WASHINGTON - President Bush joined the weeklong ritual of national mourning and remembrance of Ronald Reagan yesterday with a brief but solemn visit to the side of the former president's casket in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.
Mr. Bush, who is to deliver a eulogy at Mr. Reagan's funeral service today at Washington National Cathedral, arrived at about dusk, accompanied by First Lady Laura Bush, immediately after a flight from Sea Island, Ga., where the President hosted the Group of Eight summit.
The couple stood for a few moments, heads bowed. Then the President touched the casket with both hands and they quickly walked away.
The couple headed from the Capitol to Blair House, across the street from the White House, where they visited briefly with former First Lady Nancy Reagan and other members of the 40th president's family.
Mr. Bush worked on his eulogy during the plane ride home from Georgia, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. Mr. Bush's eulogy will be about 15 minutes long, Mr. McClellan said.
From Boy Scouts to Supreme Court justices, tens of thousands of Americans filed solemnly past Mr. Reagan's casket at the Capitol yesteerday, a quiet prelude to a majestic funeral shaped by his own hand. Capitol authorities estimated
that nearly 200,000 would view the casket by this morning, twice the number that turned out at the Reagan library in Simi Valley, Calif., earlier week.
World leaders including his long-ago Soviet rival, Mikhail Gorbachev, were among those who gazed upon his casket in hushed contemplation under the Capitol Dome.
Across from the White House, Mrs. Reagan received a stream of visitors drawn from a list of the powerful, then and now.
"To Ronnie," former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, first to see Mrs. Reagan, wrote in the Blair House condolence book.
"Well done, thou good and faithful servant." Mr. Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher shared a world view, conservative politics, and enduring mutual affection.
Joanne Drake, chief of staff of the Reagan office, described the late president's final moments before his death Saturday, as told to her by his wife.
"She told me that as he neared death and it became evident it was close, he opened his eyes and he gazed at her," Ms. Drake said.
"His eyes were as blue as ever and he closed them and died. She told me it was the greatest gift ever."
Ms. Drake said Mrs. Reagan was "doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances" and was greatly comforted by the outpouring of support.
The American flag that flew over the USS Ronald Reagan when the former president died Saturday will be presented to Mrs. Reagan during his burial service, the Navy said.
Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who shared an Irish ancestry with Mr. Reagan, also visited the former first lady, with his wife, Mila. "For Ron with affection, admiration and respect," the Mulroneys wrote. "The Gipper always came through!"
The former British and Canadian leaders were joining Mr. Bush and his father today in eulogizing Mr. Reagan to close the curtain on the capital's elaborate state funeral - Washington's last good-bye before Mr. Reagan's sunset burial on the grounds of his presidential library outside Los Angeles.
Besides the first President Bush, the other living former presidents were expected, too: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton.
Mr. Reagan's Soviet rival-turned-friend, Mr. Gorbachev, visited, too, and wrote in the condolence book in Russian, "I convey my deep feelings of condolence to dear Nancy and the whole family."
Former Secretary of State George Shultz and former chief of staff Howard Baker were among the onetime Reagan aides who came to Blair House.
Mr. Gorbachev then visited Mr. Reagan's casket in the Rotunda, reaching out and briefly laying his palm on it.
One of the more poignant moments of the day came when Cpl. James Wright, a Marine who lost both of his hands in Iraq and was awarded the Bronze Star earlier this month, lifted his still-bandaged arm to salute Mr. Reagan.
Mr. Reagan began talking about his funeral in 1981, the year he became president, family representatives said.
He asked George H.W. Bush, when he was vice president, to speak at his funeral, and years ago asked Justice Sandra Day O'Connor - the first woman on the Supreme Court - to read at his service, specifying she read from a John Winthrop sermon that inspired his description of America as "the shining city upon a hill."
Several years ago, he asked former Sen. John C. Danforth (R., Mo.) to officiate, the family said, following a suggestion from the Rev. Billy Graham that someone else be approached in the event Mr. Graham could not do it.
And so the service will unfold: Mr. Danforth officiating, Justice O'Connor reading, the elder Mr. Bush as a eulogist.
The Capitol sergeant at arms office, which oversees security in the building, estimated 30,000 people had viewed the casket in the first 10 hours of Mr. Reagan's lying in state. His casket was continuously on view until this morning.
Mr. Bush declared today a national day of mourning. All post offices will be closed. All federal offices will be closed, except those involved in national security.