07 Jun 2009

“He Restored America to Itself”

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James Baker embraces Nancy Reagan at the ceremony

Peggy Noonan commemorates the installation of “The Only Statue That is Smiling” in the Capitol Rotunda, one of Ronald Wilson Reagan.

You are there.” The rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, that great, sandstone-walled, light-filled hall ringed with statues of the great of American history—Jefferson, Washington, proud Andrew Jackson in his flowing cape, Eisenhower, U.S. Grant, his eyes surveying the terrain as if he sees something out there in the wilderness. It’s 11 a.m. Wednesday, June 3, 2009, and Ronald Reagan marches in, surrounded by his peers. Actually his newly installed statue is unveiled there, in a ceremony attended by officials of both parties (including the speaker of the House and the leaders of the minority), his wife, Nancy, and a few hundred of his friends, appointees, staffers and cabinet members. It was standing room only.

The mood: mellow, proud and modest with the increased modesty of age. “How lucky was I to walk into history when Ronald Reagan was in the room?” The speeches ranged from the heartfelt to the appropriate, with two (James Baker and Mrs. Reagan) being outstanding. It is usual, after formal ceremonies with their frozen rhetoric, to come away feeling that no cliché was left untouched. In some cases here they were quite thoroughly molested, but no matter. The general feeling was that Ronald Reagan restored America to itself, and that’s what people more or less said. …

Mr. McConnell had a good speech. Rather than recite a history lesson, he said, he’d note that in the 1980s, when the world said America was over, America said not quite, and when they said freedom was yesterday, America said I don’t think so. Reagan “stood taller than any statue.”

The colors were presented. The U.S. Army chorus sang the national anthem so beautifully, with such harmonic precision and depth, that some dry eyes turned moist, including those of the crusty journalist to my right. Congressmen hear choirs sing patriotic songs all the time and grow used to it. The rest of us do not and are stirred. Tourists walk through the Rotunda and think to themselves that they’d die for the signs and symbols of this place. Lawmakers experience the Rotunda as a connecting point between House and Senate that’s too often clogged by overweight tourists in shorts from Bayonne. We need term limits. When the music no longer moves you, you should leave. When you cannot leave, you should be pushed.

James Baker, who served as Reagan’s Treasury secretary, was elegant in his remarks. To Mrs. Reagan he said, “You created that secure space from which he ventured forward to change the world.” And, “If anyone deserves to be in Statuary Hall it is Ronald Reagan,” a “principled pragmatist” who would fight for the right, push hard, get the best deal possible, accept it at a crucial moment, “declare victory and move on.” The Reagan that Baker presented was a romantic who lived in the real. The nation said goodbye to him when he lay in state in the Rotunda five years ago, but he stands now “a silent sentry in its hallowed halls.”

Mrs. Reagan had a bit of a one-minute masterpiece. Her face said it all. It was her first time in the Rotunda since her husband lay in state. History had come to endorse what she and her husband’s supporters long thought: that he was great. “The statue is a wonderful likeness of Ronnie, and he would be so proud.” And at the end she said, simply, “That’s it,” and the crowd erupted in applause. She turned, helped pull the big blue drop cloth down, and there he was. That was his posture, that was the way he held his arms as he walked, that was the two button suit. The Gipper will be the only statue in the rotunda that is smiling.


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