Politics & Policy

Final Scene

Hail to the chief.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appears in the July 12, 2004, issue of National Review.

A few days before the state funeral for Ronald Reagan, some of his old aides were talking up an idea they thought would show just the right spirit: They proposed that at noon on June 11, as services began at Washington National Cathedral, the flags then at half-mast across America and the world be dramatically raised again. This would symbolize the new beginning President Reagan gave our country, and that optimism for which we should all remember him. It was a case of carrying the good cheer one step too far, though, and happily nothing came of this little inspiration. This was a day for accepting the end of things, and with full honors saying goodbye to, as the opening prayer put it, “our brother Ronald.”

Settling in at the cathedral, I had a fine view of the five American presidents seated up front–our brothers Jerry, Jimmy, George, Bill, and George W.–and it was touching, throughout the service, to see them singing along with the hymns and praying for one of their own. In the spirit of the day, I found myself admiring former President Carter in particular, this good Christian man who at 79 still teaches Sunday school, and who, I suppose, was doing his works of charity long before anyone outside of Plains ever heard of him. Some pleasantries with Al Gore, by chance seated directly in front of Karl Rove, confirmed my impression of a serious man who still lives under a serious burden–although on this day, as on the day he conceded in December 2000, he carried it with a dignity that deserves our respect. You could see Bill Clinton’s good side, too, in the slightly boyish, deferential air he displayed while speaking to Gerald Ford, a man born in the first year of the presidency of Woodrow Wilson–whose mortal remains rest in that very cathedral–and now in the twilight of his own good life.

The funeral itself had all the elegance, beauty, and heartbreaking moments one would expect from the combined wisdom of Mike Deaver and centuries of Anglican tradition. A congregation of 3,800 or so stood on hearing the faint sounds of “Hail to the Chief” and the Navy Hymn from outside, followed by the tapping of a shepherd’s staff carried by the Right Reverend John Bryson Chane, bishop of Washington, and the prayer of reception read by the Reverend and former Senator John Danforth. In the program, the military pallbearers were described as “securing” the casket, and that word perfectly captures the firmness and control of their every step toward the altar and waiting catafalque. They moved just slightly faster than one would have expected, too–perhaps, as I took it, as a sign of being unafraid before death. High-church rituals, I confess, are usually wasted on me, but all of this was truly impressive and beautiful.

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Matthew Scully is the author of Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. A former literary editor of National Review and senior speechwriter to President George W. Bush, he lives in Paradise Valley, Ariz.

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