Santa Monica, California–a small, exclusive beach town on the edge of the larger Los Angeles–is one of the most left-wing communities in the nation. Years ago people half-jokingly referred to it as the People’s Republic of Santa Monica.
On Saturday the body of Ronald Wilson Reagan, the man most responsible for rendering that phrase obsolete throughout Europe and arguably the most conservative president of modern times, was brought to a mortuary in Santa Monica to be prepared for burial.
My wife and I happen to live in the neighborhood, so on Sunday we visited the elegant Kingsley & Gates Funeral Home–which we had driven past many times before with scarcely a thought–to observe the Reagan family press conference, and to pay our respects.
I came of age politically in the 1980s, and Reagan’s eternal optimism in the face of tremendous opposition made a huge impact on me. But I still vividly recall the rancor and disdain that many liberals exhibited toward our 40th president–not unlike the anti-Bush hatred so prevalent on the left today.
And so I was curious to see what the level of support would be, on such hostile ground. I almost expected to bear witness to loud protesters waving placards and storming the mortuary grounds.
Land here is so valuable that open space is as rare as a Republican in L.A., so the relatively large patch of grass in front of the Tudor-style building stands out in such a crowded neighborhood. The streets around the funeral home were blocked to through-traffic, and police officers stood guard behind temporary barriers.
To my relief, when I arrived at the funeral home, I didn’t see any protesters. I saw a polite crowd of about 200 people gathered in a half-circle around the podium, behind of which stood several men and women in dark business suits–a rare sight in this laid-back beach community. Most of the crowd was dressed in typical casual California wear–shorts, flip-flops, jeans, T-shirts–on the warm, sunny Sunday.
The fountain in front of the mortuary was festooned with flowers, teddy bears, hand-drawn signs, old photographs, unlit candles (security forbade flames, understandably), and of course, jars filled with jelly beans, reputed to be Reagan’s favorite snack.
Speaking to some of the people present, I quickly discovered that most of the locals in the vicinity were there simply out of curiosity, or a vague sense that they were in the presence of history in the making. The spectacle of news vans, streets blocked by police cars, and a full-blown press conference in the neighborhood had exerted an irresistible pull.
I did spot a bare smattering of Republican paraphernalia in the crowd, however, including a USS Ronald Reagan baseball cap on one man and a “Bush-Cheney 2004″ campaign button on a young woman’s polo shirt.
Joanne Drake, the Reagan family spokeswoman, addressed the dozens of reporters who were seated on the grass (presumably so that the banks of TV cameras behind them could get a clear view). Toward the end, as she recounted how grateful she was that at least her children had had an opportunity to meet Reagan before he passed away, her voice audibly cracked, and there was more than one pair of misty eyes in the audience.
Shortly thereafter, Drake declared the press conference over and the reporters fanned out to interview the onlookers. I stood near an unassuming middle-aged man while a reporter from ABC News asked him why he was there.
“Don’t turn the camera on,” he pleaded. “I don’t want to be on camera.”
She assured him it wasn’t on, and after some more prodding, he sighed and spoke.
“I was in the service when Reagan was president, and I appreciated how he restored honor to the military,” he said quietly. “I think that the current occupant in the White House is doing the same thing,” he said, then added, “not that you want to hear that.”
The reporter seemed flustered. “What do you mean by that? I cover the White House, you know, and I talk to people like you all the time,” she responded defensively. “You’d be surprised.”
The interviewee just shrugged. “I don’t know. I just didn’t think you’d really want to hear what I had to say.”
I then observed one elderly woman–with elaborately coiffed, orange-red-dyed hair, clad in a black velvet pants suit and large rhinestone-studded sunglasses–march a little unsteadily but determinedly up to the fountain, and lay down a flower bouquet.
I overheard her proudly tell one of the reporters that she knew “Ronnie” back in the day, when they both worked in Hollywood. She’d obviously spent the entire morning getting ready for her “close-up,” and was going to make the most of it.
I also watched as a small girl, about seven years old, stood grinning proudly before the makeshift memorial, clutching a photograph of the former president with the words, “Thank you, President Reagan” written below it, as a bank of photographers eagerly snapped away.
As a cynical resident of this cynical town, I couldn’t help thinking that this little girl couldn’t possibly know who Reagan was, and must have been put up to it by her conniving mother, who’s probably more motivated by the potential media exposure for her photogenic tot than any political affinity for the Gipper.
Then it struck me that I was thinking in a very un-Reaganesque fashion. Ronald Reagan was nothing if not an optimist.
I gazed around again at the crowd, most of whom seemed genuinely respectful. Maybe there is hope, after all these years, if not for agreement, then at least for acceptance.
My wife and I walked back to our car, as I shook my head and smiled to myself. Even now Ronald Reagan is still having an impact.
–Andrew Leigh is a screenwriter based in Los Angeles.