June 16, 2004,
On the day it happened, I was a little too young and a lot too foolish to appreciate my brief encounter with Ronald Reagan. It was 1984, and I had been called from my normal duties as a patrol officer in South-Central Los Angeles to augment the security detail at the hotel where he was staying. My political views, forged as they were in the days of Watergate and further shaped by eight years of unrelentingly liberal education, were a far cry from what they are today, so I was less than thrilled at the prospect of guarding this man for whom I had so little regard. But I was then, as I remain today, one who follows orders, so off I went for what I was certain would be a most tedious assignment.
My instructions were to stand in a particular spot in the hotel's basement garage. The sergeant who placed me there, a man with hash marks up to the elbow of his uniform sleeve, made it clear to me that if I moved so much as a foot from that very spot my police career would be over before I had sewn on even one. The president's limousine was nearby, as were the other cars and motorcycles that would form the motorcade set to depart sometime later, but these were being guarded by Secret Service agents and other police officers. My lowly assignment was to guard a service elevator, one that during the hours I spent standing in front of it seemed all but unused. From time to time the elevator would open to produce a Secret Service man or some presidential staffer or two, but few of the people who passed me that afternoon gave me so much as a nod of recognition. I was invisible, terrifically bored, and wishing I were back chasing the bad guys out on the streets.
I wasn't privy to the president's schedule, but when the G-men around the cars began to stir I knew the show was about to get underway. I didn't know how the president would make his way to his limousine but I was hoping for the chance to see him, not out of any sense admiration, certainly, but rather out of simple curiosity: One sees so few presidents. But as I was craning my neck to see where he might be coming from ever mindful of remaining planted in my designated spot the elevator opened and out stepped Ronald Wilson Reagan, president of the United States.
My surprise must have been evident, for Mr. Reagan paused and gave me that familiar, fatherly smile. "Hello, young man," he said. I was for the moment struck dumb, the proper words rattling around in my brain but hopelessly beyond my grasp. Then, before moving on to his waiting car, he said the few simple words I will always remember, words that for me came to symbolize so much about the man I would only much later come to admire. "Thank you for being here," he said.
With that he walked over to the motorcycle officers who would be leading his motorcade, shaking hands and exchanging a few words with each of them. Again, I was anything but an admirer at the time, but I was struck I couldn't help but be struck by the genuine charm he radiated there in that hotel garage. There were no reporters or cameras present, but today I wish there had been, for the moment was well worth memorializing. The motorcycle cops were smiling, the Secret Service agents were smiling, I was smiling, but the biggest smile of all was on the face of President Reagan himself. The scar of a would-be assassin's bullet was still fresh and surely very much on his mind. He was truly grateful to the men who were there to stand between himself and harm, and he wanted us to know it.
I am now in middle age, old enough to realize that nearly everything I believed back then was exactly wrong. It is indeed humbling to admit it took so many years to recognize the folly of my misguided education. But with the repudiation of so much of what I had learned in school came the recognition that Ronald Reagan, this man who took the time to thank the cops, was beyond doubt one of the giants of the 20th century and of American history. So it was with Reagan's own words of gratitude in mind, spoken to me almost exactly twenty years earlier, that I drove out to Simi Valley last week to pay him my respects.
When not in uniform, my customary mode of dress might be described as comfortably casual. It might also be described, less charitably, as slovenly. And I was so attired as I began the drive to the Reagan Library last Monday evening. But as I drove along I listened to Larry Elder's radio program, and the topic of discussion was of course President Reagan's passing. A caller brought up the often-repeated story that such was Reagan's respect for his position that he never once removed his jacket in the Oval Office. That was all it took: I immediately changed course, headed for home, and changed into a dark-blue suit. It was the very least I could do.
News reports warned of a lengthy wait for the viewing at least three hours but I assumed that even in a worst-case scenario I would be back at home by one in the morning, leaving me time for a little sleep before being back at work at six. I'm proud to report how wrong I was. People coming for the viewing were told to park at Moorpark College, under ordinary circumstances about a five-minute drive from the Reagan library. Traffic was backed up for miles on the freeway, but never have I seen such an orderly traffic jam: There were no horns blaring, no drivers jockeying for position, no exchanges of rude gestures. There was only a steady stream of people brought together by a great unity of purpose, people waiting patiently for their moment at the casket.
The Secret Service had set up a security checkpoint in a parking lot at the college, where people were screened for forbidden items before being loaded onto buses for the short trip to the library. From the checkpoint the line stretched out in improbable paths across the campus, snaking this way and that along walkways and through parking lots and grassy fields, and when I at last found the end in a distant parking lot I estimated there were some 10,000 people ahead of me. Conversation came easy, however, and though I had arrived alone, by the time I reached the checkpoint I was part of a group of at least 25 that had coalesced along the way. I heard not a word of complaint from anyone, not even the children among us, over the more than six hours we stood in line. Even actor Tom Selleck, a personal friend of the Reagans who was somewhere behind us in line, declined an offer to go directly through security. He would wait, he said, just like everyone else. It was that kind of crowd.
It was after 3 A.M. when we reached the Reagan library, and we were fortunate to witness the changing of the honor guard standing sentinel at the flag-draped casket, a small example of the solemn, military precision that would be so much in evidence later in the week. We moved through in silence, our footsteps the only sound, each of us trying to take in as much as we could in the brief period we were in the room. Today it's impossible to describe the flood of emotions I felt as I circled the casket, but suffice it to say the experience was well worth the wait. I would gladly do it all again.
It was said many times last week that Ronald Reagan's life was providential, a belief anyone of faith would find difficult to refute. I believe his passing was no less so. He spent ten long years receding into the mists of illness, but when he at last left this world, it came at a time when Americans needed to be reminded that their country is in peril, and that this peril can be overcome if we will but summon the courage. In the week of remembrances that ended Friday we were given that reminder. How fitting it was, reflecting the change in America and the world brought about during his presidency, that Friday's ceremonies moved from the gray, weeping skies of Washington to the dazzling sunshine of Simi Valley. They couldn't have done it better in Hollywood.
And for me, after 20 years, it was my turn to finally say, "Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you for being here."
Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. "Jack Dunphy" is the author's nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.