President Bush joined tens of thousands of Americans in paying his respects to Ronald Reagan at the Capitol yesterday as dignitaries gathered from around the globe and final preparations fell into place for today's state funeral at Washington National Cathedral.
The 40th president of the United States, who died Saturday at age 93, will be commemorated in a formal service conducted by former senator John C. Danforth of Missouri, an Episcopal priest. He will be assisted by representatives of the Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim faiths.
Government offices in Washington and in states across the country will be closed in Reagan's honor. D.C. public schools will be shuttered, and traffic will be interrupted from Capitol Hill to Cleveland Park to Andrews Air Force Base.
Thus, with a final flourish of pomp and tribute, the nation's long goodbye to Reagan will conclude.
Bush returned to Washington from Sea Island, Ga., where he attended the G-8 summit this week. He and first lady Laura Bush went immediately to the Capitol Rotunda, where Reagan lay in state in a flag-covered coffin. They arrived at 6:37 p.m., striding purposefully to stand side by side at the bier. They bowed their heads. Bush ran his hands quickly over the coffin, almost as if he were smoothing a wrinkle in the fabric. He nodded to his wife, and they turned almost as quickly as they had come.
Earlier in the day, Bush said: "Ronald Reagan was a great man, an historic leader and a national treasure."
Bush followed visitors both famous and anonymous through the Rotunda; U.S. Capitol Police would not say how many had visited but kept the line moving at a rate of at least 2,000 an hour. Ordinary citizens waited four hours or more without complaint, but certain VIPs went to the head of the line.
At 4:45 p.m., for example, police halted the flow as former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev entered the hushed space, in which even faint footfalls and muffled coughs reverberated. The final president of Reagan's "evil empire" stood quietly and bowed his head, then reached out to touch the coffin.
Half an hour later, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani visited, and as he left, a Capitol Police officer quietly hummed "New York, New York."
Liz and Gene Speicher from Allamuchy, N.J., were happy to wait in line with legions of their fellow citizens. After a morning train ride, the couple walked from Union Station to join the line winding back and forth, back and forth southwest of the Capitol.
"How long will the wait be?" Liz Speicher wondered when she arrived.
About four hours, she was told.
"Oh, that's nothing," she said. "We had heard eight on the radio. I was thinking it could be 12. Four is nothing. I loved Ronald Reagan."
Elsewhere on the Hill, some inconvenienced congressional staffers, who did not share those feelings, were heard to mutter about the tone, volume and extent of the coverage devoted to Reagan. "Did you hear?" one asked sardonically. "Reagan was an optimist!"
But while the Capitol returns to normal this morning, the rest of the city can expect a day of tie-ups, snarls and delays. Dan Tangherlini, director of the District's Department of Transportation, said drivers should "keep collectively holding our breath" as they deal with a day of many motorcades and high security.
According to Charles Bakaly, one of a small army of former Reagan aides thrown together for one last grand production, initial plans to transport the coffin from the Capitol to the cathedral using Rock Creek Parkway were scrapped in favor of a route along surface streets, so that the public could watch the procession go by.
The route will follow Independence Avenue along the Mall, then head north along 17th Street NW past the new National World War II Memorial. At Pennsylvania Avenue NW, near the White House, the procession will turn left to 22nd Street NW, then head north again to Massachusetts Avenue for a run along Embassy Row to the cathedral.
Those streets and intersecting ones will be closed about 10 a.m. and will not reopen until the procession passes, D.C. police said. Roads surrounding the cathedral will be cordoned off from 9 a.m. until sometime after the funeral ends about 1:45 p.m. Residents with proof of residence will be allowed onto the streets, police said.
Nor is the cortege the only official caravan that will stop traffic. President Bush and the four living former presidents will attend the funeral, along with more than 20 heads of state -- some of whom require extensive security when they travel.
"Some of those dignitaries require not just intersection control but traffic shutdown," said Cmdr. Cathy Lanier, head of the D.C. police department's special operations division. The resulting traffic jams "can kind of spread out over a large area," she added.
Authorities continued to advise people to ride Metro, which had its busiest day ever on Wednesday. The system recorded more than 850,000 trips -- workaday Washingtonians and those who wished to see the formal procession of Reagan's body to the Capitol. That number shattered the record set on Jan. 20, 1993, the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton.
Metro plans to run peak service all day today, spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said, meaning longer and more frequent trains. But passengers won't have to pay for it -- Metro is charging peak fares only during the traditional rush periods of 5:30 to 9 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m.
Former first lady Nancy Reagan spent a quiet day out of the public eye at Blair House, the official guest house for visiting VIPs. A few of the men and women who shared the world stage with her husband paid brief visits: former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, former Japanese prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and Gorbachev. Former senator Howard Baker of Tennessee, who served as Reagan's chief of staff during a crucial period, came with his wife, former Kansas senator Nancy Kassebaum.
President and Laura Bush also met with the Reagan family at Blair House, after their trip to the Rotunda.
Approximately 3,000 mourners have tickets to this morning's service, which begins at 11:30 and will be shown up and down the television spectrum. The guest list ranges from the predictable -- the leaders of Great Britain, Germany and Reagan's ancestral home of Ireland -- to the unexpected. South African President Thabo Mbeki, for example, planned to attend, despite Reagan's failure as president to forcefully oppose the apartheid government that oppressed Mbeki and other black residents of South Africa.
Ronald Reagan asked Danforth several years ago to be prepared to preside at his funeral, after evangelist Billy Graham warned the former president that he, too, was aging and might not be available. He also asked Justice Sandra Day O'Connor -- his choice to be the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court -- to read a passage from the Pilgrim preacher John Winthrop's famous sermon extolling this land as "a city upon a hill."
Eulogies will be spoken by Mulroney and Thatcher, two of Reagan's favorite peers; Thatcher's was recorded some time ago after doctors ordered her to stop speaking in public. Former president George H.W. Bush, who served as Reagan's vice president for eight years, will salute his partner, and the current president will speak last of the four, "on behalf of a grateful nation," as he put it yesterday.
One of the last details to fall into place in a service planned over many years was the matter of music, a spokesman for the Reagan family said yesterday. Ronald Reagan had decided, before his descent into the late stages of his Alzheimer's disease, that he wanted a soloist to fill the great stone sanctuary. But it was only recently, at a board meeting of the Reagan Presidential Library, that Nancy Reagan heard Irish tenor Ronan Tynan sing and immediately issued an invitation.