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

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"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.

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