- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 8, 2004

A frail and tearful Nancy Reagan laid her cheek on the flag-draped casket of her husband yesterday and murmured private tendernesses as America began its long goodbye to former President Ronald Reagan.

“A great president, a great world leader and a faithful servant of Almighty God,” observed the Rev. Michael Wenning, who comforted Mrs. Reagan during a brief ceremony at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

“We have come this day to begin the preparation of our final respect,” he told a dozen close friends and family members, including the president’s children and entertainer Merv Griffin. Yesterday marked the first public appearances by members of the Reagan family.

“We thank You that this world is a better place because he was here,” Mr. Wenning said. “And we thank You for the pride that he instilled, for reminding us of the great nation that, under Your guidance, we are.”

Yesterday marked the first of several major services for Mr. Reagan, which will include a private ceremony at the U.S. Capitol, a state funeral at the National Cathedral in Washington and the final burial at the Reagan Library. The White House announced yesterday that President Bush will deliver Mr. Reagan’s eulogy at the state funeral.

Like Mr. Bush did at the cathedral three days after the September 11 attacks, Mr. Wenning quoted the book of Romans at yesterday’s service as a way of offering hope to the grief-stricken.

“Neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, shall be able to separate us from the love of God,” said the retired senior pastor of Bel Air Presbyterian Church near the president’s longtime home.

Then he led the group in the Lord’s Prayer, and Mrs. Reagan approached the black catafalque bearing the body of her husband of 52 years. She stroked and patted the closed casket and pressed her cheek against the U.S. flag.

Mrs. Reagan, 82, wearing a plain black dress and pearl necklace, was flanked by her children, Ron Reagan and Patti Davis, who hugged their mother and held her hands.

The president’s adopted son, Michael Reagan, lingered after the others had departed to kiss his father’s casket.

A short time later, in keeping with the former president’s wishes, members of the public began to file into the hushed chamber to pay their final respects. It was the beginning of a week of national mourning.

“President Reagan was a man of the people, and it was real important for him that people be given the opportunity to pay their respects if they wanted,” said Joanne Drake, his chief of staff.

Tearful mourners saluted, made the sign of the cross or simply placed their hands over their hearts as they gazed upon the 40th president’s closed casket after waiting in line for hours.

One woman wore a hat bearing the insignia of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan. Others bowed, doffed their hats or dropped to their knees as an honor guard stood sentinel.

“We’re glad he’s no longer suffering,” a tearful Ed Reinecke said.

“Hopefully, his memory will inspire people,” said Mr. Reinecke, who was California’s lieutenant governor under Mr. Reagan from 1969 to 1974.

A nonstop procession of people — an estimated 2,000 per hour — are expected to pass silently through the presidential library to pay their respects.

Ordinary Americans weren’t the only ones eager to say goodbye.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, California Republican, and wife Maria Shriver stood side by side at the coffin and placed a white rose on the catafalque.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who lost the Cold War, announced plans yesterday to attend the funeral service at the National Cathedral in Washington on Friday.

The New York Stock Exchange opened with a moment of silence that delayed the start of trading by two minutes. The exchange will be closed Friday in honor of the beloved champion of free markets, who in 1985 became the first sitting president to visit the exchange.

Talk of the former president, who died of pneumonia Saturday at 93 after a decadelong struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, dominated the Group of Eight economic summit on Sea Island, Ga., where Mr. Bush hosted world leaders while preparing a speech for Friday’s funeral at the National Cathedral.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice suggested parallels between Mr. Reagan’s unflinching opposition to communism and Mr. Bush’s single-minded prosecution of the war on terror. She lauded Mr. Reagan’s tough foreign-policy pronouncements, which often riled liberals.

“That kind of blunt, plain-spokenness was really not appreciated at the time,” she said at the summit. “There were people who said, ‘Oh, my God, how undiplomatic that is.’”

“And, in fact, it turned out to be not only true, but by being plain-spoken, it was a spur to change,” she added. “President Bush is inspired by that kind of plain-spokenness, about that willingness to tell the truth, about the willingness to be unabashedly clear about the universality of the values of liberty and freedom.”

Mr. Reagan’s body arrived at the library after an hourlong drive from a Santa Monica funeral home for the 40-mile drive to Simi Valley, partially on the Ronald Reagan Freeway.

A Marine band played “Hail to the Chief” and “America” as a color guard carried the casket from the back of a hearse.

The body will lie in repose through today and then be flown to Washington tomorrow for ceremonies that will culminate in Friday’s funeral. Later on Friday, the body will be flown back to the library for a private sunset burial on a hillside overlooking the ocean.

Meanwhile yesterday, congressional leaders in Washington canceled the week’s legislative schedule in order to give members time to deliver floor speeches about Mr. Reagan and to prepare for this week’s observances.

The Senate swiftly passed and sent the House a resolution that authorizes “the use of the Rotunda of the Capitol for the lying in state of the remains of the late Ronald Wilson Reagan.” The House was set to pass it today with equal dispatch.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, described the measure as the first of “various resolutions scheduled over the course of this week saluting the life and legacy of Ronald Reagan.”

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who has canceled his week’s campaign events, is scheduled to visit the Reagan library this afternoon.

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