A Day of Ritual and Remembrance

By David Von Drehle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 10, 2004

To the strains of solemn music and the slow beat of drums, the body of Ronald Wilson Reagan rode in a final parade through Washington yesterday to the Capitol Rotunda, where the 40th president of the United States will lie in state until his funeral tomorrow.

Tens of thousands of citizens lined Constitution Avenue and the West Entrance to the Capitol, many having waited for hours in wilting heat to pay their respects. Later, after an austere ceremony beneath the soaring dome, the first of an anticipated 150,000 mourners began walking past Reagan's coffin, which lay on the black velvet-covered catafalque first used at the death of Abraham Lincoln.

"Ronald Reagan was more than just a historical figure. He was a providential man who came along just when our nation, and our world, needed him," said Vice President Cheney beside the light-bathed and flag-draped coffin.

"Fellow Americans, here lies a graceful and a gallant man."

So began Washington's first state funeral in more than 30 years, on a day steeped in tradition but also unnervingly 21st century. Just hours before Reagan's body reached the Capitol, the building was evacuated in a panic amid reports that an unidentified aircraft was closing in. The plane turned out to be a private craft carrying Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) that had briefly lost contact with ground controllers.

Virtually every police officer in Washington was on duty and at high alert; bomb-sniffing dogs inspected flag-decked light poles; the federal government declared a "National Special Security Event," which Attorney General John D. Ashcroft declared "a sad commentary . . . [on] modern life in Washington."

The public commemoration of the man whose conservative politics and infectious optimism transformed American public life will continue through tomorrow's funeral at Washington National Cathedral. More than 20 heads of state, past and present, planned to attend -- the largest gathering of dignitaries the city has seen in at least five years. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Britain's Prince Charles have accepted invitations.

Lech Walesa, the former Polish leader whose anti-communist Solidarity movement thrilled Reagan during the last years of the Soviet empire, will attend, as will the last premier of the Soviet Union that Reagan so long and stoutly opposed, Mikhail Gorbachev.

The State Department counted 141 embassies intending to send representatives to honor Reagan.

The White House announced that President Bush and first lady Laura Bush will visit the Rotunda this evening after returning to Washington from the G-8 summit in Sea Island, Ga. After paying their respects, they plan to meet with Reagan family members, who are staying at Blair House.

Unfolding with the slow weight of majesty and awe, the day's rituals recalled, for many, moments remembered or recounted from 1963, the presidential death most seared into the national consciousness. The riderless horse, the flag-draped coffin, the old artillery caisson rolling to the creak and clip-clop of horses in harness. But this was a different, easier experience.

John F. Kennedy was cut down in his prime by violence. Reagan, who was born six years before Kennedy, outlived him by four decades -- indeed, at 93, he lived longer than any previous president. Kennedy's coffin rolled through the November chill; Reagan's through the June sunshine. The Kennedy procession was black and white; Reagan's was Technicolor.

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