Thursday, June 10, 2004
He campaigned against Washington, crusading against big government. Then from its most powerful office, he dominated the nation's politics because he spoke so well to America at large, wielding presidential imagery with rare skill.
Yesterday, Ronald Reagan made his last journey to the capital. From dawn to darkness, Washington embraced him with solemnity and spectacle.
Lights on tall poles and television cameras stand along the walls, tucked between the fluted Doric pilasters and large oil paintings that depict scenes from U.S. history.
In the center, under the eye of the soaring dome and the frozen stares of bronze statues of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, lies the bier. Built from pine boards in 1865 for the funeral of Abraham Lincoln, the seven-foot-long platform has cradled the coffins of nine presidents.
Covered in black velvet made rough with time, it awaits the coffin of Ronald Wilson Reagan.
The Rotunda is typically filled with the chatter of tourists and the clicking heels of legislative aides. Now barely perceptible air currents waft through the cool, cavernous space. A police officer with a dog appears at one entrance, then turns and walks away. Workers occasionally lumber through, holding a rag or paintbrush.
Carl Faison, a janitor who works the night shift, guides a battery-powered buffer in circles across the floor, polishing the gray and beige Seneca sandstone.
Faison began working at the Capitol during Reagan's first term. "When he'd come here, you could see him, but just a glimpse, really," Faison remembers.
As the sun climbs higher in the sky, shafts of light pour through the east windows high up in the cream-colored dome. The Rotunda brightens.
At 7 a.m., blocks away, a tiny line forms for the public viewing. Two women, one man and a couple of teenagers have taken their places on a stone sidewalk. Later in the day, the coffin will begin its journey east.
She has tried twice before to see the coffin and gave up because of traffic and the wait. This is her last chance.
"I begged my boss to let me have the morning off for this," she says. She looks over gifts that mourners have left: flowers, cowboy boots and sheets of white board filled with handwritten tributes. Wink, tall and blond, picks up a green marker. "Thank you! I'm honored to share your birthday," she writes.
Reagan was the first president she ever voted for. She liked his style, especially his relationship with his wife, Nancy. "Genuine devotion," Wink says.
Atop the hill, the Reagan family gathers for prayer inside the library. A Marine band plays "Hail to the Chief." Then pallbearers lift the coffin.
Wink sees the hearse coming down the hill. Mourners are still rushing to the scene, gasping for breath. A row of police officers snaps to attention and salutes. Wink checks her camera again.
The motorcade turns and speeds toward the Navy's Point Mugu air station, passing onlookers clustered on freeway overpasses and farmers in coastal fields who hold their hats over their hearts. Nancy Reagan waves as she boards the plane carrying her husband's body.
At the library, Wink looks with delight at the pictures she has taken. "I usually get disappointed in politicians today," she says. "He was the last of his kind."
Durbin has known for months that, when the time came, he would be one of Ronald Reagan's body bearers. He puts black polish on his shoes.
Durbin is a member of the Old Guard. The unit does 15 to 20 burials a day at Arlington National Cemetery, says Army Capt. Alexis Neal, who is responsible for the soldiers greeting the plane from California.
It is hot outside and only slightly cooler inside the hangar. Uniforms wait on clothes racks. A military band warms up. A bomb-sniffing dog checks the musicians' instruments.
The honor guard members, representing all branches of the military, rehearse their duties without a coffin. The men are relaxed, all business. "This is what I do," Neal says.
At midday, the body bearers watched their West Coast counterparts handle Reagan's coffin. Someone called to see how heavy it is: 720 pounds, they were told. "Mahogany and marble," Durbin says.
The tall, brown-eyed 29-year-old jokes about how thin he is. "I hope I don't stumble; I hope I don't drop the casket," Durbin says. "I've got some big, strong Marines to help."
Durbin has spent a decade in the Army. Fifteen months ago, he parachuted into a muddy field in northern Iraq and spent nine months in the country. "I wish I was there now."
Durbin, who grew up in Indiana, says Reagan was his favorite president, though he wasn't old enough to vote for him. He even liked Reagan's acting. He has one of Reagan's most popular movies, "Knute Rockne, All American," at home on videotape and DVD.
At 4:45 p.m., the honor guard members take position on the tarmac. Ten minutes later, they see the plane in the sky.
"A great man," says Clinton Bowman, 82, squinting behind thick tinted glasses, a commemorative World War II cap atop his gray head. His wife bounces their two Yorkshire terriers on her knees.
A few feet away is Suitland Road, which will take the former president through the town of Morningside, past Tommy's Auto Body and the Red Octopus tattoo parlor and VFW Post 9619.
