Capital City Polishes Up for Remembrance

Times Staff Writer

Lately, the capital city has been hanging its head. The war in Iraq has taken some tragic turns, photos of prisoner abuse have sent politicians to pointing fingers and the CIA director has resigned.

But late Wednesday afternoon, the body of a leader many adored arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, giving Washington an opportunity to comb its hair, polish its shoes and put on its best face. No city in the nation is more practiced at the art of ceremony and remembrance than this one, and former President Ronald Reagan’s death Saturday presented an opportunity to set aside crisis for contemplation.

The usual partisan sniping stopped. Flowers were planted near the Capitol. Hotels filled to capacity as people came from all over the country, not to protest a war or condemn globalization but to remember a man who made many Americans feel good about themselves.


“It gives us a chance to adjust our bearings and think about what the country wants to be and what it should be,” said Robert Gaines, 57, a math teacher who drove with his wife from Greensboro, N.C., to be 15th in a line of mourners waiting to pass before Reagan’s casket under the Capitol Rotunda. They would sit nearly 12 hours for the privilege, much of it in heat that topped 90 degrees.

Many others also traveled long distances to pay their respects. Schedules were juggled and work abandoned. A landscaper’s flowers would go unplanted in Louisiana. Report cards would be late at a North Carolina school. Kids in New Hampshire would have to make do with a different camp counselor, and chores in a local Mormon temple would wait for the weekend.

People started lining up at 5 a.m. outside the Capitol. First to arrive was a party led by Carol Williams, a college professor who drove from Chesterfield, Va. By 9 a.m. it was nearly 80 degrees and the air quality was officially declared unhealthful. Karon Tanner, 62, said no amount of inconvenience would stop her from coming to honor Reagan. Dressed in red, white and blue, she and her husband set up flag-decorated folding chairs on Constitution Avenue, the route his casket would travel. They plopped down their ice chest and appreciated the breeze.

“In the two years I’ve been here I’ve never fought the crowds for anything. Not for Fourth of July. Not for the World War II memorial. But no matter what it took, I was going to do this,” said Tanner, whose volunteer work at her Mormon temple would have to wait.

The display of respect for the former president fell right in the middle of the workweek, but bosses would understand, teachers would forgive. Washington doesn’t just host events of this magnitude -- it lives them.

Federal employees were given liberal leave from their jobs to mitigate what was shaping up to be a horrendous traffic jam. Whatever business was conducted on Capitol Hill focused on suggestions for new ways to honor Reagan, the 40th president. Among them were proposals to drop Franklin D. Roosevelt from the dime and pluck Alexander Hamilton from the $10 bill to make room for Reagan.


Clearly, Reagan had an effect on people that seemed to transfer through the generations. D.J. Bettencourt’s father once saw him at a 1976 campaign stop in New Hampshire and was transformed from a Kennedy Democrat into a Reagan Republican.

“He voted Republican in every election after that,” said Bettencourt, 20, a camp counselor who, sharing his father’s affection for the president, ditched work and drove all night from Salem, N.H., with his friend to claim a spot on Constitution Avenue, where they subsisted on jellybeans. The gesture would cost him more than $200 in expenses and lost wages.

Tami Schultz, 41, administrator of the Masters Academy in Forest City, N.C., canceled the school’s workweek for teachers and got in a van with two teachers and four students. Report cards due Friday would be issued Monday.

Ray Stahl of Baton Rouge, La., who had never flown, told his daughter 10 years ago that he would board an airplane to honor his favorite president. Keeping that promise, the 51-year-old landscaper canceled his obligations and told his boss at the insurance company where he works part time that he had to go to a funeral. He didn’t say whose.

Then he got on a plane for Baltimore, where he took a train for the first time in his life.

After completing his nine-hour journey, Stahl stood in the shade of a tree on the Capitol lawn and drank a Coke. “Reagan made me feel good about America. Now I’ve been kind of worried about this Iraq thing. I like Bush all right, but Reagan is the man,” he said.