WASHINGTON -- The hushed mourners craned their necks to capture every extraordinary glimpse: of Vice President Dick Cheney sliding into the front row, quietly acknowledging the three former US presidents seated just behind him. Of an ailing Margaret Thatcher, dressed in black from hat to heels, seated next to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Of Nancy Reagan, frail but still graceful, proceeding slowly up the aisle behind her husband's casket.
More than two decades after his dashing arrival at the White House in 1981, Ronald Reagan made his final appearance in the nation's capital in characteristic style yesterday, as an audience of high-wattage admirers participated in his funeral service and offered condolences to his family. Dozens of heads of state, hundreds of members of Congress, every living president, and numerous other dignitaries crowded into the event at the National Cathedral -- the sixth-largest cathedral in the world, and yet far too small for the legions of friends and supporters who sought to pay tribute to the 40th president.
Members of Congress arrived at the event by busload. Famous and powerful figures sat side by side, and met one another as old acquaintances, friends, and foes. From Britain's Prince Charles to former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, from Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, to NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, from Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan to German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the guests formed a breathtaking cast of powerful characters.
And they were just the backdrop.
The two-hour service -- which ranged from somber to inspiring, and included frequent moments of levity -- concluded five days of memorials and tributes following the president's death last Saturday at age 93. Former president George H.W. Bush, who served as Reagan's vice president for eight years, recalled in his eulogy once asking Reagan how a meeting had gone with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. ''So-so," Reagan had replied.
Next, his son, President George W. Bush, stepped up to the pulpit. He, too, recalled Reagan's lighter side, telling of a boy who once wrote the White House asking for federal funds to clean his room. Reagan, Bush said, had responded to the boy: ''I'm sure your mother was fully justified in proclaiming your room a disaster."
From the audience, former presidents Bill Clinton, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter watched, along with their wives. Other important figures sat close by: Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain; UN Secretary General Kofi Annan; former vice president Al Gore and his wife, Tipper; and presumed Democratic presidential nominee, Senator John F. Kerry.
Outside the church grounds, tourists and nearby residents waited in clusters, respectfully, to see the funeral cortege before and after the service. Drizzling rain offered a tangible dash of melancholy to the day, and the city streets, usually packed with midday traffic, were empty. The sounds of motorcade sirens mixed with the clang of church bells, which rang for hours after the ceremony. Office buildings were shut citywide, in keeping with the newly designated federal holiday.
The cathedral service drew officials from administrations dating to the 1960s. Political luminaries from the Reagan administration included James Baker III, Edwin Meese, Alexander Haig, Caspar Weinberger, and George Shultz.
Several speakers had been tapped by Reagan as he drew up his own funeral plans years ago. His closest friend on the world stage, Thatcher, the former prime minister of Britain, was his first request, and she had the foresight years earlier to tape a tribute to Reagan when her health began to fail. In his tribute, former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney remembered how he and Reagan shared Irish roots -- and a good laugh. Mulroney said that once, while waiting for their wives, Reagan commented on how lucky both men were. ''He said with a grin, 'You know, Brian, for two Irishmen, we sure married up,' " Mulroney recalled.
Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who became the first woman appointed to the court when Reagan selected her in 1981, read a passage from colonial preacher John Winthrop from 1630. ''For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill," she read. ''The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world."
The famous passage, taken from the Gospel of Matthew, was a Reagan favorite, one he repeated often. It was the clear theme of yesterday's funeral, mentioned at least five times during the ceremony. ''If ever we have known a child of light, it was Ronald Reagan," said the Rev. John C. Danforth, the former Republican senator from Missouri and an ordained Episcopal priest who focused on the passage as a centerpiece of his homily.
Anne E. Kornblut can be reached at email@example.com.