The arrival of the remains of former president Ronald Reagan in Washington yesterday was timed so his coffin could make a stately journey down Constitution Avenue to the U.S. Capitol before large crowds.
It was also timed for 5 p.m., in the middle of the region's traditional rush hour. And in a capital city used to handling massive protests, parades and political inaugurations, Reagan's final return led to an unusual chain reaction. Roads were closed. Employees stayed home. Offices were shuttered early.
Washington all but shut down.
Organizers said there was little choice about the timing. The Reagan party departed from the presidential library in Simi Valley at 8:15 a.m. for a 9 a.m. flight from a Navy base at Point Mugu in Ventura County, Calif.
The plane trip encompassed a flight of about four hours and crossed three time zones. The procession had to take place in daylight to aid security. Thus, there was little choice but for Reagan's body to arrive about 5 p.m. at Andrews Air Force Base before making its way to the Capitol, said officials at the U.S. Army Military District of Washington, which is overseeing the observances.
"It's a former president. This is a state funeral. It's not designed around rush hour," said Sgt. 1st Class Suzette Niess, a spokeswoman for the Military District of Washington, which is coordinating the three-day schedule of events.
"Per the family's wishes and logistics, they started at the Reagan library in California at 8 a.m.," said Sharon Thomas, a public affairs officer for the military. "It was just the timing and the changing of the time zones. We couldn't very well do it a different time. Spectators [in California and Washington] want to come out. We could not hold it at 8 to 10 in the evening because of security and safety. They had to get in before dusk."
To aid the arrival of Reagan's coffin at the Capitol, police closed several blocks of Constitution Avenue NW, between 23rd Street and the Capitol, and many side streets and tunnels from 3 to 9 p.m.
Because of the street closings, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) announced that city employees could request liberal leave at 2 p.m. to get an early start home. The federal government allowed employees in the District to take unscheduled leave. The District's Department of Transportation and Metro began operating rush-hour schedules for trains, traffic lights and traffic lanes at 1 p.m.
"It's important that there be a state funeral, and that's Friday," said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who also is head of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. "But I'm not sure that this has been thought through very well for the impact on the region prior to the funeral. The part I don't understand is the closing of Constitution today. My guess is that the Gipper would be upset at the expense of this for the government."
U.S. Capitol Police officials keep a 140-page manual that sets out precedent and policy for such events. They sat down with military district officials six months ago to plan the undertaking.
Barbara Childs-Pair, head of the D.C. Emergency Management Agency, said that shortly after Reagan died Saturday, Maj. Gen. Galen B. Jackman, commanding general of the U.S. Army Military District of Washington, came up with several possible itineraries for the services.
One early draft, she said, called for Reagan's body to arrive in Washington on Tuesday, instead of yesterday. But the plans were vetted and changed by the Reagan family, Childs-Pair said.
"The family wanted it this way," she said and added that "once it was declared a national security event, it was out of our hands."
The family had a lot of say on the arrangements. Because former first lady Nancy Reagan wants her husband's body buried at twilight on Friday in California, the funeral and the burial will take place on the same day on different coasts -- another logistical challenge.
Some federal officials said the District is able to work through such disruptions to traffic without much concern.
"If it was impossible to work, we would have raised the issue, but this town is used to major events," said Senate Sergeant-At-Arms William H. Pickle, who helped coordinate events.
A morning or mid-day arrival could have been equally or more disruptive to traffic and work schedules, Pickle said.
"The Reagan family had a lot to do in California," Pickle said.
"They wanted to ensure that California and the people of California were able to view the body. We were told the arrival was at 5 o'clock, and we were going to work with that. . . . I think the Reagan family is under enough stress, so we don't ask them to accommodate us."