Published June 10, 2004
WASHINGTON – President Bush paid his respects to former President Ronald Reagan Thursday, joining the tens of thousands of mourners who flocked to the Capitol to bid a final farewell to the 40th president.
Arm in arm with First Lady Laura Bush, the president walked across the hushed rotunda to Reagan's casket, bowed his head in prayer and touched the flag draping the coffin. The Bushes then quickly exited.
Supreme Court justices, tourists, Boy Scouts and world leaders were also among those who gazed upon Reagan's casket in silent contemplation under the Capitol Dome.
Across from the White House, Nancy Reagan (search) received a stream of visitors drawn from a list of the powerful, past and present, as Reagan's friends and colleagues flocked to his widow's side.
Bush had returned from a Georgia summit with world leaders. Earlier Thursday, he praised the late president as a "great man, a historic leader and a national treasure." He would not say if he supported efforts to put Reagan's image on currency, saying that after the funeral "I will reflect on further ways to honor a great president."
Reagan's Soviet rival-turned-friend, Mikhail Gorbachev (search), visited, too, and wrote in the condolence book in Russian, "I convey my deep feelings of condolence to dear Nancy and the whole family." Former Secretary of State George Shultz and former chief of staff Howard Baker were among the onetime Reagan aides who came to Blair House.
Gorbachev then visited Reagan's casket in the Rotunda, reaching out and briefly laying his palm on it.
"To Ronnie," former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (search), the first to see Mrs. Reagan, wrote in the Blair House condolence book. "Well done, thou good and faithful servant." Reagan and Thatcher shared a worldview, conservative politics and enduring mutual affection.
Joanne Drake, chief of staff of the Reagan office, described the late president's final moments before his death Saturday, as told to her by his wife.
"She told me that as he neared death and it became evident it was close, he opened his eyes and he gazed at her," Drake said. "His eyes were as blue as ever and he closed them and died. She told me it was the greatest gift ever."
Drake said Mrs. Reagan was "doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances" and was greatly comforted by the outpouring of support.
Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (search), who shared an Irish ancestry with Reagan, also visited the former first lady, with his wife, Mila. "For Ron with affection, admiration and respect," the Mulroneys wrote. "The Gipper always came through!"
The former British and Canadian leaders were joining President Bush and his father Friday in eulogizing Reagan at Washington National Cathedral to close the curtain on the capital's elaborate state funeral — Washington's last goodbye before Reagan's sunset burial on the grounds of his presidential library outside Los Angeles.
Former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who also met with Mrs. Reagan, said he recalled the president once showing him where he planned to be laid to rest. "He told me that would be the spot he would be buried and right next to him would be buried Mrs. Reagan," he said. Nakasone asked Mrs. Reagan if that was still the plan.
"She said the plan was still on and she would go next to him when she passes," Nakasone said.
Reagan began talking about his funeral in 1981, the year he became president, family representatives said.
He asked George H.W. Bush, when he was vice president, to speak at his funeral, and years ago asked Justice Sandra Day O'Connor — the first woman on the Supreme Court — to read at his service, specifying she read from a John Winthrop sermon that inspired his description of America as "the shining city upon a hill."
Several years ago he asked former Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., to officiate, the family said, following a suggestion from the Rev. Billy Graham that someone else be approached in the event Graham could not do it. Both Reagans wanted opera music at the funeral.
And so the service will unfold: Danforth officiating, O'Connor reading, the elder Bush as a eulogist and Irish tenor Ronan Tynan performing "Ave Maria."
The Capitol sergeant at arms office, which oversees security in the building, estimated 30,000 people had viewed the casket in the first 10 hours of Reagan's lying in state. His casket was continuously on view until Friday morning.
Boy scouts in khaki shorts and neckerchiefs, office workers with ID tags around their necks, senators and tourists with their children in tow, an American Indian in feathered headdress, all came to pay their respects.
Iraq's new president, Ghazi al-Yawer, fresh from the summit with world leaders in Sea Island, Ga., visited the Capitol Rotunda, too, placing a hand to his chest in front of the casket before moving on.
Art Kreatschman, 52, of New Windsor, Md., stood in line for three hours before his few seconds in the Rotunda. "I did OK until I got inside and then it was very moving," he said. "I teared up little."
Several thousand people stood in a line that snaked along the western end of Capitol Hill and around the Capitol reflecting pool, many writing in a condolence book. Large fans helped cool those waiting in the steamy heat, and bottled water was available. Inside the cool of the building were long, separate lines for congressional staff.
"He did so many great things for our country and I remember a happy and optimistic time for America," Barbara Coward, 37, of Timonium, Md., scribbled in the book. "He made me proud to be an American."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.