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Former President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy in a 1992 photo.
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RONALD REAGAN: 1911-2004

D.C. reminisces about its own

The doorman who saw him shot, the senators who worked with him: the capital remembers.

Published June 12, 2004

WASHINGTON - One afternoon 23 years ago, death came looking for Ronald Reagan.

It almost found him, just a few yards away from Roosevelt Williams, the doorman working outside the Washington Hilton on Connecticut Avenue that March day when John Hinckley's bullet pierced the president's lung.

Now, as the world's political elite were getting ready to file into the National Cathedral on a Friday morning more than two decades later, Williams, 61, was at work again, this time at the upstairs doors, a short walk from the crescent-shaped driveway where the shooting occurred.

"Good morning," he said, over and over, his voice warm, smooth and practiced, as he held open the hotel door and summoned taxis with two short blasts on a silver whistle hanging around his neck.

Williams has to be prodded to talk about the day Reagan was shot. He insists he doesn't think about it much. Presidents would often come and go from the Hilton, so Williams thought it best when Reagan came out to stand aside. Suddenly there was a commotion. Williams turned and saw that the cluster of men around the president bristled with weapons.

"It scared me so bad," he said. "The thing upset me most was the Secret Service. I didn't know what they were going to do with all them guns. It really shook me up."

He stayed home for a week after the shooting. He thought about quitting, but the hotel talked him out of it.

Death finally found Reagan last week, and while many of the world's most famous people were on their way to the cathedral, Williams paced the walkway in front of the hotel, gently relieving guests of their suitcases and wishing them a wonderful day. Behind him in the lobby, images of Reagan flashed on a TV.

"I'm a Democrat. I really didn't care too much for him," Williams said. "But he was president of the United States, so I still respect him."

A few hours later, in the cathedral's pale limestone nave, John Kerry and his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry sat with other senators. On a big screen TV they saw the black hearse pull up outside and they knew the service was about to begin. They watched as white-gloved soldiers slid Reagan's casket from the back.

"Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord," the Rev. John C. Danforth intoned, as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair turned to watch procession move through the nave. "Even so saith the Spirit, for they rest from their labors."

Soldiers carried the coffin, and three white-robed cathedral workers strode ahead bearing tall candles and a large, glimmering golden cross. Nancy Reagan - small, willowy and frail - followed, leaning on an officer's arm until she reached President Bush, who rose and gently helped her to her seat. The choir sang of God's "power to bless and save, e'en in the darkness of the grave."

All week, people had flocked to view Reagan's coffin, first in California and then in Washington.

Heather Hooper, 30, of Arnold, Md., lined up outside the Capitol with her 11-year-old daughter Erica Angell at 9:15 p.m. Thursday. They prepared for a six-hour wait to walk in a circle around the coffin. Hooper had just turned 7 when Reagan came to office and was 15 in 1989 when he left. He was the first president she knew. Growing up, she thought he was funny. She liked watching him on TV. Her own parents were divorced, and she admired his close relationship with Nancy.

"Watching them interact on television was very inspiring, to see that couples could survive a marriage and seem genuinely in love. They just gave this portrayal of what America should be."

Jerry Christman, 53, left his home in Johnstown, N.Y., at 5:45 p.m. Thursday and drove all night with his 18-year-old son and two friends. They arrived too late to get in line for the viewing, so they spent the early morning hours visiting memorials on the Mall and stood in a light drizzle along the motorcade route near the cathedral. By 10 a.m., they had sighted Joan Rivers, Barbara Walters, Casper Weinberger and Trish Nixon and shaken hands with Bob and Elizabeth Dole.

"This is a testament to what a wonderful president he was, and how he served the country," Christman said. "He was very charismatic, very passionate and had a tremendous love for this country. I think that transcends all barriers. We're very glad to be here."

From the spot where Christman stood, it is only a half-hour drive to Anacostia, a predominantly black neighborhood that is one of Washington's poorest.

Terry Parker, a 45-year-old mother of three, runs a coin laundry on the corner of Good Hope and 16th Street SE in Anacostia, down past Five Star Check Cashing, past the Soul Food Cafe, Kutt N Upp Unisex Hair Salon and a dozen boarded up buildings. The faded sign out front says the laundry is called Good Wash, but Parker calls it Hope Laundry.

On Friday morning, she stood on the laundromat's concrete steps talking to customers who had come early with plastic bags full of dirty T-shirts, baseball caps and bikini underwear. They wanted to get home before 11 a.m. when the rest of the neighborhood wakes up. By mid morning, they said, 16th Street would be teeming with drug dealers and drug users.

"When I get off at 5, I'm in the house," Parker said. "It's bad. You can't do nothing about these younguns."

She said she's sorry Reagan died, but she doesn't think it merited shutting down the government for a day.

"We stayed broke the whole time he was president," said Xavier Dudley, a 54-year-old retiree. "The black community was sandbagged by the Republican party. We're really just getting back."

Parker said they probably wouldn't watch the former president's funeral on the laundromat's beat up TV.

Back at the cathedral the ceremony was ending. Rev. Danforth said a final prayer over Reagan's coffin. "All we go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song." He commended to God the former president, who began his journey into the sunset a decade ago, calling him "a lamb of thine own flock, a sinner of thine own redeeming."

Slowly they filed out: the candles and the cross, the soldiers with the coffin, Mrs. Reagan and then everyone else. The sky was overcast and rain was in the air. People hugged themselves against the chill. Colin Powell chatted with Kofi Annan. Al and Tipper Gore lingered near a large magnolia tree, gazing at the cathedral. Rudy Giuliani stood laughing on the steps. One by one, they moved away from the cathedral, heading for cars and the street and home.

[Last modified June 11, 2004, 23:46:13]

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