Scenes From the Rotunda
Thursday, June 10, 2004; 5:33 PM
Former president Ronald Reagan's body is lying in state at the Capitol Rotunda today, where thousands of people are coming to pay their respect. Here are a few of the scenes and voices captured by Washington Post staff writers.
An Old Friend Visits
At 4:45 p.m., police stopped the flow of the crowd, which had been moving at a stately pace, and herded people toward the north side of the casket in the Rotunda.
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan's old rival and then his friend, entered. He stood to the south of the flag-draped casket, and bowed his head. He reached out to touch the flag on the casket. And then, after only a minute or two, he was gone, trailed out the door by four men in suits.
-- D'Vera Cohn, 5:20 p.m.
Only a Four-Hour Wait
Liz and Gene Speicher from Alamuchy, N.J., had taken the train 2 1/2 hours to get here. They arrived at Union Station and hiked over to stake their place in line. And they were prepared to wait as long as it took to get inside the Capitol.
"How long will the wait be?" Liz wondered.
She was told about four hours.
"Oh, that's nothing," she said. "We had heard eight on the radio. I was thinking it could be 12. Four is nothing."
"I loved Ronald Reagan," she added. "I was registered Democrat before he became president."
Why, she was asked, did Reagan strike such a chord?
"He was proud to be an American," she said. "I'm sick of all these people now saying America is bad and stuff like that. America is a great country. I'm proud to live in it. So was Ronald Reagan."
-- David Nakamura, 4 p.m.
A Souvenir to Take Home
Marta White, 52, solemnly took in the flag-covered casket, the honor guard standing ramrod straight. As she left the majestic room, she wiped tears from her eyes.
"He epitomized everything to me that's an American . . .," White said. "And, he was in my time. Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, I could never see them. But him, I could see."
White had ridden nearly 20 hours on a train from Florida to Washington with her sister Melissa Marianetti, 41.
They arrived at noon Wednesday and waited hours to view Reagan's casket arrive at the Capitol on a horse-drawn caisson. Today, they were back in line at 10:30 a.m.
But the line snaked so slowly, and their return tickets were for a train departing at 1:40 p.m.
As they approached the Capitol, the clock ticked past 1 p.m. White decided to pay $30 to change her ticket to the next day. But Marianetti, a single mother, had to return home. The babysitter had called to say her young daughter was sick.
At 1:45 p.m., White exited the Capitol. A uniformed employee handed her a printed commemorative card that said, "In Final Tribute from a Grateful Nation: the Lying in State of President Reagan."
When she asked, the aide was happy to give her a second card, to bring home to her sister.
-- Debbi Wilgoren, 3:50 p.m.
T-Shirts to Mark the Occasion
At the intersection of First Street and Constitution Avenue, out of sight of the many police officers surrounding the Capitol, Allen McKoy, 42, of the District, was hawking Reagan T-shirts he and some friends had hastily produced two days before.
McKoy figured they printed about eight dozen of the shirts, which were white with Reagan's picture under the words: "In Loving Memory."
"How much for a shirt?" asked a passer-by, stopping to take a closer look.
"Ten dollars," McKoy said, as he held one shirt aloft by the shoulders and slung the other few around his neck.
But the passer-by didn't bite. Neither did the next who asked the cost, or the next. He had sold a few the day before but only one by 12:30 p.m. He figured he would have better luck closer to the Capitol but feared being arrested or having his shirts confiscated.
"I don't have a license," he said sheepishly.
"Do you think I can get more than $10 for these?" McKoy asked a reporter. "These are pretty good shirts."
Later, after several more people declined to buy a shirt, McKoy was asked if he would mark down the price to $5.
"Not yet," he said with a smile. "I still have tomorrow."
-- David Nakamura, 3:30 p.m.
"A Memorable Moment"
Although the crowds moving through the chutes outside the Capitol were overwhelmingly white, there were a few African-American families waiting as well. Eleanor Hutton, 44, a federal government employee from Fort Washington, brought her sons, Tevin Watford, 10, and Steven Hutton, 15, because they asked her to.
"I wanted to come out because he was an icon," Steven said. "It's a memorable moment right now."
Tevin agreed. "Mr. Ronald Reagan, when he died, I just felt sorry, so I came here to see him," he said.
Eleanor Hutton said she has not discussed with her sons the criticism that Reagan as president did little to help African-Americans.
"I've heard a lot about that, but I didn't want to get into it with them," she said.
-- Sue Anne Pressley, 2 p.m.
Echoes of JFK
There were powerful lawmakers with congressional aides in tow; blue collar workers in uniform. Some people passed the flag-draped coffin and saluted. Others made the Sign of the Cross.
"Even in death President Reagan was underestimated," said former Kansas Senator Bob Dole who took note of the composition of the crowd when he came to pay his respects to a man he worked with for many years.
During the Changing of the Guard ceremony, the two lines -- one for congressional staffers, and the other for citizens -- was halted as soldiers from each branch of the military glided into the room sporting crisp uniforms and spit-shined polish on their shoes.
"I was here for Kennedy in 1963," said veteran radio correspondent Dave McConnell as he poked his microphone toward the floor in hopes of picking up any ambient sound from the moment. But four decades ago, McConnell was a child who was brought to Capitol Hill and waited in the line for 10 hours to pay his respect to Kennedy. While many people have compared Reagan's national tribute to that of Kennedy's, McConnell said the mood was much different back then.
"That was a sad and tragic occasion," he recalled. "This is very strong. Overpowering. Reagan was 93; there is a feeling here of a life lived to the fullest."
-- Hamil R. Harris, 1 p.m.
