John Kerry paused for a moment of silent reflection before the flag-draped casket of former President Reagan on Tuesday, a brief appearance in a national spotlight that suddenly has shifted from politics and the Democratic presidential candidate.
Head bowed, eyes closed and hands clasped in front, the Massachusetts senator stood for about a minute to pay his respects to Reagan, the Republican icon who died Saturday and whose body lay in repose at the presidential library.
Kerry, a Roman Catholic, made the sign of the cross and quietly recited the accompanying prayer before departing.
Like other dignitaries, Kerry did not have to wait hours with tens of thousands of mourners; an exception was made for the candidate and his visit lasted about 20 minutes.
Traveling to California to attend his daughter’s graduation from film school, Kerry decided to make a last-minute trip to the library in Simi Valley, a community northwest of Los Angeles. Aboard his campaign plane, Kerry spoke to reporters about Reagan, the current White House occupant — President Bush — and Bush’s father.
“I didn’t agree with a lot of the things he was doing, obviously,” Kerry said of Reagan, whom he called a “very likable guy.” But he added that he got along well with the Republican, was able to work with him and visited the White House a number of times during his two terms.
“I met with Reagan a lot more than I’ve met with this president,” Kerry said.
The Democrat also said he had more meetings with George H.W. Bush during his one term than he has had with President Bush.
“I liked his father very much. I like his dad. He’s a very good guy. He used to write notes. I have a number of notes from him. He’s very thoughtful,” Kerry said.
Kerry suspended campaign activities this week in deference to Reagan. The presumptive Democratic nominee said he first took note of Reagan in the 1960s, a time when some were wary of the California Republican.
“He got your notice,” Kerry said. He praised Reagan’s 1964 speech for Barry Goldwater, calling it “better than anything else you heard from the campaign.”
Kerry’s rival, President Bush, will deliver the eulogy for the 40th president during a state funeral Friday at Washington’s National Cathedral. Kerry will be one of dozens of notables attending the service, a face in the political crowd.
In suspending his overt political activities, Kerry risks losing momentum with voters just as Bush’s popularity is at its most vulnerable. To do anything else, however, would appear unseemly amid the outpouring of praise for a president remembered for bridging political divisions.
“Campaigning is campaigning, regardless of where you are and what you’re doing,” said Stephanie Cutter, the Democrat’s spokeswoman. “Out of respect for President Reagan and his family, he felt canceling those campaign events was the right thing to do.”
Marc Kruman, chairman of the Wayne State University Department of History in Detroit, said nobody outside Washington will fault Kerry for taking a week off the campaign trail.
“It strikes me as a wise decision. He’s not going to get any national political attention and it shows his respect for President Reagan, which is appropriate this week,” said Kruman, an expert in the history of presidential elections.
Kerry aides, already split over whether to cancel the week’s schedule, remain divided over how soon to renew campaigning. Other Democrats applauded Kerry’s decision to set politics aside, though some privately complained that he didn’t at least schedule a few non-partisan events in battleground states that could have gained him some local media notice.
Once again enjoying the advantages of an incumbent, Bush can go about the business of the president without fear of appearing insensitive. By attending D-Day ceremonies in France, hosting world leaders for the the Group of Eight summit and euologizing a GOP icon, Bush takes center stage for a week, unchallenged by Kerry or his immediate surrogates.
“Look, the president is the president and this is part of the, if not luxury, the advantage of being the sitting president,” Democratic strategist Tricia Enright said. “It appears the Kerry campaign is taking that into account and altering its course.”
With political events stripped from his schedule, Kerry and his top advisers were getting behind-the-scenes work accomplished in Washington.
Bush advisers, meanwhile, insisted that they weren’t trying to compare Bush to Reagan for political gain, even as they did so.
“This week we’re focused on paying tribute to him. We will leave it to other people to try to draw contrasts or parallels or similarities,” White House communications director Dan Bartlett told CNN.
A day earlier, Bush campaign chairman Ken Mehlman posted a tribute to Reagan on the campaign’s blog that made several comparisons, including: “Just like President Reagan, President George W. Bush speaks with moral clarity about the enemies of freedom.”
Campaign officials said Mehlman’s letter was intended for distribution to his staff. A version posted on the campaign’s official Web Site did not include the comparison, only praise of the former president.
Democrats used Reagan’s memory to take subtle digs at Bush.
“There are those who don’t seem to be as willing to compromise as President Reagan was” and as a result, things haven’t been achieved “that were within our reach,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
Asked to compare Reagan to Bush, he said: “This administration has a harder time finding middle ground ... and that’s unfortunate.”