- The Washington Times - Friday, June 11, 2004

President Bush silently paid his respects to Ronald Reagan yesterday by visiting the former president’s casket in the Capitol Rotunda as scores of ordinary Americans looked on in wonder.

Joined by first lady Laura Bush, the president was ushered into the hushed chamber, which was not cleared of citizens who had waited hours to visit the flag-draped casket, for about one minute. Stepping forward and blinking back tears, Mr. Bush placed both hands on the coffin and smoothed the flag before quickly departing on what he called a “solemn night” to console Nancy Reagan.

Mr. Bush’s call upon Mrs. Reagan, coming upon his return to Washington after a three-day economic summit in Georgia, was their first meeting since the 93-year-old former president died in Los Angeles after a 10-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

“Ronald Reagan was a great man, an historic leader and a national treasure,” Mr. Bush told reporters at the conference. “I’m honored to speak tomorrow at the memorial service on behalf of a grateful nation.”

The president and the first lady were among the estimated 200,000 mourners expected to pass through the Capitol to pay their respects to the former president, most of those visitors waiting patiently for hours in a long line that snaked out of the historic building, down the Hill and across portions of the Mall.

Even senior Hill staffers — who are not accustomed to waiting in line for anything — waited more than an hour in lines routed through the tunnels under the Capitol and complex of office buildings.

Outside, people waited in longer lines on blistering hot concrete.

Army Lt. Larry W. Blevins, 33, woke up yesterday morning and drove eight hours from Fort Bragg, N.C., where he is stationed. After trudging for four hours up the front lawn, he entered the dark, cavernous hallway of the Capitol with a small, leather-embossed box in his hands.

Inside was the Bronze Star Lt. Blevins earned during 11 months as a combat medic in Iraq. He aimed to give the box — with his Bronze Star — to the man he called “the greatest president.”

“He gave so much to us,” Lt. Blevins said. “I just wanted to give something back that meant something to me.”

He picked his Bronze Star, he said, because it represented “the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Robert Riche, 51, of Alexandria arrived outside the Capitol in the at about 3 a.m. with his wife, Lynn, 50, and her mother, Ann Long, 79, and stood in a slow-moving line until just before 7 a.m.

“It was very impressive. We had a quiet, reflective moment as we passed by, and it was worth the wait,” Mr. Riche said after exiting the Rotunda.

Emergency responders treated at least 70 Capitol-bound mourners yesterday for heat exhaustion, with one person hospitalized. An additional 20 persons were treated for an assortment of other ailments, including turned ankles from falling off sidewalk curbs.

Medical personnel and volunteers passed out 17,000 bottles of water.

The Rotunda will remain open to visitors through at least 7 a.m. today.

In his visit, the president held hands with Mrs. Bush, dressed in black, as they approached Mr. Reagan’s casket to bow their heads in silent prayer.

Afterward, they were joined by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. in a 40-minute private visit with Mrs. Reagan at Blair House on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Mrs. Reagan also met during the day with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, former Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker, Tennessee Republican, and his wife, former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker, Kansas Republican.

Mrs. Thatcher quoted the Bible in signing a condolence book for her good friend: “To Ronnie — ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant.’”

Mr. Gorbachev wrote in the condolence book in Russian, “I convey my deep feelings of condolence to dear Nancy and the whole family.”

The former Soviet leader, the communist dictator whom Mr. Reagan had demanded to tear down the Berlin Wall, then visited the casket in the Rotunda, reached out and briefly laid his palm on the U.S. flag draping Mr. Reagan’s coffin.

Numerous dignitaries, including senators and congressman, city officials and even the new president of the interim Iraqi government, Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer, came to the Capitol to pay tribute. Mr. al-Yawer, fresh from the Group of Eight summit in Sea Island, Ga., placed a hand to his chest in front of the casket before moving on.

Mr. Reagan’s death overshadowed the president’s hosting of the G-8 economic conference, with the leaders from around the world spending much of the conference discussing Mr. Reagan’s legacy.

“I especially want to thank the leaders for their kind words of condolence for President Ronald Reagan,” Mr. Bush said in Georgia yesterday.

After a service this morning at Washington National Cathedral, the culmination of a three-day funeral for Mr. Reagan, his body will be sent back to his home state of California for burial.

Mr. Bush will deliver the eulogy at today’s service, the president’s first visit to the towering Gothic church since Sept. 14, 2001, when he soothed a reeling nation three days after the worst terrorist attacks in American history.

Mr. Bush yesterday avoided wading into congressional skirmishes over whether the Pentagon should be renamed for Mr. Reagan or whether the former president’s image should be placed on the $10 bill or some other currency.

“I am going to Washington to pay honor to Mrs. Reagan and her family,” he said in response to a reporter’s question. “I’ll give a speech tomorrow, and then I will reflect on further ways to honor a great president.”

“A day of remembrance,” he added, “for a magnificent world leader.”

The federal and D.C. governments closed today in honor of Mr. Reagan and to facilitate the logistics of the complicated, high-security funeral.

More than 200 senior and midlevel political appointees of the Reagan-Bush administrations from 1981 to 1989 visited the Rotunda.

Louis J. Cordia, who served Mr. Reagan as a senior official at the Environmental Protection Agency and helped found the Reagan Alumni Association, organized the visit by Mr. Reagan’s top lieutenants.

In some cases, even those groups who opposed Mr. Reagan’s policies find themselves with a three-day weekend, though not necessarily in his honor.

“The offices of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force will be closed on Friday, June 11, 2004, in memory of all those we have lost to AIDS,” a statement on the group’s Web site reads.

Other groups that clashed with the former president during his political career decided to stay open.

The AFL-CIO will be open, as will many of its member groups. Mr. Reagan was no friend of labor, said a spokesman for the International Labor Communications Association, an AFL-CIO member, in noting that his group’s offices will also be open today.

And it’s business as usual today at the headquarters of the Democratic Party.

“The passing of a president, Republican or Democrat or independent, is something that we join the nation in mourning,” said Jano Cabrera, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. “But our doors will be open. … Those who wish to take a personal day can do so.”

Mr. Reagan’s casket will be moved at 10:30 a.m. to the cathedral, in a funeral procession that will travel Constitution Avenue, go south on Third Street, west on Independence Avenue, north on 17th Street, west on Pennsylvania Avenue, north on 22nd Street, west on Massachusetts Avenue and north on Wisconsin Avenue to the National Cathedral.

Steve Miller, George Archibald, Charles Hurt and Elizabeth Green contributed to this report, which is based in part on wire reports.

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