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At the Rotunda

What it was like at the Reagan memorial service in the Capitol.

5:40 PM, Jun 10, 2004 • By RACHEL DICARLO
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AT THE CAPITOL Wednesday at five, two hours before President Reagan's body is due to arrive at the Rotunda for the state funeral, buses of Marines and Navy sailors are pulling up near the Senate-side entrance. Staffers are pouring out of nearby House and Senate office buildings into the 90-degree heat to start toward the lines that are already wrapping around the block onto First Street to see the former president who will be brought to lie in repose under the dome. The Capitol police are stationed at every corner and every entrance of the building and demand credentials from anyone who tries to pass the long line and into a much shorter queue for the metal detector to get inside.

At 5:45, the press pool is led out of the press gallery and onto bleachers in the back of the empty Rotunda. The catafalque, originally constructed for President Lincoln, is draped in tiered brown fabric and looked after by a full-cross of half a dozen military personnel.

The diplomats start to arrive around 6:00. More than 140 embassies have accepted invitations to send representatives to the ceremony. They're followed by congressmen, and then senators. The members stand talking and straining their necks above the crowd. Senators Hillary Clinton, Arlen Specter, and John McCain are nodding, hands clasped behind their backs. Senator Ted Kennedy moves to the back of the room, sits on a bench, and opens a book. He is joined a few minutes later by Congressman Pete Sessions, who stands on the bench and peers over his colleagues for a better view of the center of the room.

Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher is seated. Justices Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy, and Breyer arrive. The president's cabinet files into the front center, led by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Merv Griffin comes in.

A few minutes after 6:30, a full-cross honor guard lines the entrance. We hear the fly-over and the cannons booming outside. The room is suddenly still, except for the snapping cameras. Everyone is watching the entrance.

Light is pouring in through the circles of overhead windows, casting oval shadows on the marble walls, molded columns, and statues. The Reagan children step in as the band plays "Amazing Grace." President and Mrs. Reagan are outside. The room is silent. Faces are solemn.

Eight pall-bearers carry the flag-draped casket. Spotlights in each corner illuminate the casket and the honor guard stands at attention nearby. A few congressmen tear up, take off their glasses, and wipe their eyes. A frail-looking Mrs. Reagan, dressed in a black suit, is escorted by the vice president to the only chair in the front row of the Reagan family's section.

The funeral is elegant in its simplicity. The invocation begins at dusk. Every head is bowed above a dark suit. The Reagan family has chosen three men to deliver eulogies--Senator Ted Stevens, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, and Vice President Dick Cheney. All three take note of Reagan's personal qualities--his spirit, idealism, and commitment to core American values. "Ronald Reagan rose from a boy who didn't have much to a man who had it all," Stevens says.

"His story is and values are quintessentially American. He was born in Illinois and moved West to follow his dreams," Hastert says.

The vice president speaks of Reagan's optimism that the Cold War would end. "Seen now at a distance, his strengths as a man and as a leader are only more impressive," Cheney says. "For decades, America had waged a Cold War and few believed it could possibly end in our own lifetimes. The president was one of those few. And it was the vision of Ronald Reagan that gave hope to the oppressed, shamed the oppressors, and ended an evil empire . . . Fellow Americans here lies a graceful and a gallant man."

As the Air Force's choir sings "America the Beautiful," at least four members of Congress dry their eyes. Mrs. Reagan watches upright with her hand at her mouth. At the end of the ceremony the three leaders lay three large wreaths decorated with red, white, and blue roses and ribbons near the casket and salute them.

Dr. Barry Black who delivers the benediction invokes Reagan's reminder of America's opportunity to "remain a shining city on a hill" and that "his love for freedom summoned us to embrace our best hopes, not our worst fears."

As the ceremony ends Mrs. Reagan is escorted out of the Rotunda by Cheney. She stops briefly to run her hand along the casket, first on a red stripe, then a white one. She pats it, moves her cheek toward its surface, pauses, stands back up, and walks out.

Rachel DiCarlo is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.