Nation's Capitol Mourns Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan
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Ronald Reagan lay in state Wednesday under the Capitol dome, his body borne to that historic place of tribute by horse-drawn carriage past thousands drawn to the high pageantry of America's first presidential state funeral in three decades.

With the storied riderless horse symbolizing the fallen president, Reagan's casket came to the Capitol in a procession that quietly riveted crowds standing 15 deep on each side of Constitution Avenue. Cannon fired upon his body's arrival at the home of Congress, sending smoke cascading into the steamy evening air.

"Fellow Americans, here lies a graceful and a gallant man," said Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking at the state funeral ceremony opening the 34-hour period of Reagan's lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda. "It was the vision and the will of Ronald Reagan that gave hope to the oppressed, shamed the oppressors and ended the evil empire."

In her husband's death as in his life, Nancy Reagan was beside him at every step. She acknowledged cheers at the head of the procession, waving repeatedly, looking wan.

"God bless you, Nancy," a man cried out.

When her husband's flag-draped casket reached the Capitol, she saluted it. When it reached the landing, she reached out and touched it. She gazed at it, as she had been known so long for gazing at him in life.

In the Rotunda, she approached the casket again and lingered, patting and stroking the top, finally turning away. Members of Congress and other high officials in the room put their hands on their hearts as Reagan's body passed by.

Finally the dark suits of dignitaries gave way to the shorts and tank tops of average Americans, who had lined up for hours for a public viewing that goes on continuously until Friday morning.

"I said in my heart, Thank you Lord for giving us Ronald Reagan," said Texan Derace Owens, who reckoned he was among first 50 people in the Rotunda.

Victor Inga, of Alexandria, Va., said, "He should be paid respect for his life. He didn't stand for one person or another. He stood for everybody."

Reagan's body was flown from California to close the first chapter in a slowly unfolding week of remembrance. In California, more than 100,000 people had paid respects to Reagan in his presidential hilltop library.

Reagan's funeral procession was formed within view of the White House. Following a long tradition, rarely seen, the body of the former president, who was an avid horseman, was carried on a black caisson drawn by six horses. The artillery carriage was built in 1918 to carry provisions and ammunition.

Behind that trailed Sgt. York, the horse with an empty saddle and Reagan's own riding boots reversed in the stirrups to symbolize a warrior who will ride no more and looks back a final time on his troops. Sgt. York stepped lively, tossing his head and appearing a bit spooked on occasion.

Overhead — only 1,000 feet overhead — 21 fighter jets screamed by in four formations, a wingman breaking away and rocketing upward to signify the loss of a comrade.

By early evening, 100 people on the National Mall had been treated for heat-related illnesses, said Alan Etter, speaking for the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. U.S. Capitol Police trucked in about 150,000 of bottles of water and turned on large fans for people waiting in line to view Reagan's casket.

Many of those people lost their place in line when police suddenly cleared the Capitol about 1 1/2 hours before the start of the procession, fearing an airplane was headed for the building. Officials determined within minutes that a small plane carrying Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher to the funeral had lost its radio transmission after flying into restricted airspace.

In the service opening the period of lying in state, Senate President Pro Tem Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, noted a tradition dating to 1824 of paying final tribute to public servants in the Rotunda.

"President Abraham Lincoln was the first president to lie in state under this Capitol dome," he said. "In the coming days, thousands will come to these hallowed halls to say goodbye to another son of Illinois who, like Lincoln, appealed to our best hopes, not our worst fears."

Washington last staged these presidential rites in 1973, for Lyndon Johnson, less than a decade after John Kennedy's assassination produced the state funeral carved most deeply in America's memory.

Reagan's procession sometimes had the feel of a parade, in contrast to the shock and grief that attended every stage of the slain President Kennedy's funeral.

As always, every clicking step of shined boots, every sounding of the bugle, every firing of rifle and cannon was tightly scripted. As always, people made their unscripted emotional connections.

Gene Eiring, 49, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel from Custer, S.D., said he and his wife had dropped everything to rush to Washington. "He was my commander in chief for eight years," Eiring said. "He served so unselfishly, it was the least I could do for him."

In California, during a 45-minute motorcade to Point Mugu Naval Air Station, Calif., for the flight east, crowds watched from overpasses, traffic stopped on the other side of the freeway and some drivers got out and stood with hands over hearts.

Farm workers near the base climbed off tractors, removed hats from their heads and put them over their hearts. A little boy stood at attention and saluted from the tailgate of a pickup truck by an onion field. "Rest Well, President Reagan," said a sign.

Reagan, who died Saturday at 93, will be buried Friday in a sunset ceremony on the Simi Valley library grounds after a service at Washington National Cathedral.

In Washington, 141 embassies accepted invitations to send representatives to the ceremony Wednesday night.

Reagan returned in death to a Congress he loved to scold. "That big white dome, bulging with new tax revenues," he would say. "Tax and spend crowd," he called the inhabitants. "I have wondered at times what the Ten Commandments would have looked like if Moses had run them through the U.S. Congress."

Seventeen years ago, he compared Democratic lawmakers to the "screeching" periodic cicadas that then — and again this spring — have infested the city.

Those battles were bygone Wednesday in a tribute drawing together Republicans who idolized Reagan and Democrats who liked him even while abhoring some of his conservative policies. Congress passed unanimous resolutions praising him.

First elected in 1980, Reagan won re-election in 1984. In 1994, he released a letter to the nation saying he had Alzheimer's disease (news - web sites) and was embarking on "the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life."

President Bush
planned to come back from the Group of Eight meeting in Georgia on Thursday and, with his wife Laura, call on Mrs. Reagan at Blair House, the official guest residence across the street from the White House.

Aides said Bush would visit the casket Thursday evening. Bush and his father, who was Reagan's vice president and succeeded him in the White House, will be among the eulogists Friday.