell the truth. Malarial spin, self-delusion and cynicism are Reagan’s legacy, even if his two terms now seem like a Periclean Age compared with the current administration. Many people imagine that the natural equilibrium of the American heart or of the marketplace of ideas will eventually return the country to some Woody Guthrie–like vision of a generous, plainspoken democracy. That is a fantasy. Every White House from Reagan’s onward has represented a subtraction of the American Dream, a diminishing of our constitutional rights and the moral quality of life we once knew — at best we can only return to a mocking shadow of our past.

After returning to the college parking lot, I walked over to an RV rented as a comfort station operated by Free Republic, the conservative Web site that will soon morph into RighTalk. I asked the group’s president, Bob Johnson, what Reagan’s lying in state meant to him.

“We’re paying respects to a man who fought for the things that are important to us,” Johnson said. “He did so in a humorous, disarming way.”

I inquired because during the 90 minutes I’d spent in line in the parking lot, I didn’t hear a single word spoken about Ronald Reagan. Perhaps it wasn’t necessary, perhaps everyone here shared a telepathic bond about the man who had made government a form of passive spectacle and the electorate a mere audience. The laughing, smiling people who stood in the long lines Monday and Tuesday were no doubt basically good people — they just didn’t want to pay taxes, or care about the environment or other children’s schools. This land was our land, but now it’s their land.


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Photos by Ted Soqui (except where noted otherwise)

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Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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