Of all the stirring images from this month's farewell and funeral for Ronald Reagan, none may be more enduring than this: five presidents, bent into church pews, in prayer for one of their own.
The death of a president is always a poignant moment. It is the rare time in our civic life when remembrance trumps recrimination, when reflection and reconciliation prevail. It is a reminder, too, of the special burden of the presidency, and of how the 43 men who have shared that burden have shared a special bond as well.
Presidential reunions are rare, coming only at the opening of presidential libraries and at funerals. One of the most striking glimpses of the Kennedy years comes from a picture taken at the funeral of House Speaker Sam Rayburn. Crammed into a North Texas church were three presidents (Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy) plus a man who, on another day in Texas in another year, would become president himself (Lyndon B. Johnson). One of the most affecting images of the Reagan years came at Andrews Air Force Base in 1981 shortly after the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. There, in the twilight gloam, were three presidents entering the familiar silver-and-blue aircraft for the trip to the Cairo funeral: Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter.
Earlier that evening, remembers Fred Upton, then a young White House aide, President Reagan met solemnly with Nixon, Ford and Carter, and he remembers Reagan ushering the three to the South Portico for the brief helicopter ride to the presidential aircraft. It was, he says, the first time four presidents were ever captured in the same picture.
"These men -- the former presidents -- are a symbol of the country's past but also a symbol of its unity," says Upton, now in his ninth term as a Republican congressman from Michigan."They've beaten each other up, but when they get together you see that they all, in their own way, put the country first."
The sad gathering in Washington National Cathedral this month was, along with the funeral of President Nixon, one of the rare times that five presidents have ever been seen together. That's testimony to longer lives and shorter stays in the White House; Clinton and Reagan, for example, were the only two-term presidents besides Eisenhower in the second half of the last century....
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