E Jane Dickson: From homespun hero to philosopher king

Even for those disinclined to look back on a Reagan golden era, death cancels all debts

Share

"You can tell a lot about a fellow's character by his way of eating jelly beans," said Ronald Reagan. It was one of his more gnomic pronouncements, but it kind of summed him up. Reagan, with some reason, was not a man who took himself too seriously. Here in America, though, revisionism sets in with rigor mortis. In the five days since his death, the 40th president has been elevated from homespun hero to philosopher-king, a towering moral figure somewhere between Gandalf and The Wizard of Oz.

"You can tell a lot about a fellow's character by his way of eating jelly beans," said Ronald Reagan. It was one of his more gnomic pronouncements, but it kind of summed him up. Reagan, with some reason, was not a man who took himself too seriously. Here in America, though, revisionism sets in with rigor mortis. In the five days since his death, the 40th president has been elevated from homespun hero to philosopher-king, a towering moral figure somewhere between Gandalf and The Wizard of Oz.

The four-mile tailback on the road to the presidential library in Simi Valley, California, where Reagan lay in state prior to his removal to Washington, was a peculiarly American tribute. Traffic crawled, at cortège speed, under freeway overpasses hung with 'God Bless The Gipper' banners and supersize American flags. The drive-thru culture is unadapted to queueing. Yet, to a man, the mourners emerging from their turn around the former president's catafalque pronounced it a privilege to wait nine hours in line for their two-minute tryst with history.

The 24-hour television coverage of the occasion is the background drone to every conversation here. Politicians play musical chairs with Hollywood celebrities round the interview table on Fox and, as I write, a CNN announcer is assuring viewers that the riderless horse who will lead the funeral procession "seems already to understand the solemnity of the occasion". But the main television event is undoubtedly the file-past of the public. A president's death is something to dress up for; draped in black or festooned in Yankee Doodle red, white and blue, the people shuffling round Reagan's coffin are keen to show sartorial respect. Sure, there is a certain amount of mugging to the media: it's hard not to be reminded of the Pop Idol prelims as you watch the small, studied ceremonies, the halting genuflections and hand-on-heart salutes to the flag. But the tears are real.

On the street, there is no holiday expectation for the National Day of Mourning announced for tomorrow; rather a widespread commitment to participate in the sombre proceedings. Whatever the rest of the world may think about Reagan, however bizarre to cynical Brit sensibilities, Americans really care about their dead president.

For those of us whose political conscience was formed in the early Eighties - when every student bedroom in Britain boasted its Gone With The Wind poster of Margaret Thatcher wilting in Ronnie's manly embrace - Reagan was everything we despised, and feared, about America: a trigger- happy Rhinestone Cowboy twirling his guns. We feared him, so we laughed at him, and, God knows, he gave us the breaks. America, however, was more inclined to laugh with him than at him - again and again, in the official tributes, and the vox pops, it is Reagan's breezy New World optimism that is celebrated.

Even for those disinclined to look back on Reagan's office as a golden era, death cancels all debts. A friend here in Georgia, a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat attorney, puts it this way: "We've had time to forgive Ronald Reagan. For us, he stopped being a politician and became a man 10 years ago when he succumbed to Alzheimer's. Sure, it's scary to think that he was suffering from the disease when he was still in office, but that's not something you can hold against him now. And, whatever else he was, he was our elected president. Of course, we feel diminished by his death."

For their part, Americans simply do not understand the British lack of respect for our democratically elected leaders. When Tony Blair arrived in Georgia for the G8 summit on Tuesday, strangers passed the happy news to me, convinced that I would want to wave a Union flag outside his compound. Many of those who turned up to watch the arrival of the President on Sea Island are fiercely opposed to the policies of George W Bush, but they still turned out for him. Why? Because, as I have been told a dozen times in tones reserved for the intractably dim, "He is the President of the United States." And for Americans, the office is cherished as much, if not more, than the incumbent.

Some, puzzled by my puzzlement at Reagan's Evita-style obsequies,have sought to equate the Presidency with our Royal Family, pointing to the deaths of Diana and the Queen Mother as direct parallels, and do not understand my hard-faced insistence that neither death affected me personally. But there is a difference. The crowds who hung, weeping, on the gates of Kensington Palace were, for their own complicated reasons, mourning the person, not the Princess. There were no counselling centres set up to help the nation cope with the passing of Princess Margaret, nor would I lay odds on a candlelight vigil for, say, Prince Philip.

Reagan, on the other hand, is mourned as much for what he was - the embodiment of the democratic principle - as who he was. And, over the past few days, I have come to respect America's genuine feeling in this regard. I'm not about to go and lay my jelly babies at the Cenotaph, but I may just shut up a bit about what a dangerous klutz I think their former president was. In my stony British heart, the best feeling I can muster is borrowed from Eliot's The Hollow Men: Mr President - he dead. A penny for the Old Guy.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Production Operative

£13000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to a period of sustained an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Marketing Content Leader

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This role requires a high level...

Recruitment Genius: Multi Drop Driver

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This food distribution company ...

Recruitment Genius: Multi Drop Driver

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This food distribution company ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
George Osborne walks down the stairs from a submarine during a visit to the Royal Navy's submarine base at Faslane on August 31, 2015 in Faslane Scotland  

Sorry George Osborne, but it's Trident that makes us less safe, not Jeremy Corbyn

Kate Hudson
Fighters from Isis parading in Raqqa, northern Syria, where the ‘Islamic State’ has its capital; Iranian-backed Shia militia are already fighting the group on the ground in Iran  

Heartlessness towards refugees is the lifeblood of jihadist groups like Isis

Charlie Winter
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent