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High officials, common Americans join capital farewell to Reagan
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The casket of former President Ronald Reagan is placed on a horse drawn caisson in front of the White House. (STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

Washington, DC — (AP) With the storied riderless horse symbolizing the fallen president, Ronald Reagan's casket rolled on a century-old caisson to the Capitol on Wednesday for final tributes from high officials and common Americans in the first presidential state funeral in three decades. The 40th president lay in state under a dome where public servants from Abraham Lincoln forward have been honored. People stood by the thousands in quiet witness to his funeral procession along the broad expanse of Constitution Avenue and waited hours in steamy heat to pay last respects in the Capitol Rotunda.

"Fellow Americans, here lies a graceful and a gallant man," said Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking at the state funeral ceremony opening the 34-hour period of Reagan's lying in state. "It was the vision and the will of Ronald Reagan that gave hope to the oppressed, shamed the oppressors and ended the evil empire."

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Image A Minnesota memorial

Crowds 15 deep watched the Washington procession. Drums sounded, marking the cadence of the marchers, and cheers briefly broke out for Nancy Reagan at the head of the procession. She waved repeatedly, looking wan.

"God bless you, Nancy," a man cried out.

In her husband's death as in his life, she was beside him at every step. When his flag-draped casket reached the landing of the Capitol, she reached out and touched it. She gazed at it, as she had been known so long for gazing at him in life.

In the Rotunda, she approached the casket again and lingered, patting and stroking the top, finally turning away. Members of Congress and other dignitaries in the room put their hands on their hearts as Reagan's body passed by.

Reagan's body was flown from California to close the first chapter in a slowly unfolding week of remembrance. In California, more than 100,000 people had paid respects to Reagan in his presidential hilltop library.

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Image A wave goodbye

Reagan's funeral procession was formed within view of the White House. Following a long tradition, rarely seen, the body of the former president, who was an avid horseman, was carried on a black caisson drawn by six horses. The artillery carriage was built in 1918 to carry provisions and ammunition.

Behind that trailed Sgt. York, the horse with an empty saddle and boots reversed in the stirrups to symbolize a warrior who will ride no more and looks back a final time on his troops. Sgt. York stepped lively, tossing his head and appearing a bit spooked on occasion.

Overhead - only 1,000 feet overhead - 21 fighter jets screamed by in four formations, a wingman breaking away and rocketing upward to signify the loss of a comrade.

By early evening, 100 people on the National Mall had been treated for heat-related illnesses, said Alan Etter, speaking for the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. U.S. Capitol Police trucked in about 150,000 of bottles of water and turned on large fans for people waiting in line to view Reagan's casket in the Capital Rotunda.

In the service opening 34 hours of Reagan's lying in state, Senate President Pro Tem Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, noted a tradition dating to 1824 of paying final tribute to public servants in the Rotunda.

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Image The final journey

"President Abraham Lincoln was the first president to lie in state under this Capitol dome," he said. "In the coming days, thousands will come to these hallowed halls to say goodbye to another son of Illinois who, like Lincoln, appealed to our best hopes, not our worst fears."

To Carol Williams of Chesterfield, Va., all the fanfare was for a common man.

"They didn't live in Camelot, they lived in reality with the rest of us," said Williams, a college professor who came before dawn and took first place in line for the night's public viewing.

Washington last staged these presidential rites in 1973, for Lyndon Johnson, less than a decade after John Kennedy's assassination produced the state funeral carved most deeply in America's memory.

Reagan's procession sometimes had the feel of a parade, in contrast to the shock and grief that attended every stage of the slain President Kennedy's funeral.

As always, every clicking step of shined boots, every sounding of the bugle, every firing of rifle and cannon was tightly scripted. As always, people made their unscripted emotional connections.

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Image Former first lady Nancy Reagan

"He stood against communism, he believed in small government," said Bill Richardson, an engineer from Louisville, Ky., who watched the procession.

Gene Eiring, 49, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel from Custer, S.D., said he and his wife had dropped everything to rush to Washington. "He was my commander in chief for eight years," Eiring said. "He served so unselfishly, it was the least I could do for him."

In California, during a 45-minute motorcade to Point Mugu Naval Air Station, Calif., for the flight east, crowds watched from overpasses, traffic stopped on the other side of the freeway and some drivers got out and stood with hands over hearts.

Farm workers near the base climbed off tractors, removed hats from their heads and put them over their hearts. 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.

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Image A moment to reflect

Reagan, who died Saturday at 93, will be buried Friday in a sunset ceremony on the Simi Valley library grounds.

In Washington, 141 embassies accepted invitations to send representatives to the ceremony at Congress on Wednesday evening that begins Reagan's period of lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda.

Reagan returned in death to a Congress he loved to scold. "That big white dome, bulging with new tax revenues," he would say. "Tax and spend crowd," he called the inhabitants. "I have wondered at times what the Ten Commandments would have looked like if Moses had run them through the U.S. Congress."

Seventeen years ago, he compared Democratic lawmakers to the "screeching" periodic cicadas that then - and again this spring - have infested the city.

Those battles were bygone Wednesday in a tribute drawing together Republicans who idolized Reagan and Democrats who liked him even while abhoring some of his conservative policies. Congress passed unanimous resolutions praising him.

First elected in 1980, Reagan won re-election in 1984. In 1994, he released a letter to the nation saying he had Alzheimer's disease and was embarking on "the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life."

President Bush planned to come back from the Group of Eight meeting in Georgia on Thursday and, with his wife Laura, call on Mrs. Reagan at Blair House, the official guest residence across the street from the White House.

Aides said Bush would visit the casket Thursday evening. Bush and his father, who was Reagan's vice president and succeeded him in the White House, will be among the eulogists Friday.

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