America bids a final farewell to a president

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The Independent US

On a grey overcast morning yesterday, America finally bid its ceremonial farewell to Ronald Reagan. It was a day heavy with eulogy, light on anything that was approaching criticism and dampened by a persistent fine drizzle.

On a grey overcast morning yesterday, America finally bid its ceremonial farewell to Ronald Reagan. It was a day heavy with eulogy, light on anything that was approaching criticism and dampened by a persistent fine drizzle.

More than 3,000 people packed into the National Cathedral in Washington for the funeral service to honour the former president, who died last Sunday, aged 93. These were not ordinary Americans: their time had come in the previous 34 hours when more than 150,000 had queued for hours to file past his body as it lay in state.

Rather, the mourners who attended the ceremony were the so-called "great and good", leaders and former leaders from across America and around the globe, such as the former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, with whose help, Mr Reagan's supporters say, the former president changed the world.

The four surviving US presidents - Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George Bush Snr and Bill Clinton - were among those included on what was probably the most exalted guest list for a generation. That list had been overseen by Mr Reagan's wife, Nancy, looking frail but dignified as she took her seat at the front of the cathedral.

Earlier, before Mr Reagan's body left the Capitol Rotunda, his wife of 52 years had visited her husband's coffin once again. She stroked the flag-draped casket and bent to kiss it.

At the cathedral, Mrs Reagan sat in a pew opposite the current president, George W Bush, who read the eulogy to the Republican hero, in whose mantle he has been keen to wrap himself. It was Mr Bush who escorted Mrs Reagan to her seat and he who gave perhaps the most resounding eulogy for her husband.

"Ronald Reagan belongs to the ages now but we preferred it when he belonged to us," he said. "Ronald Reagan believed that everything happens for a reason and that we should strive to know and do the will of God.

"He believed that the gentleman always does the kindest thing. He believed that people are basically good and have the right to be free. He believed that bigotry and prejudice were the worst things a person could be guilty of. He believed in the golden rule and the power of prayer."

Baroness Thatcher - sitting next to Mr Gorbachev - spoke in similar terms. The former prime minister was warned several years ago by her doctors that she should no longer speak in public following a series of small strokes. She was determined, however, to fulfil a personal request from her old political ally and personal friend to address his funeral.

In a message she recorded some months ago, Lady Thatcher declared: "We have lost a great president, a great American and a great man. And I have lost a great friend. As Prime Minister, I worked closely with Ronald Reagan for eight of the most important years of our lives. We talked regularly both before and after his presidency. And I have had time and cause to reflect on what made him a great president."

Lady Thatcher paid tribute to the woman who nursed Mr Reagan in the last, failing decade of his life when he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. "Nancy came along and saved my soul," she recalled that her friend "Ronnie" once said. And she also found room to quote the British religious writer John Bunyan, that when Mr Reagan died last weekend "all the trumpets sounded on the other side".

Mr Gorbachev did not speak yesterday but at a reception at the Russian embassy on Thursday night he addressed the issue of the fall of Communism. "Was it accurate to say that Reagan won the Cold War? That's not serious," he said. "I think we all lost the Cold War, particularly the Soviet Union. We only won when the Cold War ended."

Mr Reagan was also remembered around the nation and on US soil around the world. In Washington, and in churches across America, bells were rung 40 times in his honour while US military bases around the world fired their guns in salute.

In the streets outside the national cathedral and along the route of the funeral procession others shared their memories. L B Powers and his friend Bob Hoffmeister had made the nine-hour drive from Kentucky to take part in an "historic moment".

"We came to show our respect," said Mr Powers, a railway worker. "I have always liked him. I voted for him. I liked him as a person; he was down-to-earth, truthful and he stood for ideas that I share. His ideas and my ideas are from the same page."

Many were drawn by the sense of occasion. For all its addiction to ceremony and regimentation, America has few occasions that demand the pomp and circumstance that is familiar to Britain or other monarchies. The last state funeral of a president was 31 years ago, when Lyndon Johnson was buried.

Many said that, regardless of whether they personally liked Mr Reagan or approved of his policies, they had come out yesterday to pay their respects not to a politician but a former head of state. It was the office of the presidency, some said, and not necessarily the man himself they were honouring.

This unquestioning respect for a head of state explains much of the hagiography that has accompanied Mr Reagan's death in the media this week. Some critics have sought to puncture some of the myths, pointing out that he was not the most popular president to leave office, that the economic boom he presided over was not the greatest America has ever seen, that his support for the "contras" led to the deaths of thousands in Nicaragua.

Yet these voices have been drowned out by applause, nostalgia and resounding praise for Mr Reagan and his eight years that have filled the airwaves and the column inches.

Such a warm, fuzzy tone is unlikely to change soon. Following the ceremony, Mr Reagan's body was flown to California for burial at his presidential library in Simi Valley. He was due to be buried at sunset - a final image the one-time actor had personally chosen with which to leave the American people.