A nation pays its respects

A President’s Passing: David Hobby When former President Ronald Reagan’s caisson passed by me on its way to the Capitol Rotunda in Washington in June, the thousands of mourners around me became eerily silent. Then a spontaneous wave of applause swept through the crowd. It was heartening to see love and admiration overcome the rigid protocol of a state burial.
A President’s Passing: David Hobby When former President Ronald Reagan’s caisson passed by me on its way to the Capitol Rotunda in Washington in June, the thousands of mourners around me became eerily silent. Then a spontaneous wave of applause swept through the crowd. It was heartening to see love and admiration overcome the rigid protocol of a state burial. (Sun photo by David Hobby)
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."

As the funeral cortege approached the Capitol, 21 F-15E Strike Eagle jets roared across the procession at 1,000 feet, led by a lone flyer and followed by five sets of four jets. The last set executed the "missing man formation," with one fighter breaking away from the others to rocket skyward, leaving a hole in the group in recognition of the loss of a comrade in arms.

Carefully scripted

The Capitol that Reagan so adroitly used as his stage during his presidency was again transformed into the backdrop for a carefully scripted ceremony in which he was the main focus of attention. Reagan, the first president to be sworn in on the stately West Front of the Capitol, made his final journey into the building against the same tableau.

A 21-gun salute fired by three howitzers heralded the arrival of the caisson onto the Capitol grounds. As a military band played "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," three honor guards took turns carrying Reagan's casket into the building. Nancy Reagan, waiting at the top of the Capitol steps, reached out to touch the casket as it was carried past her.

Once in the Capitol, Reagan's casket was placed on the same pine catafalque, draped in black, that was built for the coffin of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. It will remain there until 7 a.m. tomorrow. At 10:45 a.m., it will depart for the services at the National Cathedral.

Last night's funeral was full of the pomp of a grand Capitol affair, with prayers by the House and Senate chaplains and a performance by the Air Force Singing Sergeants, whose rendition of "America the Beautiful" echoed from the floors and curved walls of the Rotunda, seeming for a moment to transform the space into a church.

After the service ended, Nancy Reagan lingered wistfully at her husband's casket, stroking the American flag that covered it, patting it and looking at it sadly before being led away by Cheney. Michael Reagan - who attended the funeral with Reagan's other surviving children, Patricia Ann Davis and Ronald Prescott Reagan - bid his father's remains a solemn farewell with a kiss and a salute. Daughter Maureen Reagan died of cancer in 2001.

The somber atmosphere of the day had been shattered hours before as the Capitol - on the highest of security alerts due to the week's events honoring Reagan - descended into chaos amid reports of an "unidentified inbound aircraft" heading for the building. About 4:30 p.m., sirens began to sound in the halls and Capitol Police evacuated the building, urging people to run, yelling "This is not a drill," and counting down the moments with shouts of "Two minutes until impact!"

But about 15 minutes later, police sounded an "all clear," as they determined that the aircraft was a small plane carrying Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher to the ceremonies. The aircraft had briefly lost its radio transmission while flying in restricted airspace near Washington.

Early arrivers at the foot of the Capitol included several people who professed themselves lifelong devotees of Reagan.

Carol Williams, 49, who drove from Chesterfield, Va., to Washington and claimed the first spot in line at 5 a.m., fought back tears as she described how humbled she felt to be a part of the mourning ceremonies. "It was like breathing," she said of coming to Washington.

Sun staff writer Riley McDonald contributed to this article.