Posted Wednesday, June 9, 10:16 p.m. Thousands of people gathered along a flag-strewn Constitution Avenue Wednesday to bid farewell to President Reagan.
A horse-drawn caisson carrying the former president’s body crept slowly down one of the city’s main arteries en route to the Capitol, where Reagan’s body will lie in the Rotunda during a 30-hour public viewing period that started at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday. Capitol Police officials said they expect 200,000 people to come pay their last respects during the viewing period.
Reagan, who withdrew from the public spotlight in recent years as he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, died June 5 at the age of 93 in his Los Angeles home.
On Wednesday, the crowd strained over one another’s heads to see the procession. Many watched the ceremony in the screens of camcorders or digital cameras as they huddled together in a muggy heat. Others stood atop fountains and benches to get a better view.
U.S. Park Police and Secret Service officers declined to give crowd estimates.
The onlookers applauded when Reagan’s widow, Nancy, emerged from one of the cars. She waved to the crowd as members of the military prepared to load the casket onto the caisson on 16th Street and Constitution Avenue.
A riderless horse, with two of Reagan’s boots set up backwards in the stirrups – symbolizing the loss of a leader who prided himself on rugged individualism – trailed the cassion. A group of military jets flew over the procession in a missing-man formation. The last plane in the group split off from the formation and disappeared into the distance.
“I think the thing that rang out is what a gentleman he was,” said Eileen Gaus, of Bethesda, Md. “He gave us dignity in the office. He brought integrity to this country,”
Peter Loge, a political consultant and GW professor of political communication, said Reagan was a successful and beloved president because of his ability to make people feel comfortable and come across as genuine. Reagan was the nation’s commander in chief from 1981 to 1989.
“He was able to talk to people where they were, and where they were more often than not was their living rooms,” said Loge in a phone interview Wednesday. “He knew how to structure a moment. He knew a really good speech isn’t just about the text. It’s about the scene, the audience and the camera angle.”
There was a strong relationship between GW and Reagan since his attempted assassination in 1981. It was in GW Hospital that a crew of 65 medical personnel saved Reagan’s life after he was shot by would-be assassin John Hinckley.
Joseph Giordano, one of the surgeons who operated on Reagan after the shooting, said he and other doctors were called to the emergency room as soon as Reagan arrived.
“We really didn’t think about it till afterwards,” said Giordano, now a chairman of surgery at GW’s medical school. “I’m very proud of what happened.”
Giordano said the Reagans sent him some “nice notes” following Reagan’s recovery.
“You always feel sorry for the death of a president or any public servant,” Giordano said. “He led a great life.”
In 1991, on the 10-year anniversary of his assassination attempt, the University awarded Reagan an honorary doctor of public service degree, and later attached his name to the GW Hospital’s Institute of Emergency Medicine.
“From the moment he was shot and the president was brought to GW Hospital and his live was saved, we’ve a special conversation going,” said University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who will be attending Reagan’s funeral service at the National Cathedral Friday.
In an interview Wednesday, Trachtenberg said he met with Reagan in California and Texas during the early 1990s.
The University canceled classes and suspended all business operations Friday in observance of Reagan’s death. Trachtenberg said the decision to cancel classes was based on Friday’s closure of the federal government and GW’s “institutional relationship” with Reagan.
-Michael Barnett and David Ceasar contributed to this report.