With all the pageantry of Washington's first state funeral in three decades, Vice President Cheney and congressional leaders stood before the flag-draped coffin of Ronald Reagan in the Capitol Rotunda last night to honor the two-term president as a giant of his time.

"We will all remember him as an unparalleled leader and an exceptional man who lifted our nation and set the world on a new path," Senate President Pro Tempore Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) told the hushed crowd, including former first lady Nancy Reagan and other members of the Reagan family as well as scores of U.S. and foreign dignitaries.

"My fellow Americans, here lies a graceful and a gallant man," Cheney said.

The invitation-only ceremony -- attended largely by members of the Cabinet, Congress, Supreme Court and diplomatic corps -- marked the formal start of the three-day state funeral for the 40th president, who died Saturday in California.

It was the first time a former president has lain in state under the Capitol dome, in the stately Rotunda, since Lyndon B. Johnson died in 1973. The state funeral for Richard M. Nixon, who died in 1994, was held in California.

The ceremony also brought together many of the people who played key roles in the Reagan years, from 1981 to 1989, including former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, former secretary of state George P. Shultz, former White House chief of staff and secretary of state Alexander M. Haig, and Edwin Meese III, who served as attorney general under Reagan. Many had to watch the ceremony on television in an adjacent room.

Reagan's body was flown to Washington earlier in the day and brought to the Capitol by hearse and then by horse-drawn caisson in a tradition-rich ritual that dates to the mid-19th century.

The casket, placed atop a plain pine catafalque that was first used for the funeral of Abraham Lincoln, will be on public view until Friday morning, when it will be moved to Washington National Cathedral and then flown back to California for burial.

The Rotunda ceremony began at dusk, shortly after Reagan's casket was carried by military pallbearers, in a two-team relay, up the steep steps of the Capitol's West Front, where Reagan first took the oath of office as president in January 1981. After an opening prayer by House Chaplain Daniel P. Coughlin, the crowd of dignitaries heard speeches by three officials chosen by the Reagan family: House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Stevens and Cheney.

All three took special note of Reagan's optimistic spirit, idealism and commitment to core values and said these characteristics led him to notable achievements, foreign and domestic.

"President Reagan dared to dream that America had a special mission," Hastert said. "He believed in the essential goodness of the American people and that we had a special duty to promote peace and freedom for the rest of the world." With these beliefs, Reagan "helped make our country and this world a better place to live."

"His story and his values are quintessentially American," Hastert added.

Cheney said Reagan never shared the pessimism of some that the Cold War would never end. "It was the vision and will of Ronald Reagan that gave hope to the oppressed, shamed the oppressor and ended an 'evil empire,' " Cheney added, using the words Reagan employed to describe the Soviet Union before it collapsed shortly after he left office.

Stevens saw a similar impact on domestic as well as foreign policy. "By the time President Reagan left office, he had reversed the trend of ever-increasing government control over our lives, restored our defense capabilities, guided us through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and set in motion policies which ultimately led to the collapse of the 'evil empire,' " Stevens said.

The three Republicans also spoke of more personal qualities that helped shape Reagan's presidency. All who knew him remember "his largeness of spirit, his gentle instincts and a quiet rectitude that drew others to him," Cheney said.

At the end of the ceremony, the three leaders laid three large wreaths near the casket, and Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black delivered the benediction.

Nancy Reagan, escorted out of the Rotunda by Cheney, stopped briefly to run her hand along her husband's coffin and pat it. A few minutes later, Reagan's son Michael came up to the casket, bent down and kissed it.

The roughly 40-minute Rotunda ceremony -- elegant in its simplicity -- followed three days of often eloquent and emotional tributes by lawmakers of both parties.

President Bush, who was attending the Group of Eight summit in Sea Island, Ga., did not participate in the ceremony but plans to visit the Rotunda this evening, according to White House aides.

No Democrats were asked to speak at last night's event, although Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said they would have been honored to do so. Republicans said the program was set by the Reagan family, following protocol for such events.

More than 140 embassies accepted invitations to send representatives to the ceremony.

After the private ceremony, doors of the Capitol were thrown open to citizens who had begun lining up since before dawn yesterday for a chance to file by his casket. Police have estimated that 100,000 to 200,000 people may file through the Rotunda during the roughly 34 hours that the body of the former president will lie in state there.