A mechanic from Grenada plants his country's green, red and yellow flag in the grass along with a sign: "Ronald Reagan, Grenada says Thank You." A woman in a wide-brimmed pink hat clutches an American flag in the breezeless swelter. Bill Walter, 42, his gray hair tied in a ponytail, descends from his Harley and wonders why the crowd isn't larger.
By 4:45 p.m., the number of spectators grows past 50 -- then, in minutes, past 100. A retired federal worker carrying a crucifix suggests that Reagan's visage be added to Mount Rushmore. Frank Dubois, 48, an American University professor, tries to make sense of the adulation: "He hurt the environment; there was double-digit inflation. I just don't get it."
Just before 5 p.m., word spreads that the plane has landed. The crowd creeps toward the road. Paul Mays, 67, a retired engineer, says he never thought much of Reagan's politics and policies, though that hardly seems to matter just now.
"This is history," he says as the procession emerges from the gate. Nancy Reagan waves from her limousine. The crowd erupts in cheers.
A few moments later, the corner is bare again.
Official Washington, with its scripted ceremonies, is within sight and reach, a sharp right-hand turn onto Firth Sterling Avenue SE and across the Anacostia River. But this crowd of more than 100 African American Washingtonians will greet the motorcade first.
A siren sounds and an officer stops traffic. "This is taking too long," says a woman in a black miniskirt and scoop-neck top. The police blare on a horn: "Everyone must stand 10 feet away from the roadway."
Robert M. Perry fusses with his camcorder and moves the tripod to find the best angle. He has a camera around his neck and looks through the lens to check the view.
"I'm going to tell my grandchildren that he passed through 'The Farms,' he passed through the neighborhood to get to where he needed to go," Perry says in a gravelly voice.
The tall, burly 53-year-old grew up six blocks away and didn't like Reagan's presidency. "The trickle-down theory [of economics] never really trickled down."
The police motorcycles, two abreast, round the bend, followed by sleek black sedans with subdued flashing lights. Then the hearse. The American flag peeps out of one of the car's windows.
Perry, now a substance abuse counselor, focuses his camcorder.
"It's not like I'm honoring him; I'm honoring the office of the president," he says. "I want to make history real for my grandchildren."
En route to the U.S. Capitol, the procession moves through the District on two interstates and juts into Virginia, across the 14th Street bridge and along George Washington Memorial Parkway. There, it travels past the perfect-blue river dotted with boats, along trails filled with bicyclists.
At 5:58 p.m., it begins the slow arc to the right that will take it across the Potomac and back into the city.
About 80 people stand at the turn and watch silently. For more than two hours, Jane Hughes has waited with her husband and young children to pay respect to a man she says changed the world.
It takes only a moment for the dark procession to pass them at the Virginia end of Memorial Bridge.
"That was fast," says Hughes, 39, of Alexandria. "But, you know, we're here." She looks down at her children, Margaret, 6, and George, 4. "We'll have to remind them," she says.
For most, the view is of horses' ears and soldiers' white hats, the top of the black hearse and, in the distance, the flags flying at half-staff around the Washington Monument or over the White House. For some, the view is of the sweaty backs pressed in front of them.
In 15 minutes, it is all over. Many waited hours for this glimpse, but they didn't seem to mind. They played cards or napped, talked to people crowded in near them.
"It gives me time to think about things," says Steve Weakley of Frederick, a landscaper. "This country's a great country because of leaders like him. It's nice sometimes just to have some time to wind down and think about how good we have it in this country."
It was a little piece of history unfolding, says Steve Ross, in town from Los Angeles on business, smoking a cigar as he sits against a tree. He's a lifelong Democrat and blames Reagan's policies for making life more difficult for his mentally ill sister. None of that matters to him at this moment. "In a very fundamental way, I just feel very, very proud to be an American."
Browne, down from her perch, laughs and straightens her straw hat so it is just so. She didn't see much. "But it's wonderful," she says. "We needed to have something like this."
A fighter jet roars overhead, and then four more in formation. Four sets follow, and from the last, a single jet peels off, soaring into the sky, vanishing into the haze.
The caisson bearing the former president's coffin turns off Constitution and rounds the corner onto the West Lawn, led by seven horses and four riders.
The bands assemble before the coffin at the base of the steps. The day has cooled as the sun dips low across the Mall. Everyone waits for Nancy. She appears on the landing outside the Rotunda. In the distance, a 21-gun salute punches the air at five-second intervals.
Eight pallbearers slide the coffin from the caisson and begin the climb up the steps. At the top, the pallbearers turn toward the entrance. Suddenly Nancy Reagan extends her arm and touches the flag atop her husband's coffin.
In a day of precision and ceremony, it seems an unscripted moment.