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Washington Prepares For State Funeral of President Ronald Reagan

Aired June 9, 2004 - 16:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN's live coverage of the state funeral of President Ronald Reagan.
Reporting from Washington, Wolf Blitzer and Paula Zahn.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Good afternoon from Washington.

This capital city, which has seen more than 200 years of historic events and memorable personalities, is once again ready to witness an event for the ages.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: And along these famous streets and inside this city's majestic buildings, we the people are preparing to say our final farewell to Ronald Reagan.

It is a warm, stifling day out there, one with a timeless feel of an early summer here in the South.

BLITZER: And over the next few hours and days, we'll see things that have not been witnessed for a generation in this country, not since the state funeral of the former President Lyndon Johnson in 1973. For others, the pictures and the sounds of these next few hours will bring to mind the black and white images of President John F. Kennedy's funeral way back in 1963.

ZAHN: And for a few, it will bring back memories of the farewell to President Roosevelt back in 1945.

The plane carrying the late president's body, as well as the members of his family will be arriving soon. The presidential jet will land at Andrews Air Force Base, which is the city's Maryland suburbs.

BLITZER: At Andrews, Ronald Reagan's flag-draped casket will be transferred from a hearse for the motorcade into the nation's capital.

To motorcade goes along from Suitland Road and the Suitland Parkway to Interstate 295, north to the 11th Street Bridge, then along I-395, actually going into Virginia. That way, it will arrive over the Memorial Bridge over the Potomac River, right near the Lincoln Memorial, for those of you familiar with the nation's capital.

The motorcade then proceeds along Constitution Avenue, to 16th Street -- that's near the White House and the Washington Monument -- where the casket will be transferred to a horse-drawn caisson. Next comes the solemn procession of the horse-drawn caisson along Constitution Avenue up to the west front -- that's right, the west front -- of the U.S. Capitol Building. From there, the casket will be carried up to the Capitol Rotunda.

BLITZER: And we're going to backtrack now about a mile and half from the Capitol Rotunda, where we find Jeanne Meserve, who is standing by at the Ellipse. That's the point at which the casket will be transferred to the caisson.

Jeanne, how many people have gathered? We know it is going to be a tough day out for anybody sensitive to the heat.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, the crowds have grown markedly over the last couple of hours. I would say people are now standing probably six or seven deep along the roped line here on Constitution Avenue, where that transfer will take place with such an appropriate backdrop, the White House.

The caisson on to which the casket will be moved was built in 1918 to haul Howitzer cannons. It has been refurbished to carry heavy caskets. When it begins to move down Constitution Avenue, it will be followed by the presidential colors and riderless black horse. His name is Sergeant York. He's a standard bred who failed as a race horse and has found a second career in these sorts of ceremonies. On that horse's back, a saddle, in the stirrups, riding boots of Ronald Reagan backwards, a symbol of a fallen warrior.

Now, officials are very anxious to see part of the ceremony go well, so anxious that, just a couple of hours ago, there were road crews here passing up the road in back of me. Officials were worried that uneven pavement might trip up some of the pallbearers as they tried to move that very heavy casket.

The crowds, as I mentioned, have been growing. I have talked to people who have driven here from Tennessee, from Michigan. There are tourists. There are local people who live near Washington. Many of them supported Ronald Reagan, but some of them did not. Nonetheless, they have come here to pay their respects to the man and to the office and also to witness history -- Paula, Wolf, back to you.

ZAHN: Jeanne, arrangements have been made to accommodate as many as 250,000 people paying their respects to the president over the next 48 hours or so. Give us a sense of the level of security in place.

MESERVE: Well, it's very high.

This has been designated a national special security event. That means the Secret Service has been coordinating with dozens of state and local and federal agencies to secure this. As you know, already the airspace around Washington has been secured. But we have seen bike racks go on here along Constitution Avenue. There will be rows of military along the street and rows of police.

