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FAREWELL TO A PRESIDENT

On the Streets, Impromptu Eulogies and Rain-Soaked Protests

June 12, 2004|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Flags flew at half-staff all over town Friday, but at 1300 Pennsylvania Ave., the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center was draped in black.

Inside, hundreds of Reagan administration officials -- assistants and deputies who did not receive an invitation to the oversubscribed Washington National Cathedral -- gathered to watch the state funeral on big screens.

But it was on the streets of Washington where Ronald Reagan's real constituency gathered. Everyday people from around the country and the world had boarded trains and planes or jumped in their cars to say farewell to a president whose biography reflected the American mythology that even a poor boy from Illinois, even a Hollywood actor, could grow up to be president.

Dashnor Licaj was on a trip to Washington from Albania with his wife, Margarite, and their two daughters, Anisa, 10 and Elena, 9, when Reagan died. Alongside dozens of others, they huddled under an umbrella on 17th Street on Friday morning as the procession carrying Reagan's coffin passed toward the cathedral.

"When I was a little boy my country was under a Communist regime," said Licaj, 41. "We would listen on the radio to Western news. We knew Reagan. The Berlin Wall, that was my wall too."

As the procession passed, the Licaj family waved at Nancy Reagan, who waved back. Then they asked around for directions. They wanted to see the White House.

At Massachusetts and Wisconsin avenues, just south of the cathedral, well-wishers gathered to watch the motorcade.

"He was a huge role model for me," said Will Shaw, 19, a George Washington University student who had gone home to Fond Du Lac, Wis., for the summer and had flown back for the ceremony. "I was drawn to him because of his charisma. I stuck with him because I learned more about his character. He knew what he felt, and stuck with it. He really was a giant."

Protesters staked out a position across the street. Their signs said, "It's Fascism Again in America," "God Hates America," and "Reagan's Legacy = Feeding the Greedy, Not the Starving."

Those who came to honor Reagan were upset. Some tried to block Mrs. Reagan's view of the protesters by opening huge black umbrellas. Shaw was philosophical. "It's their right," he said. "Reagan wouldn't have had any problem with them."

Connie Vlahoulis agreed that the protesters had a First Amendment right to free speech -- "it's what America is all about" -- though she questioned what she called their "bad taste." An artist who drove from Asheville, N.C., Vlahoulis said she wanted to declare her ideological allegiance. "I grew up in a Democratic household and my values switched," she said. "It was almost a statement. I wanted to take the trouble to get here."

Laura Morais was nearby, listening to the eulogies on a radio, eager to hear history made in Washington. A native of Portugal who came to this country in 1960, Morais said she "cried a lot" during the televised funeral for John F. Kennedy, her second-favorite president. Her favorite was being memorialized inside, and she wanted to be on hand.

With her 8-year-old granddaughter, Samantha, Morais took the train from her home in Staten Island to bear witness. They stood in line at the Rotunda, they braved the 90-degree heat on Thursday and the rain-splattered streets on Friday, all to say goodbye. "It will stay with me for the rest of my life, and I will never let her forget it," said Morais.

Back at the Ronald Reagan Building on Pennsylvania Avenue, a man named Joseph P. Sullivan left a black-framed memento, including a photograph of Reagan as president standing in the colonnade outside the Oval Office. Underneath was a famous line from the 1940 film "Knute Rockne All American," in which Reagan played legendary Notre Dame University football hero George Gipp.

Coach Rockne, quoting a dying Gipp, said: "Rock, sometime when the team is up against it and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go out there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper. I don't know where I'll be then, Rock, but I'll know about it, and I'll be happy."

Times staff writer Elizabeth Shogren contributed to this report.

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