WASHINGTON – With all the pageantry of Washington’s first state funeral in three decades, Vice President Dick Cheney and congressional leaders stood before the flag-draped coffin of Ronald Reagan in the Capitol Rotunda on Wednesday 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.
“Ronald Reagan was more than just a historical figure. He was a providential man who came along just when our nation, and our world, needed him,” said Cheney beside the light-bathed and flag-draped coffin.
“Fellow Americans, here lies a graceful and a gallant man.”
The invitation-only ceremony – attended largely by members of the Cabinet, Congress, Supreme Court and diplomatic corps – marked the formal start of the state funeral for Reagan, 93, who died Saturday in California, and opened the 34-hour period of Reagan’s lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda.
It was the first time a former president has lain in state under the Capitol dome, since Lyndon Johnson died in 1973.
Reagan’s body was flown to Washington earlier in the day and brought to the Capitol by hearse and then by a horse-drawn artillery caisson built in 1918 to carry provisions and ammunition – a tradition-rich ritual that dates to the mid-19th century.
The former first lady emerged from a limousine to a wave of applause, and stood stock-still, looking drained, as the coffin was loaded onto the caisson.
A Maryland man in the crowd yelled, “God bless you, Nancy!”
Behind the carriage trailed Sgt. York, the horse with an empty saddle and Reagan’s own riding boots reversed in the stirrups to symbolize a warrior who will ride no more and looks back a final time on his troops.
Crowds stood 15 deep on each side of Constitution Avenue.
Overhead, 21 fighter jets screamed by in four formations, a wingman breaking away and rocketing upward to signify the loss of a comrade.
Up ahead, dignitaries waited at the Capitol, watching on television. Reagan’s last White House chief of staff, Ken Duberstein, found himself marveling at the spectacle. “I keep thinking President Reagan would say, ‘Aw shucks – for me?’” he said.
Cannon fired upon his body’s arrival at the home of Congress, sending smoke cascading into the steamy evening air.
The coffin, 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 the 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 servicemen, 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 Coughlin, the crowd of dignitaries heard speeches by three officials chosen by the Reagan family: House Speaker 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.
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.
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 tonight, according to White House aides.
After the private ceremony, doors of the Capitol were opened to citizens who had begun lining up since before dawn Wednesday for a chance to file by his casket.
Many of those people lost their place in line when police suddenly cleared the Capitol about 1 1/2 hours before the start of the funeral procession, fearing an airplane was headed for the building. Officials determined within minutes that a small plane carrying Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher to the funeral had lost its radio transmission after flying into restricted airspace.
The public commemoration of Reagan will continue through Friday’s funeral at Washington National Cathedral. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Prince Charles have accepted invitations.
Lech Walesa, the former Polish leader whose anti-communist Solidarity movement thrilled Reagan during the last years of the Soviet empire, will attend, as will the last premier of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev.