WASHINGTON – Visitors continued to pour into the Capitol Rotunda through the early morning on Thursday to pay their final respects to former President Ronald Reagan (search) just hours after a touching ceremony and tribute in which Nancy Reagan (search) said goodbye to her husband and the former leader of the United States.
Stealing a few moments before she turned over her husband to the masses waiting to say their final goodbyes, Nancy rubbed her hands across the casket of Ronald, her lips moving, uttering unspoken words.
But aside from a slight glistening in her eyes as she whispered to her husband, lying in state beneath a U.S. flag, the former first lady publicly remained totally composed throughout Wednesday, a day that saw her late husband carried across the nation and then remembered in a memorial service at the Capitol, where he will remain until his state funeral on Friday.
During a service attended by hundreds of Washington dignitaries, the vice president and congressional leaders praised the 40th president for his humility, charm and never-ending hope.
"Knowing this moment would come has not made it any easier," said Vice President Dick Cheney, referring to the 10-year-long struggle the former president suffered with Alzheimer's (search) disease. "In this national vigil of mourning, we show how much America loved this good man, and how much we will miss him.
"Ronald Reagan spoke of a nation that was hopeful, big-hearted, daring, decent and fair. That is how he saw America, and that is how America came to know him. There was a kindness, simplicity and goodness of character that marked all the years of his life."
As lawmakers and dignitaries sat quietly and paid their respects to the late president, the speaker of the House, president pro tem of the Senate and congressional chaplains emphasized the role Reagan played in turning around not only the economy and foreign relations of this country, but its pride as well.
"His integrity, vision and commitment were respected by all, but history's final judgment I believe we will remember most: his ability to inspire us," said President Pro Tem Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. "President Reagan put it best when he said, 'The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one who gets the people to do the greatest things.'"
"Ronald Wilson Reagan had many roles to play in life: husband, father, governor. But the most notable role on the world stage was that of the 40th president of the United States of America. With his style and grace, he made it seem easy, with his compassion and sense of timing, he brought strength of character to the nation and rekindled hope in a darkened world," said House Chaplain Daniel P. Coughlin.
Surrounded by the couple's children, Nancy Reagan sat attentively throughout the service, her head bowed only during the chaplain's convocation. While officials paid tribute to the legacy of the president, they also gave due to the love affair between the president and his wife of 52 years.
"Nancy, none of us can take away the sadness you are feeling. I hope it is a comfort to know how much he means to us, and how much you mean to us as well. We honor your grace, your own courage and above all the great love that you gave to your husband," Cheney said. "When these days of ceremony are completed, the nation returns him to you for the final journey to the West. And when he is laid to rest under the Pacific sky, we will be thinking of you as we commend to the Almighty the soul of his faithful servant, Ronald Wilson Reagan."
Before the services began, Mrs. Reagan emerged from the Capitol building just after 7 p.m. EDT Wednesday evening to greet her husband's casket as it arrived following a slow march down Constitution Ave. Nearby, cannons fired off a 21-gun salute in a solemn farewell to the late president.
Upon his arrival at the Capitol, renderings of "Hail to the Chief" (search) and "Battle Hymn of the Republic" played as guns filled the air with noise and smoke. The president's coffin was then taken off the six-horse caisson that rode Reagan's body down the wide boulevard. A rotating honor guard carried the president's body up the long staircase on the West Front end of the Capitol, stopping once at a landing so soldiers and sailors could exchange places and carry the 700-pound casket further up the steps to the Capitol Rotunda.
During the slow stride down the avenue marked with thousands of respectful mourners, a 21-airship flyover crossed the skies in missing-man formation, marking a partial escort for the president's coffin.
The hearse carrying Reagan arrived near the White House at the Ellipse a little after 5 p.m. EDT. Reagan's body was then transferred to the wagon. In front of the caisson stood a riderless horse that carried the former president's riding boots. The boots faced backward in the stirrups in the style of a military memorial.
The caisson then made its way from the nearby Washington Monument to the Capitol. The gradual approach gave the thousands of grieving Americans who came to bear witness in the 90-degree heat a last chance to say goodbye to Reagan.
The president's body arrived in the nation's capital about 50 minutes after the presidential Boeing 747 landed at Andrews Air Force Base. Nancy Reagan and members of her family accompanied the casket carrying Reagan on the flight after escorting it from the presidential library in California to a naval base at Point Mugu.
Reagan's body was flown to Washington to give local supporters and well-wishers, as well as dignitaries flying in from around the world, an opportunity to pay their respects to the man known as the Gipper.
"Funerals are not for the dead. They are really for the living," said author, Washington Post writer and first lady historian Ann Gerhart. "This is something we do well, the inaugurals, the victory parades."
After the service, the public quickly lined up to wend their way around the president's casket until his funeral at the National Cathedral (search) on Friday. His body will then be returned to California for burial at the presidential library that evening.
Early estimates suggested that 100,000 would pass his coffin as it sat in the Capitol Rotunda before his funeral.
Earlier, as mourners waited in line for the president's arrival, a brief scare ensued as Capitol Police began evacuating the Capitol building after reports that an unidentified plane was headed into restricted airspace Washington.
The situation was quickly brought under control as Homeland Security Department officials contacted the plane, which was identified as carrying Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher, who was headed into town to attend memorial services for the late president.
Before the takeoff from California, in a simple runway ceremony with the former first lady Nancy Reagan 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, Mrs. Reagan waved goodbye as the crowd applauded.
"He believed in the American people and he was optimistic," first lady Laura Bush said of Reagan in an interview with Fox News at the Group of Eight Summit (search) in Sea Island, Ga. "He was funny and he made us feel welcome when we were with him — I'll always remember him for the big man that he was and for his humor … [and] the world did change because of his steadfastness."
Laura Bush said she and President Bush haven't stopped thinking about Nancy Reagan.
She's "such a wonderful example ... to take care of someone, I know how very, very difficult it was for her and how devoted she was and is to him," the first lady said.
Reagan was 93 when he died Saturday of pneumonia, as a complication of the Alzheimer's. 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.
On Monday and Tuesday, more than 100,000 admirers of the Republican leader filed past the former president's flag-draped coffin at the hilltop library in California that bears his name.
"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 traveled down from their home in Northern California to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library (search) in Simi Valley.
"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."
Mourners endured hours-long waits 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 the period of lying in repose to handle the turnout.
"He gave us eight years of service," said Keith Godliman, 50, of Santa Clarita. "It doesn't hurt for us to wait eight hours for him. He deserves us to wait eight hours for him."
About 106,000 mourners passed by the coffin from noon Monday until the public viewing ended Tuesday night, library officials said. The viewing period was originally supposed to end at 6 p.m. Tuesday, but the overwhelming turnout forced an extension to 9 p.m.
The steady stream was occasionally interrupted by the arrival of political figures and celebrities. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry stood quietly before the casket, made the sign of the cross, put his hand over his heart and left.
Visitors to the library Tuesday included Govs. Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, and celebrities Morgan Fairchild and Bruce Boxleitner, who arrived as representatives of the Screen Actors Guild, which Reagan once led.
As the last of the public buses shuttled mourners down the hill late Tuesday, those on board said it would not be their last goodbye to the former president.
"We're lucky here in Southern California. We are going to have him around here forever," Marisa Steffensen, 26, said, gesturing toward the site where Reagan will be interred.
Fox News' Jim Angle and Sharon Kehnemui and The Associated Press contributed to this report.