In the glow of Reaganite memory, much is forgotten

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The Independent US

It was just before 5am and still dark when Bill Rinderknecht joined the zig-zag of people queuing yesterday to file past the coffin of Ronald Reagan. He was expecting the wait to be four or five hours and had brought with him a companion, a thick compendium of the former president's letters.

It was just before 5am and still dark when Bill Rinderknecht joined the zig-zag of people queuing yesterday to file past the coffin of Ronald Reagan. He was expecting the wait to be four or five hours and had brought with him a companion, a thick compendium of the former president's letters.

"I grew up a Democrat. He was the first Republican I voted for. Reagan was one of the best presidents we had. I admired his grace, as evidenced by these letters," said Mr Rinderknecht, tapping his book. "His optimism, as evidenced by his ability to laugh ... his backbone. "

Mr Rinderknecht, a business consultant from Virginia, was among tens of thousands who lined up in front of the Capitol in Washington yesterday, prepared to wait for hours to spend just a few moments in the building's graceful rotunda, in which the coffin of the 40th US President was lying in state. By the time the coffin is moved to the national cathedral later today for the funeral service, it is estimated that up to 150,000 people will have paid their respects. Yesterday 5,000 were filing past every hour.

These people ­ die-hard Reaganites, tourists, those with a mind for history ­ had come from across the US. One couple, Tim and Kelly Bryant, had flown in specially from Alabama. A quiet, polite couple, they described themselves as conservatives rather than Republicans, but they said they believed Mr Reagan was one of the greatest of the men to have held America's highest office.

In some respects the slow-moving line that made its way up the side of the Capitol as dawn broke contained a good mix of people ­ an even divide between young and old, men and women. People in suits had come in on their way to jobs in the city. Others were dressed more casually. One young man wore a T-shirt that read: "It takes a cowboy to run the nation." Not far from him were two nuns.

However, the queue was overwhelmingly Republican, overwhelmingly white and certainly not representative of modern America. And it seemed not many of the mourners wanted their views of Mr Reagan challenged as they came to pay their respects.

Indeed, in the days since his death last Saturday it seems as though the nation's collective memory has failed. Some critics have pointed to the dark elements of his presidency ­ the Iran/Contra affair, the thousands of Nicaraguans killed, the cuts to social programmes, Grenada, his silence over HIV-Aids ­ but they have been drowned out by what the presidential historian Robert Dallek identified as hagiography.

As the queue moved uphill, through the metal detectors, those who chose to put Mr Reagan's presidency into a broader historical context did so with lowered voices. "I'm a Democrat but this is a historic occasion," said Deborah Davidson, a magazine editor. "It's not about the person; it's about the presidency."

Mr Rinderknecht had no doubts about his hero. By 7.45am, the queue had reached the Capitol terrace ­ the city's monuments laid out below ­ and he climbed the steps to the cool,
air-conditioned rotunda.

Inside, Mr Reagan's coffin, wrapped in the Stars and Stripes, was set on a timber bier, guarded by representatives from each of the armed services.

As light flooded in from the upper windows, people made their way around one side of the coffin. Some stopped to say prayers before moving out of the room and then back out into the morning sunshine. It had all taken less then three hours.

Mr Rinderknecht, a former military man, was thrilled. "Oh yes, it was worth it," he said. "I got to talk to people about President Reagan and I enjoyed seeing all the people and imagining why some came themselves. By the way, as I passed the coffin I stopped and saluted ­ him and the flag."

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