WASHINGTON — The nation’s capital began saying goodbye to Ronald Reagan on Wednesday, citizens celebrating the 40th president’s common touch, Congress marking his achievements and all engaged in the high and rare pageantry of America’s first presidential state funeral in three decades.
Reagan’s body, escorted by his wife Nancy and his children, arrived at Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland from California to close the first chapter in a week of remembrance. More than 100,000 people had paid respects to Reagan in his presidential hilltop library, in advance of his lying in state at the Capitol beginning Wednesday night.
A Boeing 747 from the White House fleet carried the former president across country as crowds assembled in Washington’s uncomfortable heat to witness the polished spectacle of his early-evening funeral procession to the Capitol. Among the ritual’s elements: a horse-drawn caisson for his casket, a drum escort and a roaring flyover of 21 Strike Eagle fighter planes just 1,000 feet off the ground.
In Washington, 141 embassies accepted invitations to send representatives to the ceremony at Congress on Wednesday evening that began Reagan’s period of lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda.
More than 20 past or present heads of state or government planned to attend the national funeral service Friday at Washington National Cathedral.
Reagan was returning in death to a Congress he loved to scold. “That big white dome, bulging with new tax revenues,” he would say. “Tax and spend crowd,” he called the inhabitants. “I have wondered at times what the Ten Commandments would have looked like if Moses had run them through the U.S. Congress.”
Those battles were bygone Wednesday in a tribute drawing together Republicans who idolized Reagan and Democrats who liked him even while abhorring some of his conservative policies.
Aides said President Bush would visit the casket Thursday evening. Bush and his father will be among the eulogists Friday.