The crowd is going to be able to see -- they will be able to see the ceremony as it goes past. But, definitely, security very much here in place here in the nation's capital. A lot of it, we can't see. There are snipers on rooftops. There are surveillance cameras, but some of it will be very obvious as this day moves forward -- Paula, back to you.

ZAHN: Thanks, Jeanne.

BLITZER: Jeanne, thanks very much.

Anderson Cooper is along also this route. He's joining us in Washington.

Anderson, tell us where you are, what you're seeing.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We're being told to evacuate, actually, this location.

This is where the line was for the last 12 hours or so. People here have been lining up. But, as you can see, they have now evacuated the entire line. They're actually asking us to move on. We're the last people.

That's all right. No one exactly has been told.

Can you tell us at all what's going on?



They're saying they can't tell us what's going on.

But this line was full. There were about 200, some 215 people here. The first person here came at 5:00 a.m. They have been waiting to see, to line up, to pay their respects to Ronald Reagan. Literally, about a minute ago, this officer came screaming, everyone, get back, get back. As you can see, the entire line has been evacuated. All the people have sort of spread out over here.

At this point, we really don't know what's going on. We're trying to get a sense. They are simply just not saying.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All the way back to the street, please.

COOPER: As you can see, we're trying to figure out what is going on here. We'll try to get some more information and come back to you, Wolf. But, literally, this just happened some one minute ago.

BLITZER: All right, Anderson, stick around for a moment, because I don't want to overly alarm our viewers out there.

I know that they are evacuating people, reporters and individuals who have gathered in various parts of Capitol Hill, including up on Capitol Hill itself. This could be just a false alarm. It could be something serious. We obviously have no idea. We're trying to get some more information. But, Paula, as we watch this unfold, clearly, a very, very unscripted moment in what was supposed to be a very carefully choreographed, very solemn experience for all of us here in Washington.

ZAHN: Although there are also very carefully calibrated plans in place. In addition to the FBI being involved in the planning here and the ATF, there are as many as 4,000 local police who are also on duty, I am told, in that area, from Constitution and 16th Street to where we just saw action near the Rotunda.

BLITZER: Paula, let's bring in Jeff Greenfield. He's with us. He's our analyst. Professor Robert Dallek, the presidential historian, is with us as well.

And once again, we want to caution, Jeff, our viewers out there, we don't know what is going on. I have been at many events in Washington where they think there may be some sort of a -- quote -- "bomb scare." It turns out to be nothing. That may be the case right now.

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SR. ANALYST: What this is, is really a measure of how times have changed.

And when Lyndon Johnson had his state funeral, the only security -- and this was four years after the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King -- were the local police. We're in a 9/11 world. You remember the inaugural, where it was a massive national security event, They had metal detectors on the Mall. That's right.

And what makes this a little unsettling is that this event, unlike almost every other time we have gathered in the past, is really a celebration. Almost most every time we cover something like this in the past, it's been for something bad, John Kennedy's death, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy's death, the space shuttles, God knows, 9/11, Oklahoma City.

This one is the commemoration of a life well lived, a man who died in the fullness of his years, no sense of lost possibilities. We have to obviously keep an eye on what's going on. And it may just be a bureaucratic order to the police to just clear it for reasons we don't know.

But it does show you that there's a hair trigger here in Washington over the last generation that is very different from when I certainly arrived in this town several decades ago.

ZAHN: And, of course, of enormous concern is what happens on Friday, when you're supposed to have the single largest single gathering of foreign dignitaries in quite some time here in Washington, D.C.

BLITZER: Leaders from 170 or 180 countries, together with the entire leadership of the United States Congress, the diplomatic corps, certainly, the Supreme Court justices, when they all gather in the National Cathedral to honor President Ronald Reagan. Professor Dallek, what goes through your mind at a jittery moment like this one?


I think Jeff's point is very well-taken, that you think back to end of World War II, when Franklin Roosevelt died, and you didn't have this kind of anxiety about any attacks on Washington or attacks on the United States, and even, as you said, the Kennedy death. And people were on edge because we didn't know, was there some kind of conspiracy that had taken the president's life?

