Goodbye to the Gipper

Vignettes From 11 Hours at the Rotunda

Posted June 10, 2004 at 12:37pm

On President Ronald Reagan’s first morning back in the Capitol, darkness began to break in America, as throngs of people waited for a final moment with the 40th president.

A Capitol Police officer stationed outside the West Front public entrance said there had been a “steady flow” of mourners over the roughly eight hours since the public had been granted its first glimpse of Reagan’s flag-draped casket.

After waiting an average of four to five hours, some of the visitors “have to work today,” the officer said. “They’re crazy.”

But still they came.

Reagan, said Donald Brown, a rancher from Throckmorton, Texas, “changed me and my wife to the Republican Party and to conservative, God-fearing values.” Brown, who had been in town for a meeting of cattle growers, solemnly cradled his straw cowboy hat in his arm.

Inside the Rotunda, the scene was at times surreal. The statuesque stillness of the honor guard that surrounded Reagan’s coffin cast a hypnotic mood over those who had come to pay their respects. Visitors circled in and out, some with a hand over their heart.

Father Joe Jenkins, a Catholic priest from Forestville, Md., had come alone Thursday because the rest of his fellow priests were “in bed asleep.”

Along with Pope John Paul II and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan “did so much for the fall of communism,” Jenkins said, adding that Reagan’s anti-abortion-rights stances had also inspired him and many other Catholic priests.

Jenkins wasn’t the only man of the cloth in attendance. About 20 minutes later, a trio of Franciscan friars, rosaries in hand, strolled into the Rotunda. In front of the casket, one of the three made the sign of the cross.

“Ever since we got word, we’ve been praying,” said Father Noel Danielewicz, whose Birkenstock sandals were peeping out from below his frock.

It was a long night for Capitol Police Officer K.N. Jones, who had been guarding the Rotunda since 2 a.m.

About an hour or so into Jones’ shift, a man entered the Rotunda, and, right in front of an enormous painting of George Washington, “just jumped down and started doing push-ups,” Jones recalled. The man stopped before police could intervene, Jones said, but offered Reagan one final salute before exiting.

To be sure, most visitors streaming into the Rotunda on Thursday morning were more subdued.

Terry Steen was an exception. The electrical engineer entered the Rotunda clutching his two young daughters in matching pink T-shirts, tears streaming down his cheeks.

“He was like my father,” said Steen, an Air Force veteran. Although Steen had already left his condolences on a Reagan-tribute Web site a few days earlier, he said in the Rotunda that the enormity of the moment didn’t really sink in until the queue he was in approached the Capitol steps.

“We walked up and the lights turned off,” Steen said. “I told my girls, ‘Hey, look, it’s morning’ — and then that really hit me hard. I guess I’m the biggest weeper.”

Similar scenes of devotion were repeated across the Capitol on Wednesday evening and into the early hours of Thursday.

A little after midnight, Air Force Capt. John Robinson, wearing his full dress uniform, and his son Jeff had just crossed Second Street in one line, only to wait in yet another zig-zagging queue across the street. His son, who said he had recently finished a report on Reagan for his elementary school class in Lynn, Mass., wore his Boy Scout uniform “as a sign of respect, like how Reagan never entered the Oval Office without a suit on.”

“I told his teacher he wouldn’t be in school tomorrow,” his father said, putting an arm around his son. “I told her he was finishing his report … He’s not scared of nuclear missiles from the Soviet Union — that’s all I thought about growing up. That right there is enough for me. I’ll stand in line for eight hours for that.”

By 2:30 a.m., Nichole Carpenter of Orange, Va., emerged from the Rotunda more than a bit awed and still carrying the flower she had brought in the hope of laying it next to Reagan’s casket.

Police prevented mourners from leaving objects near the casket, but Carpenter wasn’t disappointed. “I’ll leave it somewhere for him,” she said. “For me, it was his romance with his wife that was so beautiful. Whenever they were on TV the cameras would always just focus in on their hands. They were always holding hands.”

Despite its location in the center of American politics, the scene was predominantly nonpartisan. Only the rare visitor waiting for their moment with Reagan indulged in a partisan jab.

“He’s the last Republican I’ve ever voted for, and probably ever will vote for,” said Edward Marsh. But even Marsh conceded that Reagan was “the greatest president in my life.”

The Capitol Police could not provide an official head count by early Thursday morning, but estimates made before Reagan’s casket arrived in the Capitol had forecast up to 150,000 visitors to the Rotunda. The casket is to be transported Friday morning to Washington National Cathedral for an invitation-only funeral service.

Just before 7 a.m. Thursday, with the heat and humidity already on the rise, a pair of blondes strolled down the West Front exit. They were dressed in tight, form-fitting attire. One carried a pair of 3 1/2 inch-high black heels.

The two women said they had headed over to the Capitol from Wet, the gay male strip club in Southeast, a little after 1 a.m.

“We were drunk when we got here, but we are totally sober now,” said Melissa Garrigan, a real estate manager in Silver Spring, Md. Garrigan explained that she had brought her mini-skirt-clad South African friend along to witness the American ritual.

“We were out celebrating in honor of Ronald Reagan,” Garrigan said diplomatically. She added, a little less diplomatically, that “Reagan kicked ass.”

Her mother, who had waited for hours to see John F. Kennedy’s casket in the Capitol but had never made it in, was particularly pleased to hear via cellphone that her daughter had finally had the chance to view a president lying in state, Garrigan said.

“She said, ‘You go in and get one for the Gipper,’” Garrigan recalled.

Meanwhile, on First Street Southwest, where a tent had been set up for visitors to sign condolence books, a man in khakis and a blue button-up shirt attempted to direct the exiting crowd to the table.

“If I’d stayed up all night, I’d be sure to sign the condolence books,” he urged visitors, gesturing toward the tent.

The man, it turns out, was Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.), who had risen at 4 a.m. to be on the Hill by 5 a.m. As Members, he said, “It’s easy for us” to see Reagan. But Shays felt compelled to come out and direct pedestrian traffic.

Not far from the Taft Memorial, Nikki Dickerson sat with her four children, each younger than 11. It was about 7 a.m., but Dickerson, who had driven all the way from Henderson, N.C., admitted to being too tired to even attempt the trek back up Constitution Avenue to her car.

“It was his idea,” she said, pointing to her 9-year-old son, Kodi, who with his cropped hair, red tennis shoes and blue jeans could easily pass for “The Beav.”

“I thought it would be nice to go see Ronald Reagan,” drawled the fifth-grader, who said he hoped one day to be president himself. “He did a lot of stuff for the country.”

Jennifer Yachnin and Liza Gutierrez contributed to this report.