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The Nation | FAREWELL TO A PRESIDENT

Ritual and Pageantry Usher Reagan's Coffin to Capitol

June 10, 2004|Elizabeth Shogren, Johanna Neuman and Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Borne by black hearse, presidential jet and horse-drawn caisson, the flag-shrouded coffin of Ronald Reagan was carried from California to the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, viewed by political leaders and thousands of Americans who gathered for a last glimpse.

The 40th president's final trek eastward was an all-day, tightly choreographed affair marked by solemn images of military pomp and a doleful widow -- a dramatic long goodbye for a former Hollywood leading man who came to dominate the American political stage.

On a sunny afternoon, fighter jets screeched over Washington in an airborne farewell while the ebony caisson ferried Reagan's coffin toward the Capitol. Thousands of mourners were expected to view the former president lying in state before a funeral Friday. He died Saturday at 93.

As the procession moved through the city, crowds erupted in spontaneous applause for the historic symbols of national grief that many Americans were seeing for the first time: a dead president's flag-draped coffin, a riderless horse trailing behind and processions of ramrod-straight military honor guards.

A throng of political leaders and foreign dignitaries led by Vice President Dick Cheney filed into the cavernous Rotunda of the Capitol, accompanying Reagan's widow, Nancy, and her family as a military honor guard gently set his coffin onto a catafalque. The ceremonial pine plank bier was built in 1865 to support the remains of Abraham Lincoln.

Hailing Reagan as the "man who ended the evil empire" by facing down a tottering, bankrupt Soviet Union in the 1980s, Cheney recalled the former president as a "providential man who came along just when our nation and the world most needed him."

President Bush, who was in Georgia for the Group of 8 economic summit, is to attend Reagan's funeral Friday.

At poignant interludes during the long day's journey, the finality of her husband's last passage seemed to overwhelm Nancy Reagan. She appeared drawn and fragile as she trailed her husband's casket into the hilltop courtyard of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Simi Valley as it began the journey to Washington, and again, minutes later, on the tarmac at the Point Mugu Naval Air Station.

Nancy Reagan clutched the arm of Army Maj. Gen. Galen B. Jackman, her assigned military escort, as she haltingly climbed a steep jet ramp. But she seemed to gain strength when she turned at the jetway and waved to several hundred well-wishers. The crowd responded with a round of polite applause, prompting a wan smile from Mrs. Reagan before she disappeared into the jet's cabin.

Hours later, as her husband's coffin was hefted by an honor detail up the steep Capitol steps, she stood for long minutes, wavering slightly, until they completed the climb. Inside, she sat quietly as Cheney, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) extolled her husband for ending the Cold War and ushering in an era of economic prosperity and national optimism.

"President Reagan dared to dream that America had a special mission," Hastert said. "He always believed our best days were ahead of us, not behind us."

When they were done, Nancy Reagan smoothed her black dress and walked to the coffin on Cheney's arm. She brushed out a wrinkle on the flag shrouding the casket and bent over it, speaking in hushed tones.

Following her to the casket were national and foreign leaders who had shared the public stage during the Reagan era. Among them were former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a staunch Reagan ally.

Moments later came a stream of Reagan administration stalwarts: confidante and former Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III; Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who was Reagan's national security advisor; and former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who saluted a farewell.

They were the first of thousands of Americans who descended on Washington to say their own goodbyes.

Visitors staked out spots along the National Mall, sweating in 90-degree heat to somberly watch the procession make its way to the Capitol.

"Reagan changed the world. How could we not be here?" said Hughie Stambaugh, 38, a suburban Philadelphia church secretary who had driven to Washington with his 12-year-old step-grandson, Patrick Cassidy.

Beside them, Vicki Drummond, 54, a chaplain for the Alabama Republican Party who had driven to Washington with her son, Matt, from their home near Birmingham, recalled a blizzard of images from John F. Kennedy's funeral in 1963, hoping the Reagan rites would leave their own lasting images.

"I just remember how graceful and strong Jackie Kennedy was, and Nancy Reagan's been the same way," she said. "It gives you comfort just watching her."

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