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    There’s not much here that’s gonna hold you down

    I was shocked by President Reagan’s death, needless to say; we were so busy getting ready to go to the airport that I didn’t really have time to think about it. The first time I cried was on the plane, when we were over the Equator and I was listening to True Blue–a document of the optimistic, Americana-loving Reagan Era if ever there was one. It was going from “La Isla Bonita” into “Jimmy Jimmy” that got me, the shift from yearning for a utopia in the inaccessible past to affectionately speeding a dreamer on his way to better things. I wasn’t heaving and keening, or anything, but I was glad that most people around me were sleeping with their reading lights off.

    The heaving only started in the last few days, when the state funeral and later the arrival at the Reagan Library were broadcast. I’m never ashamed to be an American, but I’m sometimes embarrassed at the way our forthrightness makes us indifferent to formality or symbolism when it matters. This time it mattered, and things came off beautifully. It may have seemed different for people who were there, but the funeral was perfectly done from the standpoint of television. That’s not a slam: TV is the way public figures communicate with the people now, both at home and abroad. The secondary colors are my favorites, but the red, white, and blue of the American flag have both real dignity and real vitality. Tucked over the casket, all they needed was the field of concentric stone circles to be memorable to the imagination.

    They were also the perfect background for mourners to convey real heartbreak. The Japanese know this: when ceremonial composure is deployed well, you don’t need to go bananas to convey utterly devastating emotion. (Alex Kerr has called this the “flash to the heart” that one gets when an old-school Japanese person uses a turn of phrase, like the sun breaking momentarily through clouds, that exposes his true feelings.) There’s something to be said for the way more hot-blooded cultures wail and toss flowers on coffins, and I’m a great believer in florid displays of emotion. But I broke down when Margaret Thatcher, herself widowed not long ago, stared at the casket as if she’d just lost the last person who Remembered and quietly laid her hand on it. And I didn’t think I would ever stop crying when Mrs. Reagan, in her black clothes and the chunky gold jewelry we all remember on prominent women through the ’80’s, just laid her cheek on the casket and shook. I know she appreciates the people’s love for her husband, but it must have cost her dearly to have to postpone her private grieving for this whole week, even down to the last moment before he was buried.

    I wonder what the rest of the world will see in these broadcasts. Even BBC World, which we had at the hotel, seemed to be limiting itself to saying that Reagan’s policies had been controversial–Aside: Has anyone ever been able to deal with viciously-debated issues in a way that was not “divisive”?–and that he and Thatcher had mostly agreed (its viewers will presumably know what’s implied by that). Since we’ve been back in Japan, coverage of his transport to California and burial has nostalgically emphasized the presence of so many retired foreign leaders at the DC service (Yasuhiro Nakasone was there) and has recounted his role in the end of the Soviet Bloc. That’s understandable. Also not surprisingly, the idea that he restored hope in America is getting less play here, where such things are of less immediate interest. But it might be a better idea for people to pay attention, considering that Americans are questioning the state of the War on Terrorism and could be effected in unpredictable ways by this week-long reminder of the last time they needed buoying.

    2 Responses to “There’s not much here that’s gonna hold you down”

    1. Auntie Mame says:

      The coverage varied, depending on the channel, but Fox News’s coverage was beautiful.
      The people by the side of the road (shutting down an L.A. Freeway–they just PARKED–only an ex-Los Angelian could understand the enormity of that), just got me in my throat.
      The piper got me AND the daughter (who NEVER loses it). When Nancy broke down in the end with her children comforting her? MAN! I don’t think I could breath for 10 minutes.
      It was so special to be invited into that family’s grief and to be able to share it with them. At first it seemed odd–I kept worrying about how we were making Nancy and the kids share their father with us all. But when I heard that Nancy was “stunned” by the people who were lining the roads and showing up to give their respects, it made me feel so proud.
      It’s been an interesting week. I’ve never seen anything like it. It has been like a childhood 4th of July, but with the bittersweet of sadness.

    2. Sean says:

      Being in Bali, especially, made me think about the ceremonial aspect. You know, the way the public discourse considers the rites of other cultures spiritual and connected with nature and anthropologically interesting, while ours are talked about as if they were artificial and reality-dodging and actually getting into them were sort of cheesy. But that stuff is good for people, and it’s nice that there was room for more spontaneous expressions of affection (such as the people lining the streets) in addition. You’re right; it was very uplifting.