Reagan heads off into final sunset, but assessment of his legacy is yet to come

He was known as the cowboy president, so it was only fitting that, like all the great mythological figures of the West, Ronald Reagan finished his story by heading off into one final sunset.

He was known as the cowboy president, so it was only fitting that, like all the great mythological figures of the West, Ronald Reagan finished his story by heading off into one final sunset.

Here, in the grounds of his own hilltop presidential library in Simi Valley, California, with its hazy views of the chaparral of the Santa Susana mountains rolling gently towards the Pacific, the long final journey of Ronald Wilson Reagan came to an end in the dying glow of late Friday evening. The military band played the national anthem, "God Bless America" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic".

His widow, Nancy Reagan, stroked the top of his coffin, broke down in tears and whispered "I love you" one last time.

It was, in its way, the perfect ending to a quintessentially American story, a montage of intimately private moments captured by the television cameras and beamed into every household in the country. Reagan, the former film actor who carefully applied the stagecraft and wishful illusion of Hollywood to his career in politics, knew exactly what he was doing when he planned his own funeral ceremonies. In death, it was as spectacular a production as any he had been involved with during his 93 years of life.

The past week of mourning for the country's 40th President has been little short of extraordinary. A contentious, if influential, leader was canonised as a figure of near-infallible wisdom and strength thanks to reverential blanket coverage in the media and noisy adulation of the most ardent Reaganites who, under George W Bush's presidency, continue to occupy the corridors of power in Washington.

For six days, the country was held in a state of political suspension as Reagan's importance was weighed against that of Roosevelt, Truman and even Lincoln. There was talk of carving his likeness on Mount Rushmore, or finding another mountain for him to claim as his own.

In the meantime, his earthly remains underwent a long journey from California, where he died last Saturday, to Washington and back to California again. His state funeral in the capital's National Cathedral - the first in the United States since Lyndon Johnson's death in 1973 - was attended by foreign dignitaries and presidents past and present.

Throughout it all, there was barely a hint of genuine assessment of his legacy. Nobody wanted to examine the social and economic cost of the decisive shift to the right that American politics underwent on his watch: trickle-down economics that didn't trickle down at all, the gutting of social programmes, greater disparities between rich and poor, and so on. There was little talk of corruption, or the criminal indictments against his aides, or the corrosive proxy wars in Central America, or the Iran-Contra scandal.

Instead, we were given the optimistic, genial Ronald Reagan, tough yet generous; a big-picture guy with big ideas whose deep-seated anti-Communism sowed the seeds of the collapse of the Soviet Union. That was the script and no other storyline was allowed to intrude.

True, a group of Central American human rights activists staged a counter-funeral in San Francisco to coincide with Friday's official ceremonies, calling out the names of massacre victims in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua and pinning blame squarely on his administration for training and supporting right-wing paramilitaries and death squads. But even in San Francisco, the one Californian city that never voted for Reagan - either for governor or for president - there was little appetite for such a protest. Barely 200 people showed up.

The country's emotional energy focused, instead, on the images of Nancy Reagan, so overcome by grief and fatigue that she could not walk away from the coffin one final time without being propped up on either arm. It focused, also, on the words of Mr Reagan's three surviving children, Michael, Patti and Ron, who spoke of their father going "home" at last and told eccentric stories about their childhood memories of him.

It was all strange and touching and, superficially at least, apolitical. Both the funeral and burial attracted an eclectic crowd. In Simi Valley, Baroness Thatcher sat next to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Hollywood actors from Tom Selleck to Bo Derek showed up, as did the ice hockey star Wayne Gretzky and lounge singers from Johnny Mathis to Wayne Newton.

The one veiled political comment came from Ron Reagan, and it appeared to be an attack on the current President for his reported belief that he has been chosen by God to lead America through testing times.

"Dad was also a deeply, unabashedly religious man," the son said. "But he never made the fatal mistake of so many politicians -wearing his faith on his sleeve to gain political advantage.

"True, after he was shot and nearly killed early in his presidency he came to believe that God had spared him in order that he might do good. But he accepted that as a responsibility, not a mandate. And there is a profound difference."

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