WASHINGTON -- The broad avenues and ornate halls of the nation's capital will receive Ronald Reagan for the last time today, as U.S. and international leaders gather for three days of grand funeral ceremonies -- complete with a horse-drawn caisson, a 21-gun salute and other elaborate military rituals -- to honor the nation's 40th president.
Reagan's remains, which have been lying in repose at his presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif., arrive this afternoon to make a slow, somber procession up Constitution Avenue that will culminate in a brief ceremony under the Capitol dome, to be attended by lawmakers and other dignitaries.
Then, members of the public will have a chance to pay their respects as Reagan becomes the first president in 31 years -- and the ninth ever -- to lie in state in the Capitol. Thousands of mourners are expected to congregate to view the casket of the popular former president and bear witness to the memorial, the first of its kind since the death of Lyndon B. Johnson in 1973.
"Here in the people's house, thousands of Americans will file into the Capitol Rotunda to honor the people's president," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois. "We'll remember him for the hope he gave to the rest of the world that freedom was possible."
For a president who was known in life as a master of the staged political event, this week's proceedings in Washington promise to produce dozens of made-for-television moments that will be watched around the world. At virtually every step of its journey from California to Washington and back again this week, Reagan's body will be afforded ceremonial honors steeped in traditions that date to the mid-19th century.
Reagan's flag-draped casket, which is to be flown to Andrews Air Force Base late this afternoon, will be transferred in downtown Washington from a hearse to a horse-drawn caisson for a procession from the White House to the Capitol. A riderless horse will be led behind the caisson, the stirrups bearing backward-facing boots to symbolize the parting look of a commander who will never lead his troops again.
That tradition dates to Abraham Lincoln's funeral, but it was seared in the public's mind after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, whose state funeral -- modeled after Lincoln's -- was the first of a president to be televised.
Lawmakers spent the day paying tribute to Reagan, whom many congressional Republicans regard as a political inspiration and personal role model, and whom members of both parties credited yesterday with bringing a strain of civility to the White House that is seldom found in Washington these days.
Several senators who were elected to Congress in 1980, at the same time that Reagan won the White House, reminisced about his effect on politics.
Sen. Don Nickles, a conservative Oklahoma Republican who is retiring, described the day of Reagan's swearing-in as "a historic, euphoric day."
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas called Reagan a "fearless intellectual warrior" and took a soft swipe at "his critics, who -- bless their hearts -- could never quite get past his infuriating optimism."
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said Reagan "was ideological, but he was practical, and that practicality made him an admired and respected political leader on both sides of the aisle."
In a floor speech, Daschle recalled the warm relationship Reagan had with former House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, a liberal Massachusetts Democrat who found Reagan a great believer in his axiom that Republicans and Democrats "are always friends after 6 o'clock and on weekends."
"In the decade since President Reagan began his quiet withdrawal from public life, the civility and personal decency that we associate with him seems, at times, to have all but disappeared from much of our public discourse," Daschle said. "The elbows in politics have become sharper, the words have become meaner -- and the accomplishments have become scarcer."
Scores of law enforcement and military personnel were on the Capitol grounds yesterday rehearsing for this evening's carefully choreographed ceremony, including the planned firing of 21 howitzers and a ceremonial flyover by 21 F-15 military jets -- both slated to occur as the procession approaches the Capitol -- and the meeting of Reagan's casket at the west side of the Capitol.
Previous state funeral processions have arrived on the other side of the building, but major construction of the Capitol visitors center has made that impossible for today's ceremony. That means Reagan, the first president to hold his inauguration on the West Front -- with a vista down the National Mall toward the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial -- will make his last trip against the same striking backdrop.
Reagan's family and close associates have been planning his state funeral for several years, right down to the lawmakers who would participate in the Capitol ceremony. Only the two lawmakers in the presidential line of succession -- Hastert, the speaker, and Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, the president pro tempore -- will speak at the ceremony, along with Vice President Dick Cheney. The three also will lay a ceremonial wreath at the foot of Reagan's casket.
Members of the House and Senate will attend, along with members of the diplomatic corps, President Bush's Cabinet, Supreme Court justices and governors. Bush, attending an international summit in Sea Island, Ga., will not be present tonight but will give a eulogy Friday at a memorial service at Washington National Cathedral. Members of all five military service academies, including the U.S. Naval Academy, will participate in the ceremony.
Reagan's body also will be accompanied by five close family friends who are "honorary pallbearers": Frederick J. Ryan Jr., chairman of the board of Reagan's presidential library foundation; television personality Merv Griffin; Charles Z. Wick, a Hollywood producer who headed the U.S. Information Agency under Reagan; John Hutton, his White House physician; and close friend and former adviser Michael K. Deaver.
Security concerns are expected to weigh heavily on the events. All 1,600 Capitol Police officers will be on duty tomorrow and for the lying-in-state ceremony, said Sgt. Contricia Ford, a spokeswoman. Hundreds more officers from the Secret Service, Park Police and Metropolitan Police will complete the security contingent.
Reagan will lie in state at the Capitol for 36 hours, until 7 a.m. Friday, when his casket will be taken by motorcade to the National Cathedral for services before his remains are returned to California for burial.