As Reagan's body lay in state in the Rotunda yesterday, tens of thousands of mourners from around the country streamed through the Capitol to pay their respects. Among them was Bush, who returned early from an international summit in Sea Island, Ga., to visit the casket yesterday evening. He then made a 40-minute condolence call to Nancy Reagan at Blair House, the presidential guesthouse across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.
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Bush and his father, former President George Bush, and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher will be among the dignitaries to eulogize Reagan at today's service. The attendees will also include President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, former Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Britain's Prince Charles, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and former Polish President Lech Walesa.
Bush and his wife, Laura, strode into the hushed Capitol Rotunda to pay their respects to Reagan, whose casket lay in the same spot where those of nine other presidents have lain in state, on the pine catafalque built for Abraham Lincoln in 1865.
The Bushes, who surprised dozens of visitors whose turn in the Rotunda happened to coincide with their visit, bowed their heads as if in prayer, and the president smoothed the American flag covering Reagan's casket. After a few brief moments, they turned and walked briskly out.
They visited with a throng of mourners who had come from around the country to stand in a line that ran down the south side of the Capitol to the National Mall, snaking and yielding waits of as long as five hours.
"It's amazing the respect that people are paying, from our military to the thousands of everyday men and women standing side by side with Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher -- that's what Ronald Reagan was all about," Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Senate majority leader, said as he stood outside his Capitol office just down the hallway from the Rotunda.
"It's the everyday people juxtaposed with the most powerful in the world that is moving," Frist said, "and it's what Reagan embodied."
The many ordinary visitors who came to the Rotunda, many of them clad in shorts and T-shirts, made their own gestures of respect. Some placed their hands over their hearts, made crisp salutes or crossed themselves as they passed by Reagan's casket.
One of the more poignant moments of the day came when Cpl. James Wright, a Marine who lost both his hands in Iraq and was awarded the Bronze Star this month, lifted his still-bandaged arm to salute Reagan.
"What you see is what it is -- it's genuine, it's people in shirt-sleeves, middle-class people, black, white, Asian," said former Sen. Bob Dole, a Kansas Republican. "I think it would have made President Reagan very happy."
As they left the Rotunda, visitors received printed commemorative cards bearing the U.S. government seal, attesting that they had witnessed "The Final Tribute from a Grateful Nation," "The Lying in State of President Reagan."
"I thought it was important for them to see part of history -- this was a great man," said Leech, 45, a restaurant owner. "I would have liked to have been able to stay longer, because it was so impressive."
Destiny Bigby, 8, stood nearby, imitating the crisp movements of the honor guard that surrounds Reagan's casket: hands stiffly at her sides, shoulders back, small, slow steps.
Leech's daughter, Casey Leech, 11, pronounced the scene inside "pretty amazing."
"It was different from any other person's funeral," Casey said. "I think that I'm pretty lucky to see all this."
Yosi Kol and about a dozen friends, visiting the United States from Israel, took time out of their stay in New York City to come to Washington and witness the scene of national mourning.
"It's beautiful that people have that kind of respect for him," said Kol, a 52-year-old actor, gesturing toward the serpentine line of people waiting to enter the Capitol. "I think it is true around the world. He was strong. He gave people hope."