A Look Backward


Washington, D.C.— Those who were there can never forget the sounds of the horses’ hooves and of the wheels of the caisson carrying John F. Kennedy down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol. The utter silence of the thousands upon thousands of people. The young widow. The two children. The little boy’s salute. The gloom, disbelief, sense of foreboding. How could anyone ever imagine this scene turned upside down into a Hollywood remake?

The elaborate Reagan state funeral may well prove a satisfying goodbye for Nancy, relatives, and close friends. For the Bush re-election campaign managers, it comes as an unexpected gift. This shouldn’t surprise us in an era in which D-Day is compared to the war on terror, Bush Junior (by inference) to Eisenhower, and the occupation of Baghdad to the liberation of Paris.

It was Reagan who first recruited millions of FDR Democrats to the Republican fold in 1980. The funeral gives these people, some of them uneasy over Bush Junior’s presidency, an occasion to see themselves as pivotal players in American history, and to remind them how closely attached they are to the new Republican majority. Why should any of these people want to throw their weight behind the lackluster Kerry? Especially at a time when Bush, down in the polls, once again poses as the liberator of Iraq.

The Democrats who voted for Reagan abandoned the sour, nitpicking Jimmy Carter for the cheerful Hollywood figure, but they also did what the political pros and historians still don’t get. Led by the determined cadres of the “New Right,” they supported a candidate and a plan for a new America with an ideological agenda.

That agenda called for doing the unthinkable: grabbing control of Congress and smashing the New Deal, while leaving a token “safety net” in its place. It was in the early days of Reagan that the homeless began to appear in growing numbers on the streets of American cities, an early sign of the slow process of turning over the functions of the federal government to companies through such ideas as privatization. Reagan practically initiated the concept of turning social welfare over to charitable foundations. All of this was accomplished with the glue of anti-Communism, a shared bond that tied otherwise quarreling factions together—the libertarian-minded Republicans, the anti-feminist crusaders, the Christian fundamentalists. Under Reagan, the government borrowed the concept of guerrilla warfare from the winning side in Vietnam and used it to win a victory over the Sandinistas. Reagan escaped the Iran-Contra scandal without a scratch. For some, Reagan spelled the turning point in the death of the first American republic.