Reagan making last trip to Capitol

June 9, 2004

— The body of former President Ronald Reagan, escorted by Nancy Reagan and his children, began its journey to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday for national memorial services.

A Boeing 747 from the White House fleet took off at about 9:39 a.m. from the Navy's Point Mugu air station, en route to Andrews Air Force Base.

From Andrews, the body was to be taken to the Capitol to lie in state until Friday's funeral at the National Cathedral. It will then be returned to California for burial at the presidential library that evening.

Before the takeoff, in a simple runway ceremony with the former first lady watching, the flag-draped casket was carried from a hearse as a Marine Corps band played "Hail to the Chief," "God Bless America" and "Amazing Grace." A battery from the 11th Marine Artillery Regiment of the 1st Marine Division fired a thundering salute.

At the top of the aircraft stairs, Nancy Reagan waved goodbye as the crowd applauded.

The trip began earlier under gray clouds at the hilltop Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, where more than 100,000 people had paid their respects during the previous two days.

A 45-minute motorcade brought the casket to Point Mugu, where hundreds of civilians and sailors in white waited under the clearing blue sky.

During the drive to Point Mugu, crowds had watched from overpasses as the procession headed along U.S. 101. Traffic on the opposite side of the freeway came to a halt and some drivers got out and stood with hands over their hearts.

Farm workers around the base climbed off tractors, removed hats from their heads and put them over their hearts, and a little boy stood at attention and saluted from the tailgate of a pickup truck by an onion field. "Rest Well, President Reagan," said a sign.

More than 100,000 admirers had filed past the former president's coffin at the library in a steady stream of well-wishers that continued past nightfall Tuesday.

"It's a lifetime event. I wanted to show my gratitude. I wanted to show my love," said Jesse Garcia, 52, who with his wife came from their home in Northern California.

Reagan, the nation's 40th chief executive, was 93 when he died Saturday of pneumonia, as a complication of Alzheimer's disease.

His death revealed that the popularity of the former Republican president, California governor and movie actor remained strong despite his long absence from public life.

"It is unbelievable what I am seeing on TV," Reagan office chief of staff Joanne Drake quoted Nancy Reagan as saying Tuesday. "The outpouring of love for my husband is incredible."

In Washington, people already had begun arriving before dawn Wednesday to wait in line to view Reagan's casket at the Capitol Rotunda.

Among them was Carol Williams, who said she stood in line for five hours to vote for Reagan in 1984 and on Wednesday drove more than two hours from her home in Chesterfield, Va.

"President Reagan restored dignity and character to the White House. He never wavered in front of the American people," Williams said, as she stood a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol. "What less could I do than stand in line for a few hours?"

Glen Rivers, of Jenkinsburg, Ga., whose wife, Deborah, secured a place in line near the Capitol at 6:30 a.m., said his family had extended their Washington vacation to witness the pageantry of the state funeral.

Asked why it was important for him to be there, Rivers said: "To be a part of history, I suppose. This doesn't happen very often."

Officials say as many as 5,000 people an hour could file past Reagan's casket over the 34 hours of public viewing in the Capitol. Police advised people not to bring cameras or heavy backpacks, and warned them to be prepared for afternoon temperatures in the low 90s.

Mourners in Simi Valley had waited for hours just to drive into a nearby college that was shut down to provide parking. They waited hours more to board shuttle buses to the library, which had to add more buses and extend its hours to handle the turnout.

The steady stream or mourners was occasionally interrupted by the arrival of political figures and celebrities, including Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

Other visitors included Govs. Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, and actors Morgan Fairchild and Bruce Boxleitner, who arrived as representatives of the Screen Actors Guild, which Reagan once led.

After returning from the G-8 Summit in Georgia on Thursday, President Bush and his wife, Laura, plan to call on Mrs. Reagan at Blair House, the official guest residence across the street from the White House. Bush was expected to go to the Capitol that evening to visit Reagan's casket, White House aides said.