A nation pays its respects

Former president lies in state at the Capitol, where an hourlong state funeral is held

Thousands line Constitution Avenue for procession

The Passing Of A President

June 10, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The somber traditions of a nation in mourning suffused Ronald Reagan's last journey yesterday as his flag-draped casket traveled from California to the nation's capital for a cortege through the city and an elaborate funeral at the Capitol, where the 40th president now lies in state.

Thousands lined Constitution Avenue to pay their respects, as a horse-drawn caisson bearing Reagan's casket and a riderless horse symbolizing his loss slowly made their way toward the Capitol for an hourlong state funeral attended by U.S. lawmakers and representatives of more than 140 countries - the first ceremony of its kind in 31 years.

"In this national vigil of mourning, we show how much America loved this good man and how greatly we will miss him," said Vice President Dick Cheney, who gave one of the eulogies at last night's funeral, along with House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Reagan's native Illinois and Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican and president pro tem of the Senate. The three men were chosen because they stand first, second and third in the line of presidential succession.

Reagan was "more than a historical figure," Cheney said. "He was a providential man who came to our nation when the world most needed him."

Mourners began congregating before dawn at the foot of the Capitol and waited in line on a sweltering day for a chance to file past Reagan's coffin, which sits under the Rotunda attended by a military honor guard.

The former president will lie in state until tomorrow morning, when a motorcade will take his remains to the Washington National Cathedral for another service, at which the popular former president is to be eulogized by President Bush and his father, former President George Bush.

The president is returning early from a summit of leaders of industrialized nations in Georgia to visit the casket tonight and call on Nancy Reagan, who is staying across the street from the White House in Blair House.

Foreign dignitaries

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, both of whom were among the dignitaries at the Capitol last night, are also scheduled to give eulogies tomorrow.

In addition to Thatcher and Mulroney, about 20 current and former world leaders are expected to attend that service, among them British Prime Minister Tony Blair, former Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, former Polish President Lech Walesa and Britain's Prince Charles.

But it was yesterday's meticulously choreographed proceedings - replete with symbols dating to the mid-19th century designed to display the nation's grief for a fallen leader - that will stick in the public mind. Reagan is the 10th president to lie in state under the Capitol dome, and the crowd waiting in the shadow of the building to pay respects had grown massive by last night.

Reagan's casket left California yesterday after a morning ceremony at the Navy's Point Mugu air station. To the booms of a 21-gun salute and the strains of "Hail to the Chief," "God Bless America" and "Amazing Grace," a military honor guard carried the coffin from a hearse into a Boeing 747 from the presidential fleet with the words "United States of America" emblazoned on its fuselage.

A frail-looking Nancy Reagan, who was clad in black and had a military escort, paused at the top of the stairway to the jet to turn and wave to the mourners who had gathered to witness the scene.

A similar ceremony greeted Reagan's remains at Andrews Air Force Base in Prince George's County, where the casket was transferred to a hearse for its trip by motorcade to downtown Washington.

It was there, just behind the South Lawn of the White House at 16th Street and Constitution Avenue, that the pageantry of the day went on full display, as Reagan's coffin was hoisted by a military honor guard onto a caisson to begin a deliberate procession toward the Capitol. It was pulled by six horses, accompanied by a riderless horse wearing an empty saddle whose stirrups held a pair of Reagan's boots, facing backward to symbolize a lost leader.

A dense but subdued crowd applauded as Reagan's casket passed, with some yelling supportive words to Nancy Reagan when she briefly stepped out of her limousine at the beginning of the procession to wave to onlookers.

Sweating and straining to see the procession on an unseasonably hot evening, people along Constitution Avenue nonetheless said they were eager to honor the former president, whose cheerful optimism and talent for communicating simple, strong ideas won him ardent admirers.

"I had to be here - just had to be here," said Ian Hunter, 62, of Syracuse, N.Y., wearing an American flag tie and holding his straw hat in his hand. "He represented the best of America. I think he'll go down as one of the great ones."

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