WASHINGTON - In a quiet, yet very public, moment of tenderness, Nancy Reagan visited her husband's casket in the Capitol Rotunda one final time before the funeral cortege departed for Washington's National Cathedral.
In a scene that was televised live, she caressed the flag-draped coffin, gave it a kiss and several gentle pats and appeared to have one last talk with her husband of 52 years.
America's four living ex-presidents - Ford, Carter, Clinton, Bush - and dozens of current and former world leaders were among those assembling for Friday's funeral service at the cathedral as America mustered its most magnificent tributes for a last goodbye before Ronald Reagan's sunset burial at his presidential library near Los Angeles.
With high tribute and tender recollection, the nation bid a final farewell to Reagan on Friday in funeral rites shaped by the 40th president himself to evoke his lifelong optimism and certainty about America and its place in the world.
President Bush, previewing his eulogy, remembered Reagan on Thursday as "a great man, a historic leader and a national treasure." Then, like tens of thousands of Americans from all walks in life, he paid silent homage before the former president's coffin as his body lay in state on a black velvet-covered catafalque that once bore the casket of President Lincoln.
American guns around the world were poised to fire in Reagan's honor - at noontime, 21-gun salutes at every U.S. military base with the artillery and manpower to do it; at dusk, another worldwide round of 50-gun salutes.
Reagan, the Hollywood-smooth former actor who died Saturday at age 93, had been thinking about his last rites since he became president in 1981 and even personally invited several speakers to take part.
Always proud to have put the first woman on the Supreme Court, years ago Reagan asked Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to read at his funeral. He chose John Winthrop's 1630 sermon that inspired Reagan's description of America as a shining "city upon a hill."
The first President Bush, too, long ago got his invitation to speak, back when he was serving as Reagan's vice president.
Others to deliver tributes to the former president were former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, a close friend of the Reagans, and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whom Reagan asked to speak years ago. Thatcher, who has given up public speaking after a series of smalls strokes, taped her remarks months ago.
Thatcher and Mulroney, along with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, were among the 1980s titans of power who paid private visits to Nancy Reagan on Thursday at Blair House, the presidential guest house across the street from the White House.
Mrs. Thatcher wrote in a condolence book for her good friend, "To Ronnie, 'Well done, thou good and faithful servant.'" Reagan and Thatcher shared a world view, conservative politics and enduring mutual affection.
Joanne Drake, a Reagan family spokeswoman, said the former first lady, at age 82, was greatly comforted by the public outpouring of support and said she was "doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances."
Reagan's honorary pallbearers are friends from throughout his life: former Reagan aides Michael Deaver and Frederick Ryan; entertainer Merv Griffin; his White House physician John Hutton, and Charles Wick, former Hollywood producer and former head of the U.S. Information Agency.
The casket is actually carried by "body bearers" drawn from each of the military services.
The cathedral's invitation-only crowd of 2,100 was to include Democratic presidential contender John Kerry, who canceled political events during the week of mourning.
Americans around the nation found ways to publicly mourn the president's passing. Church bells far and wide were to ring 40 times in honor of the nation's 40th president; Las Vegas casinos planned to dim their lights briefly Friday night. Several governors called for a moment of silence in their states during the funeral. In Illinois, where Reagan was born, Gov. Rod Blagojevich named a stretch of road for him.
Not since Lyndon Johnson died in 1973 has America gone through the high pomp and ritual associated with a presidential state funeral. Former President Nixon's family, acting on his wishes, bypassed the Washington traditions when he died in 1994.
The funeral was the final public commemoration of Reagan after a week of remembrance marked by the kind of pageantry reserved for heads of state. More than 100,000 Americans filed past Reagan's casket as it lay in repose at the presidential library in California before it was flown to Washington on Wednesday and borne by a black caisson drawn by six horses to the Capitol Rotunda, where his body lay in state for 34 hours.
Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer told WTOP Radio Friday morning that just over 84,000 people had visited the rotunda as of 5 a.m. EDT.
A steady crowd continued to file into the Capitol Rotunda throughout the night and into early Friday to pay tribute. Parents toted sleepy toddlers and a guide dog led its blind owner past the flag-draped casket. Several people wore T-shirts and buttons bearing Reagan's image, others clutched small American flags.
Police briefly extended the viewing past the planned 7 a.m. cutoff to accommodate people still waiting to get in.
The final family in the line came from Conyers, Ga., and drove all night with little expectation that they would be able to view Reagan's casket lying in state.
"I think we came on adrenaline," said Stephanie Guerry, 43.
Her husband Ted Guerry, 46, said that as he walked down the steps from the Capitol he felt, "numb and struck and awed."