Nancy Reagan was reported to have planned yesterday's national funeral service for her husband years in advance, down to the final details. It played out just about perfectly on television - as prettily as a movie - as Ronald Reagan was honored as a transformative president, the FDR of the second half of the 20th century.
David Gergen, a former communications director in the Reagan White House, noted that Reagan brought ceremonial trappings of office back to the presidency after the informality of Jimmy Carter. "Ronald Reagan wanted to restore the pageantry," Gergen said on ABC News. "He believed in ritual."
And so television crews were in just the right spots to pick up the 21-gun salutes, the honorary pallbearers, the sentries from each military branch, even to catch Nancy Reagan whispering to the flag-draped coffin holding her late husband's body. The theatrical flourishes so famously translated from Reagan's Hollywood to his White House made for the authentic feel of a national service yesterday.
An impressive roster of Reagan administration officials materialized at the national funeral service at the Washington National Cathedral - George Schultz, Al Haig, James Baker - along with such world leaders as Lech Walesa, Mikhail Gorbachev and Kofi Annan. Such big names mingled and greeted one another as though they were alumni at a college reunion.
That's the thing about television - it captures and instantly broadcasts the event itself, tapping into the immediacy and emotion, and then scurries to recover its perspective in order to provide context. It's a dual role that isn't always easy to blend. Before the start of the services, CBS News anchor Dan Rather spoke with solemnity, but he spoke too much, and occasionally came off as a golf commentator describing a particularly tricky chip shot. The evocative images would have been better served by restraint, such as that shown by Fox News Channel's Brit Hume.
CBS-owned WJZ's gaudy logo detracted from the visual elements of the entire service, while WBAL-TV kept its emblem and that of network NBC up in the lower right-hand corner, an unnecessarily obtrusive way to remind viewers incessantly of just who they happen to be watching. (PBS and ABC used near-transparent logos, a classier solution for a tasteless practice.) The cable channels reduced their omnipresent crawls to shrunken banners at the bottom of their screens.
"I think we broke most of the rules of cable television this week," said David Bohrman, Washington bureau chief for CNN. "We tried to be as elegant and as quiet as we could."
Not all the moments were solemn.
Shortly after the service, NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw interviewed former White House Chief of Staff Ken Duberstein, and then moved quickly to a telephone conversation with Tom Selleck, the genial actor and sometime conservative activist. Selleck good-naturedly spoke of having played golf twice with Reagan after he had left the White House. The interview came off as the haphazard booking for an off-night on Larry King Live, not something worthy of funeral service for an influential president.
There appeared to be a split between the majestic treatment granted by television and the swing toward some skepticism found in print in recent days. Those articles noted Reagan's seeming tolerance of South Africa's racist apartheid policies, the killings and abuses conducted by forces supported by the U.S. fighting against leftists in Central America, and the deep cuts in social programs, which were said, by critics, to impoverish many Americans. The New York Times' R.W. Apple Jr. pointedly declared that more time must pass before Reagan's true legacy can be assessed.
Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald cited those and other failings in expressing his anger toward Reagan, who kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Miss. The small city is best known as the site where three young civil rights activists were killed by white supremacists in 1964. "To the degree those things are missing from their analyses, news media have embarrassed themselves this week. They have rewritten history and slapped on a happy face," Pitts wrote. "It's not an issue of respecting the deceased. It is, rather, an issue of telling the whole truth, fulfilling our obligation to write history's first draft."
Reagan's eulogists, especially Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister, attributed the fall of the Soviet bloc in great part to a moral clarity that they said he articulated. It was a theme that many commentators on television have sounded since Reagan's death.
The liberal gossip online columnist Ana Marie Cox, writing on her Web log wonkette.com, derisively referred to the television coverage as "Gipperporn."
But television executives clearly felt differently.
"It's a time for national healing. He was beloved by Democrats who didn't agree with what he was doing," Marty Ryan, an executive producer for Fox News who oversaw the Reagan funeral coverage, said in an interview yesterday. "People are smart enough to know that, like every president, there's something you disagree with. This is not a time to talk about it. You can touch upon it a little bit, but there's more than enough pomp and circumstance to focus on."
CNN's Bohrman suggested the event transcended Reagan. "The last couple of days weren't really as much about Ronald Reagan as about history. A lot of viewers had never been able to experience this before. We wanted to get out of the way so they could feel it themselves and hear it themselves."