Doing a Little Lobbying
For some, standing in line gave them a chance to promote their position on certain issues. Christine Wofford, 51, who journeyed to Washington from her home in Canton, Mich., held a sign that said, "Thank you, President Reagan, for protecting the unborn babies."
Wofford, an administrative analyst, said she is aware of Nancy Reagan's recent endorsement of stem cell research for the treatment of Alzheimer's and other diseases, but said, "I don't think they need to take aborted babies."
-- Sue Anne Pressley, 11 a.m.
The condolence books covered two tables under a white awning on Capitol Square, just to the left of where people exited the Capitol down a long flight of stairs.
On the white-lined pages, the hand writing -- and the messages -- reflected the broad range of adults and children who had come.
"Rest in peace."
"May God be with you."
"Here's to the last patriot. You changed the world."
Someone from Greensboro, N.C., wrote "Ronald Reagan first touched my life when I was 11 years old. I was watching the 1980 RNC Convention with my parents and I saw Ronald Reagan explain how America worked and how to love it was to live free and independent. . . .
"President Reagan made the world a better place and now heaven is a better place as well."
In the shaky print of a 12 year old boy, Alec Wren, a boy scout from Greenwich, Conn., wrote:
"This Capital building is the biggest, coolest and most colorful I have ever seen! I never met PRESIDENT Regan (sic), but I have heard so many good things about him."
-- Debbi Wilgoren, 10:35 a.m.
Passing the Morning
How to spend the time in line was a challenge. Stacey Kopnitsky, a teacher from Columbia, had four boys in tow, including her sons, Austin, 9, and Taylor, 12, and described the experience as "my private venture field trip."
Historical trivia consumed some time, but the group, at the very end of the long line, knew it was in for a long haul. "We've taken a bet for how long we're in line," Kopnitsky said, pulling out a gum pack on which she had written down the times. "The times range from 3 hours 29 minutes to 4 hours 58 minutes. Whoever wins gets to pick out where we go to lunch."
-- Sue Anne Pressley, 10:30 a.m.
Texas. Idaho. California. North Carolina.
U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) had scrawled in blue ink on a leather-bound note pad the names of the places from where the people had come.
Shays had awakened at 4:30 a.m. in his home in Southwest Washington today. He had been at the Capitol Rotunda the night before for the ceremonies honoring Reagan and had paid his respects with his wife afterward. But as dawn approached, again he was drawn back to the site.
"It was too easy for me. I got to walk right in. I felt I needed to do penitence," he said, between greeting those who had made the pilgrimage from across the country.
Shays stood at Capitol Square, next to the white tent where people can sign condolence books after exiting the Capitol and descending that long flight of stairs.
"Thank you for coming," he said over and over again. "Thank you for coming."
As he greeted them, dressed in khakis and a blue oxford, the sun rose hot behind the Washington Monument. Six o'clock passed, then seven o'clock, eight o'clock, and nine o'clock.
"It's really been very special," Shays said. "My staff is going to have to come find me, because I'm not leaving."
-- Debbi Wilgoren, 9:45 a.m.
Dressed for a Funeral
People came to the Rotunda in scout uniforms and American flag T-shirts, cowboy hats and Bush-Cheney baseball caps. A few used canes, or wheelchairs.
There were men in ponytails, and men in yarmulkes. Members of the military in dress uniform, and white collar workers with ID badges around their necks, who after viewing the casket, hurried off to their offices.
But there were also hundreds of families dressed as if for a relative's funeral -- little boys in blue blazers, little girls in frilly dresses with big bows. The mothers wore somber dresses, and the dads donned dark suits.
"I wore this to my father's funeral, and you know what? He would be so proud to know that I wore it to Ronald Reagan's funeral," said Debra Miller, 47, of Naugatuck, Conn.
--Debbi Wilgoren, 9:45 a.m.
A Three-Hour Wait
At 6:30 a.m., the sun was already beginning to peep out over the Senate side of the Capitol. The line for the viewing was still running about three hours--snaking through the temporary barricades just west of the West Lawn, across 3rd Street and into the grassy expanse of the Mall. Piles of Deer Park water bottles--handed out by the Red Cross volunteers--were everywhere.
"I haven't slept since I left [New York] at 8:30 last night," said Tom McArdle, 42, a journalist from Dutchess County, N.Y., who brought his wife and four young children. "I don't know if I'd do this for any other president, including the current president. But he was head and shoulders above the rest."
Ellen Roberts, 42, an engineer from Arlington, was clutching a crumpled homework sheet -- her daughter Elizabeth's science quiz -- quizzing Elizabeth on "air mass" and other weather terms as they waited. Elizabeth Roberts, 11, was missing her science quiz this morning at Tuckahoe Elementary School in Arlington, but she felt sure her teacher, Joanne Godwin, wouldn't mind.
"We want the girls to experience as much history as we can," said Ellen Roberts.
Maria Davis, 62, a Potomac resident and accountant, was limping slightly because she had recently had knee surgery and -- in the haze of trying to catch the Metro at 4:45 a.m. -- she had forgotten her cane on the subway.
"I don't care. I have to do it. I have to pay my respects to a guy who was a hero to me, so I'm all hippity-hoppity here," Davis said.
--Annie Gowen, 9:30 a.m.
The Soldiers' Faces
After about three hours in line, tired, and a little dragging, Emily Rothbard, 10, of Bel Air, Md., and her father finally entered the cool hush of the Rotunda.
Emily described her experience this way: "It was really amazing. It was unbelievable. There was so much honor to him. He was there, the flag looked so pretty, and all the flowers. It was perfect. It made it seem really peaceful.
"Oh, and how the soldier's faces looked? They were so straight."
-- Annie Gowen, 9:30 a.m.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company