A moving show of respect on TV

Sun Television Critic

The riderless horse with the boots of the dead president backward in the stirrups. The evocative clop-clop of the horses' hooves along the avenue as the caisson carried his flag-draped casket to the Capitol. The crowd of Americans five and six deep holding miniature American flags along both sides of a heat-hazed Constitution Avenue at twilight.

Television yesterday in its coverage of the State Funeral of Ronald Reagan took those of us watching at home on a moving journey of remembrance, straight to the heart of our national civic life. And, for all the meaningless chatter and overkill at one network or another, that is television collectively serving one of its most profound cultural functions.

When the ritual and spectacle is this rich, television often does best by simply pointing the cameras and microphones in the right direction and keeping its high-priced talent mostly out of the way. The major networks - CBS, NBC and ABC - seemed to have the most trouble remembering that at the start of the day.

Full coverage on cable and network television began at 11 a.m. as the remains of President Reagan were taken from his library in Simi Valley, Calif., to start the journey that would end last night in the Great Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, where he now lies in state. As the casket was loaded onto the plane that would take it to Washington, CBS anchorman Dan Rather was already in grand, over-the-top form, quoting word for word the lyrics of not one, but two choruses of "Amazing Grace." Things weren't much better on ABC, where Barbara Walters was dishing tabloid-trashy gossip as to which of the Reagan kids was or was not estranged from Nancy Reagan in recent years.

By the time coverage shifted at about 4:45 p.m. to Andrews Air Force Base and then Constitution Avenue for the arrival of the coffin and the Reagan family, the cable channels had settled comfortably into their wall-to-wall coverage of reporting, recollection and expert analysis. There was no shortage of "experts" yesterday on television. CNN relied heavily on historian and biographer Robert Dallek, who seemed to be going out of his way to politicize the moment by stressing in his analysis how Reagan brought Americans together while George W. Bush was a divisive force, in his estimation.

No one had more on-air experts yesterday than ABC, with historian Michael Beschloss and journalist-biographers Richard Reeves and Lou Cannon. They were part of a general pattern of overproduction at the network that included anchorman Peter Jennings talking almost nonstop throughout the 3 1/2 hours of evening coverage. Cable channels Fox and CNN showed the most restraint in this regard, with CNN's Wolf Blitzer interrupting one or another of his colleagues on several occasions to say, "Let's listen in to what's happening now at the Capitol."

But such criticism of specific performances pales compared to the overall power of television once the State Funeral ceremonies began and the anchor desk chatter quieted enough to let us watch and listen and be transported by the pageantry.

A military band playing "Hail to the Chief," as the casket enters the Rotunda accompanied by a 21-gun cannon salute. An ethereal, transcendent, choral rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" sung as the ceremony comes to an end. A frail widow patting the flag on the coffin that lies on the catafalque originally built for the casket of President Abraham Lincoln.

Through such moments yesterday, television linked us to some of the very touchstones of shared history and national memory that unify us as a nation.

That's television as the great communicator.

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