Jellybeans and Jitters

A nervous capital's farewell to Reagan


Are you staying in a Washington hotel this week? Then you may well have a bowl of jellybeans in your room, in remembrance of Ronald Reagan's fondness for the candy. If there are no jellybeans within reach, then you might try Nancy Reagan's chicken salad, a dish whose reappearance in town has hit the news. I have no recollection of Mrs. Reagan's love for chicken salad, but along with the jellybeans it's been cast as D.C.'s Madeleine for Reagan's '80s.

The atmosphere in the capital for Reagan's state funeral has been a sometimes curious mix of stiff protocol and silliness, of the somber and the nervous. Outsize displays of red, white, and blue flowers in some public lobbies give the city the feel of an inaugural party. Many of those who lined Constitution Avenue for the funeral procession, and who waited to walk through the Capitol Rotunda, appeared to be visitors who happened to be in town anyway. Inevitably, they've given the funeral the quality of a tourist attraction, rather like JFK's eternal flame in Arlington. I've run into a number of such lost tourists who have been in search of the Washington Cathedral (not easy to find from its east, thanks to a confusing street pattern), where Friday's "National Funeral" will take place. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance," one told me happily. On the other hand, the security fence that has been thrown up around the Cathedral itself has helped lend the city the atmosphere of a prison.

Reagan's funeral is, of course, the biggest Washington event since 9/11, and its various acts are all being staged in the shadow of potential terror. For a short time on Wednesday afternoon, that potential was treated as if it had become real. Even as people were gathering near the Capitol in advance of Reagan's caisson, Capitol police started shouting at everybody on the nearby streets to run, and the Capitol was cleared. Apparently, an unidentified plane had entered restricted airspace over the city, and there was immediate concern that it might be targeting the capital. (The plane turned out to be carrying the governor of Kentucky.) Not long after calm was restored, Reagan's casket arrived and was borne up the considerable length of the Capitol's West Front by a succession of casket bearers. The building's East Front, which has far fewer steps and would normally have been used for such an occasion, is currently a construction site; the Capitol itself is being refitted with a big underground "visitor's center" to control access to what used to be a completely open public structure.

Just about everybody in the capital, whether a visiting head of state or a mere local like me, has been caught up in these events. My favorite detail involving diplomatic preparations concerns the attention being paid to visiting Muslim dignitaries. Hotels are not only thoughtfully providing them with prayer rugs, but also with compasses so they can determine which way is east. My least favorite dimension of the proceedings is also their most ubiquitous: the nonstop warnings to the locals to stay off the roads, because a number of the area's major streets will be locked down. I've had to navigate around the area's traffic tie-ups to attend to my family's affairs, and sometimes I could have used a compass myself.

I'm not aware of any grumbling; this is what it is to live in the capital. But is the scale of the funereal pomp really consistent with Reagan's pivotal role as a symbol (at least in his rhetoric) of a small and unobtrusive state? I don't begrudge Reagan a respectful and celebratory send-off; he earned it through his involvement in major, world-changing events. Nevertheless, the very grandness of these proceedings sometimes strikes a note that seems in contrast to the message—of governmental limitations and humility—that was the rhetorical foundation of his own presidency.

Even so, the Reagan family, which planned the funeral (all presidents are responsible for their own funeral plans), deserves credit for using the city well. The hearse's procession from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland took an unusually indirect route into Washington, needlessly crossing the Potomac River twice, because that route is far more scenic than the direct routes into town. The caisson's route to the Capitol down Constitution Avenue was a better choice, visually, than the more familiar route down Pennsylvania Avenue, if only because the collection of Federal Triangle buildings that line Constitution have their impressive entrances on that broad avenue, and their less impressive backs to Pennsylvania. The use of the Capitol's West Front may have been serendipitous, but it added to the collection of unusual capital visuals that also included flyovers and 21-gun salutes. Perhaps it was the Hollywood eye for setting.

The procession even featured a surprise, one provided not by planners, but by the genuine good will of those who stood in the capital's damp June heat to say goodbye. I'd never seen Americans applaud a funeral procession before, and yet the crowds along Constitution Avenue repeatedly broke into spontaneous applause as the caisson bearing Reagan's casket passed.

There are many foreign cultures that applaud at funerals. But because applause seems to undermine solemnity, I've often wondered at its propriety at a funeral. Yet it seemed entirely natural in these circumstances, and—perhaps because it actually did undermine the official solemnity—it even seemed welcome. It softened the official state proceedings with popular affection. That affection was after all the real (as opposed to the rhetorical) foundation of Reagan's presidency, and it seemed entirely appropriate for it to assert itself, spontaneously and unplanned, as part of the capital's own farewell.