The Procession

A Somber Procession Of Present and Past

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 10, 2004

The small, frail-looking woman in the black dress emerged from the limousine moments after the hearse bearing the body of her husband pulled to a stop in the eight empty lanes of Constitution Avenue.

It was 6:03 p.m., and as Nancy Reagan stood in the evening heat, the throng packed along the avenue behind the White House yesterday began to applaud and then to cheer. "We love you, Nancy!" someone hollered.

She smiled faintly and waved as she held the arm of a towering Army general, and an honor guard carried the flag-covered coffin of former president Ronald Reagan from the hearse to a four-wheeled, horse-drawn artillery caisson.

Everything was crisp and on time. A riderless horse named Sgt. York, with a pair of the president's riding boots backward in the stirrups, bobbed impatiently. The pause was brief, and the former first lady was bustled back to her car. A man in the crowd bellowed: "God bless you, Nancy!"

Then, as the procession started for the Capitol, the broad, baking avenue was filled with the mournful cadence of drums.

They beat that curious, slow, interrupted rhythm that seems stuck in the national memory, a sound that echoes over decades and generations to grand Washington farewells of the past: to the mourning of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and Lyndon B. Johnson 10 years later.

Last evening, as in times before, the quiet between the drumbeats was filled by the clip-clop of the funeral horses' hooves, the roar of jets overhead and the bang of an artillery salute.

There was, too, a reverent wave of applause from the tens of thousands of bystanders stretching to the Capitol, and Nancy Reagan's small hand waving from a back window of her limousine.

Thus, on a warm June evening before throngs of perspiring citizens, was the former president transported for the last time to Capitol Hill, along the same streets and to the same sounds as other famed figures in an exquisite American ritual of mourning.

After his death Saturday at age 93, and after ceremonies near his home in Los Angeles, his body arrived at Andrews Air Force Base at 5 p.m. yesterday aboard a blue, white and silver presidential jumbo jet for three days of Washington leave-taking.

His coffin was lowered from the airplane and carried by members of an honor guard, whose crisp pants snapped in the hot wind out on the tarmac.

After Nancy Reagan made her way down the jet's red-covered stairway, and the honor guard eased the coffin through the open back doors of the hearse, the cortege left the base in Prince George's County about 5:20 p.m. for Washington.

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