Preparations in Washington
Showman-Statesman To Have a Grand Exit
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2004; Page A01
He was never particularly at home in Washington. He believed big government was the bane of the nation, and he preferred weekends at Camp David in the Maryland mountains to the whirl of the great federal city.
But this week, the Washington where he almost lost his life to the bullet of an assassin will give former president Ronald Reagan the ceremonial farewell reserved for the best and most beloved of the country's citizens.
Long missing from public view, he will be lifted up and accorded a state funeral filled with pomp and spectacle, the muffled drum and riderless horse, silent throngs and the haunting recollections of past national mourning.
Federal offices will be closed Friday, the White House announced last night. Federal offices and programs essential for national defense, homeland security and other essential business might be kept open at the discretion of agency heads.
The funeral is a uniquely Washington event, the first in more than a generation, a rare and exquisitely scripted goodbye that the former actor would have understood.
Borne through the streets by mounted soldiers in boots and spurs, in the footsteps of other dead statesmen, his body will rest in state on a bier made for Abraham Lincoln, beneath the monumental fresco of George Washington in the Capitol Rotunda, while tens of thousands pass in mourning.
The Rotunda setting will be a return of sorts -- Reagan's second inauguration, on Jan. 20, 1985, was there because of the bitter cold weather -- in a scene he would have appreciated.
"He was great at ceremonies," said Donald A. Ritchie, associate historian in the Senate historical office. "He was an actor. He understood the importance of public presentation and public ceremony.
"He had a sense of pageantry, and a sense of things in a grander scope. There was always a certain panache to his personality. . . . He one time said he couldn't imagine being president if he hadn't been an actor, so much of what you do is public presentation."
And such will be the Washington portion of his funeral, starting Wednesday evening, when his body arrives at Andrews Air Force Base from California. It will be transported by motorcade to 16th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, where the casket will be transferred to a ceremonial Army caisson, dating from 1918, and drawn by six matched horses along Constitution.
In the hands of the blue-jacketed Caisson Platoon of the Army's elite 3rd Infantry Regiment "Old Guard," the caisson will be accompanied by the traditional, and ghostly, riderless horse to the Capitol, where the body will lie in state all day Thursday.
It will be a scene reminiscent of the crisp Wednesday in January 1973 when a similar cortege carried former president Lyndon B. Johnson's remains to the Capitol, and the stunning days of November 1963 when the nation watched President John F. Kennedy's casket wind through the streets of Washington.
And as with the funerals of Johnson and Richard M. Nixon, it will serve as a reunion of the old guard of the Reagan administrations.
Reagan will be the first president since Johnson to rest before the public beneath the 180-foot-high Capitol Rotunda, with its gigantic 139-year-old painting, the Apotheosis of Washington. Nixon's funeral in 1994 was in California.
Reagan will join a list of those who have lain in state beneath the Rotunda that includes Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, William H. Taft, Warren G. Harding, William McKinley Jr., James A. Garfield, Herbert Hoover and Lincoln. The last to lie in state, in 1998, were U.S. Capitol Police officers Jacob J. Chestnut and John M. Gibson, who were killed by a gunman.
Like many of the more than two dozen others who have lain in state beneath the ornate fresco, Reagan's closed casket will rest on the plain pine board catafalque constructed for Lincoln, according to the House and Senate officials.
"With very few exceptions, anyone who has lain in state in the Capitol has done so on the [Lincoln] catafalque," Betty Kodes, the assistant Senate historian, said yesterday.
"It's almost as great an honor to lie on the Lincoln catafalque as it is to lie in state in the Capitol," she said.
Friday morning will bring an official service at Washington National Cathedral, near the grave of President Woodrow Wilson, attended by dignitaries from around the globe.
Although Reagan would no doubt have been honored by the tribute, he considered California, where he moved in the 1930s after signing a movie contract with Warner Bros., his true home.
Living in Washington for eight years, Reagan once said, had left him with a "perpetual state of homesickness" for California.
"Washington was just a place where he needed to be," Jim Kuhn, Reagan's executive assistant in his second term, said in an interview yesterday.
After the funeral Friday, the body of the actor turned statesman will return to Andrews Air Force Base, where it will be flown home to his beloved California, this time for good.
Staff writers Stephen Barr and Jacqueline L. Salmon contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company