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Nation says goodbye to Ronald Reagan

Former first lady Nancy Reagan leans over to kiss the casket of her husband former President Ronald Reagan, shortly before his body was removed from the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington today. (AP photo/Stephan Sovoia)

WASHINGTON (AP) — In a final hail to the chief beneath marble arches and somber skies, the nation bade a lingering goodbye to Ronald Reagan on Friday, mourners remembering his “lightness of spirit” and his stoic widow placing a tiny kiss on his casket before the westward journey to a hilltop grave.

A stately service at Washington National Cathedral dropped the curtain on a week of American majesty, with dozens of world leaders, the four living ex-presidents and lifelong friends as witness. “Ronald Reagan belongs to the ages now,” President Bush said in his eulogy, “but we preferred it when he belonged to us.”

A Boeing 747 from the White House fleet took off from Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland, carrying Reagan’s body and the funeral party home for his sunset burial outside Los Angeles. Nancy Reagan waved and blew a kiss before entering the cabin.

The cathedral’s great bells pealed as Reagan’s casket arrived in the rain, the flag over it a burst of color in the gray pall, and pealed again with the motorcade’s departure. Irish tenor Ronan Tynan filled the soaring space of the cathedral with “Ave Maria.” The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” rang out.

And after a week of largely silent ritual, there were words — a stream of them praising the 40th president for rendering “bold strokes” on the American canvas, for staying humble, for loving his wife, for having a quip for any occasion.

“His politics had a freshness and optimism that won converts from every class and every nation — and ultimately from the very heart of the evil empire,” said former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in taped remarks presented at the funeral.

Thatcher, who has given up public speaking after a series of small strokes, sat next to Mikhail Gorbachev, who led that Soviet “empire” and eventually became Reagan’s friend.

Mrs. Reagan, 82, slow in step yet keenly alert to every polished move in the week’s remembrance, shepherded the casket with quiet intensity, turning the most public of events into a series of private moments. She kissed it lightly at the Capitol Rotunda, where Reagan lay in state. She ran her hands slowly up and down the stripes of the flag and, leaning close, seemed to whisper something to her husband of 52 years.

Her expression rarely changed, but Bush and his father brought smiles to the funeral service by recalling her husband’s wisecracks. The elder George Bush, in his eulogy for the man he served as vice president, remembered when Reagan was asked how a meeting went with South African Bishop Desmond Tutu. “So-so,” Reagan said.

Mrs. Reagan laughed. Her daughter Patti Davis laughed harder and longer. They exchanged glances with each cherished recollection. Reagan’s other surviving children, Ron and Michael, also were by her side. Reagan’s daughter Maureen, from his first marriage, died from cancer in 2001.

The elder Bush said Reagan was beloved because he was “strong and gentle.”

“I learned more from Ronald Reagan than from anyone I encountered in all my years of public life,” Bush said, his voice breaking with emotion.

American guns around the world fired in Reagan’s honor — 21-gun salutes at the stroke of noon local time at U.S. military bases, at dusk, another worldwide round of 50-gun salutes.

Final military flourishes saw Reagan’s body off at Andrews in suburban Maryland, the many playings of “Hail to the Chief” over the past few days giving way to Antonin Dvorak’s “Going Home.”

That capped three days of pageantry and tradition unique to a presidential state funeral — the casket’s procession by horse-drawn caisson along Constitution Avenue, the lying in state in the Capitol’s hall of heroes and the national funeral service before an invitation-only crowd of 4,000. Tens of thousands of ordinary Americans visited his casket on Capitol Hill.

The service drew a large contingent of foreign guests, including 25 heads of state or government, 11 former leaders and more than 180 ambassadors and foreign ministers.

Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, a good friend of the Reagans, remembered the former president in his eulogy as possessing “a rare and prized gift called leadership.”

“Ronald Reagan does not enter history tentatively — he does so with certainty and panache,” said Mulroney, who shared Irish ancestry with Reagan and once sang “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” with him on stage. “At home and on the world stage, his were not the pallid etchings of a timorous politician. They were the bold strokes of a confident and accomplished leader.”

Thatcher praised Reagan for facing the world’s greatest challenges with “almost a lightness of spirit.”

President Bush said Reagan’s convictions “were always politely stated, affably argued and as firm and straight as the columns of this cathedral.”

Reagan died last Saturday at 93 from pneumonia complicated by the Alzheimer’s disease that had progressively clouded his mind. He told the world in 1994, five years after ending his two-term presidency, that he had Alzheimer’s.

Reagan had begun thinking of his last rites in 1981, his first year as president, and planned some elements of the funeral — inviting the elder Bush and Thatcher to speak, asking Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to do a reading and expressing a wish for an operatic soloist, family representatives said.

Mrs. Reagan filled in the program by asking the current president and Mulroney to take part, and inviting former Sen. John Danforth, an Episcopalian priest, to officiate at the multi-faith service.

Delivering the homily, Danforth read from the Sermon on the Mount, Reagan’s favorite Biblical theme.

The Gospel of Matthew, 5:14-16, reads, “You are the light of the world, a city set on a hill cannot be hid,” a passage that Reagan often quoted to project his view of America as a beacon of freedom and hope.

“If ever we have known a child of light, it was Ronald Reagan,” Danforth said.

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