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The rise of mourning in America

In a week of Reagan remembrance, hundreds of thousands pay respects.

Poet Carl Sandburg called President Lincoln's 12-day, 1,700-mile funeral cortege "garish, vulgar, massive, bewildering, chaotic. Also it was simple, final, majestic, august."

"In spite of some of its mawkish excess of show ... it gave solemn unforgettable moments to millions of people who had counted him great, warm, lovable," he wrote.

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Nearly seven score years later, the state funeral ceremonies for President Reagan mark another national moment at a time of deep division. For a week, national politics took a pause. So did an increasingly bitter presidential campaign.

The week of nonstop focus had much to do with the 40th president himself, especially his canonization by fellow conservatives. But the nationwide remembrance also says much about where America is today.

"The nation wants a timeout, and Ronald Reagan's death gives us a timeout to rediscover in this week what holds us together instead of what pulls us apart," says Kevin Starr, a historian at the University of Southern California.

Americans' response this week goes beyond nostalgia for an era before "orange alert," an era of more civility at home and fewer body bags returning from abroad.

It also reflects a nation that appears increasingly inclined toward public mourning - whether by bringing jelly beans and flowers to makeshift shrines or by gathering in living rooms around the "electronic hearth." The impulse rippled across the Atlantic with Princess Diana, cultural experts say, and was magnified by the 9/11 attacks at home. Two new TV shows are even centered on funeral directors.

At a time when shared cultural experiences are often on the lighter side - voting in "American Idol" or viewing a bowl game - this was a chance for the nation to share a deeper moment.

"Mourning does not necessarily express grief," says Barry Schwartz, a sociologist who has written on the Lincoln and Kennedy funerals. "It need not necessarily even express sorrow, but it is a social obligation."

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Indeed, to many watching on television or in sweltering Washington waiting lines, the ceremonies that end Friday are a reminder of the power of presidential rituals to bind a nation together, at least for a while.

That's what brought Cameroon native Emmanuel Tamen to the Capitol Rotunda on a sweltering night to pay his respects to the first president he voted for after becoming an American citizen. He admired the graceful way that Reagan dealt with those who opposed him - a sharp contrast to the "harsh and bitter" politics he sees today.

"He was always a gentleman. It's a quality I thought existed here and I worried that that type of American quality was getting lost," he said. "It's like the last few days struck an old chord, brought old things back. I felt differently the last few days."

That touch of civility resonated on both sides of Capitol Hill this week, as bipartisan tributes replaced partisan edge, if only for a time. Reagan stayed on message his entire political career, and that message was front and center this week. "His leadership renewed the conviction that the future would be better than the past and that America's best days were to come," says House Democratic whip Steny Hoyer.

Not everyone, to be sure, reveres the 40th president. Washington, D.C., native Louise Dixon recalls waiting in lines 30-blocks long to pay respects to President Kennedy after the 1963 assassination. "He was a person for all the people, not just the wealthy," she says. Now a Baptist minister in Fort Washington, Md., she never considered going to the Rotunda for President Reagan. "As far as poor people were concerned, he didn't do a lot for them.... You would think he was God the way they are acting."

But for those who did wait 8 hours in line in Simi Valley, Calif., or burst into spontaneous applause when 105mm howitzers set off a 21-gun salute at the Capitol, something bigger was going on. Such "funerals have to do with the dignity of the nation. Elections are about more mundane things," says Mr. Schwartz.

While the bitter divisions in American politics circa 2004 do not reach Lincoln-era levels, they are much more pronounced than in Reagan's day. Florida's long ballot count, disputes over gay marriage and abortion, and widening gaps over the Iraq war have split the nation at every level, from the courts to the makeup of Congress. More than half of Americans now believe the country is on the wrong track.

"This grief for Ronald Reagan is not somber. It's not the grief of an interrupted life that attached itself to President Kennedy. It's more of a public civic mourning: This man had a good life, and we're celebrating that life and what it's essential message is: That of the fundamental validity of American civilization," says California historian Starr.


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