WASHINGTON — A steady stream of mourners is moving through the Capitol Rotunda in Washington on Thursday morning to pay respects to former President Ronald Reagan, who lies in state there until his national funeral service on Friday.
Officials estimate that up to 200,000 people will file past the casket — resting on the catafalque built in 1865 for Abraham Lincoln’s coffin — before the public viewing ends on Friday morning.
The body of the 40th president of the United States arrived at the Capitol on Wednesday after a cross-country journey marked by gestures large and small.
“Fellow Americans, here lies a graceful and a gallant man,” Vice President Dick Cheney said in a Wednesday evening ceremony in the Rotunda attended by members of Congress, dignitaries and the Reagan family.
Reagan, who as president helped bring an end to the Cold War and revitalized the conservative wing of his Republican Party, died at age 93 Saturday, following a decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
The ceremonies have been carefully choreographed, marked by pageantry and poignancy, beginning in California — Reagan’s adopted home state — and ending in the city he defined throughout the 1980s.
“Ronald Reagan’s long journey has finally drawn to a close,” said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who hailed the late president’s “optimism and … Western can-do spirit.”
Borne by a military honor guard, the casket entered the Capitol to the strains of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and was placed in the center of the ornate Rotunda.
At the close of the ceremony, Reagan’s widow, Nancy, approached the coffin and gently caressed it with her hand.
Several speakers paid tribute to Mrs. Reagan, who rarely left her husband’s side during his long decline.
After she left, prominent figures, including former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain, passed in front of the bier.
Reagan’s state funeral on Friday at Washington’s National Cathedral will be the first such ceremony in Washington in more than three decades. The last state funeral was for President Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1973.
Reagan will be eulogized by a chorus of his contemporaries — former President George Bush, who served as his vice president; Baroness Thatcher, a conservative ally and a close friend; and former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
The current President Bush, who on Wednesday opened formal meetings of the Group of Eight leaders at Sea Island, Georgia, will speak at the service as well.
Friday has been designated a national day of mourning. The New York Stock Exchange will be closed, and only government offices necessary for national security will remain open.
The ceremony Wednesday evening in the Rotunda was for VIPs, but Americans from many walks of life paid tribute to Reagan throughout the day, beginning at the hilltop Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. There, tens of thousands of admirers had paid their respects over two days.
Some stood in silent respect and others saluted as the entourage passed first through the California hills and then the streets of Washington after arriving by military jet at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
Some Americans held signs expressing their affection for a man known as “the Gipper” — after one of his most popular movie characters from his acting days — and others waved flags.
“Our hearts are broken,” read one sign.
John Pezzullo, a government employee from suburban Virginia, arrived early Wednesday morning outside the Capitol, determined to take part in the historic ceremonies.
“It’s sad, but it’s kind of beautiful,” he said, describing how those in line were exchanging stories about a president they so admired. There was ample time to share stories, as mourners faced waits in line of up to several hours.
Constitution Avenue was lined with such people as a horse-drawn caisson transported Reagan’s casket toward the Capitol to the cadence of drums and accompanied by a riderless horse, which signifies a fallen leader. A pair of Reagan’s boots were turned backward in the stirrups to symbolize the loss of a rider.
When the casket reached the west steps of the Capitol, a military flyover of 21 planes paid tribute, the last four executing the “missing man” formation.
Pomp and precision
Each stage of the cross-country journey unfolded with military pomp and solemn tribute.
At Andrews, canons fired, military personnel saluted and a band played “Hail to the Chief” as Reagan’s casket was loaded off a military plane, a backup to Air Force One.
Led by Mrs. Reagan, the family — including grown children Michael, Ron and Patti Davis — accompanied the late president on the journey.
Mrs. Reagan was cheered and applauded throughout the day. As the casket was transferred from a hearse to the caisson near the White House, one man shouted, “God bless you, Nancy.”
The ceremonies unfolded under extraordinary security. Checkpoints were set up around the Capitol and bomb sniffing dogs were seen around government buildings.
The grounds of the Capitol and the Supreme Court were briefly evacuated late Wednesday afternoon because of radio problems with a small plane carrying Kentucky’s governor, who is scheduled to attend the funeral.
The plane was authorized to enter Washington’s restricted airspace but was having problems with a radio transponder, which prevented air traffic controllers from tracking the aircraft, an FAA official said.
Capitol Hill Police Chief Terrance Gainer said the Washington ceremonies could be a “pretty attractive” target for terrorists, although there was no specific intelligence that the event has been targeted.
Capitol Hill police were working with the U.S. Park Police, FBI, ATF and the Secret Service, Gainer said, noting that between 3,000 and 4,000 officers would be on duty.