But yet the amount of security was so much less than what one confronts now. So it is a troubling moment. It creates the feeling that 9/11, so many ramifications from it that continue to...

ZAHN: And a particularly troubling moment because we have so few details right now. But when you think about the amount of planing that has gone into this funeral, we know that Ronald Reagan himself in the last year of his presidency spent a great deal of time looking at specific details of how he wanted this carried out. And Nancy Reagan of course on almost, we're told, a yearly basis reviewing these plans and updating them.

BLITZER: And let's just point out to our viewers that the presidential jetliner, if we can call it that, the 747 that is often used as Air Force One when there's a sitting president on board, is scheduled to arrive at Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington, D.C. in suburban Maryland in about 25 minutes or so from now. It's been on a 4-1/2-hour journey from California, from Southern California, where the casket was picked up this morning.

And that plane is supposed to land with Nancy Reagan, the children, other friends and family on board. But there is this little scare that we're now having up on Capitol Hill.

I believe Anderson Cooper is back with us.

Anderson, I don't know if you've gotten any more information. What exactly are you being told? What's going on?

COOPER: Wolf, we're being told it was a false alarm. The police just announced that literally about 30 seconds ago.

As you can see me behind me now, the line is reforming. This whole line, it stretched about 200 people down there, as I said, many of them gathering all day. When police came, they rushed out. They said everyone get back. Everyone sort of ran across to the opposite side of the street,, where they were waiting. The police just came now about a minute ago, saying it was a false alarm, everyone could come back.

So, slowly, the line seems to be reforming. By the way, everyone here has sort of gotten to know each other over the course of the day. So they're all sort of taking the spots that they have been in, some of them as long as dawn. We don't have any more information on exactly what the apparent threat was, but the police are saying here, at least, that it was a false alarm. And they have allowed people to come back here on line and the waiting continues.

BLITZER: Well, that's excellent news, obviously, not only for you and all of the people who have gathered there, but, also, excellent news for everyone watching our telecast right now.

And I can only point out, Paula, as I'm sure you know -- and I've lived in Washington now for 30 years -- we get these false alarms, unfortunately, all the time. But as Jeff Greenfield and Professor Dallek point out, in the post-9/11 world, false alarms take almost a new meaning.

ZAHN: And when you look at the kinds of screening process you have to go through to get to the Rotunda for any of the 250,000 who may take the option to do so, it's immense. You're going through magnetometers. You're not going to get anywhere close to the casket.

GREENFIELD: This is one of the little victories that the bad guys have won.

ZAHN: Yes.

GREENFIELD: Coming to Washington, I worked on Capitol Hill for a year in the late '60s. There were no metal detectors. The security was nonexistent.

And it has imposed on all of us a kind of psychic cost, that you hear a story, and what do you do? You play it safe. You evacuate a rope line. You drive the reporters out. It is one of the things that is more disheartening, I think, about the modern world, in that we feel as if -- and understandably -- that we have to live with this cloud over us. And it's a cost.

DALLEK: Paula, you mentioned that presidents lay out these plans to the last degree, the Nth degree. The only one we know who doesn't have a plan for his funeral is Bill Clinton. And, of course, he's so young, but all the others do who are living presidents.

But you can imagine how this may alter some of their plans in the future, because the kind of anxiety that enters into our thinking now about, what do you do if there's a bomb threat, if somebody is calling in a false alarm, but the police, I guess, can't afford to be casual about this?

BLITZER: In this day and age here in Washington, even a silly threat, even something that no one takes all that seriously has to be taken seriously, because you never know. It's the nature of the society in which we live right now.

Our former Washington bureau chief Frank Sesno is with us as well. He's helping us better understand what's going on. Frank covered the Reagan administration here in Washington.

Frank, I just want your quick thought on this false alarm, thank God, this jittery nation in which we have right now. Thank God it's only a false alarm. But, for a few seconds there, it got everybody very, very nervous.

FRANK SESNO, FORMER CNN WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF: Well, Wolf, you know, we're going to be making a lot of historical parallels today and in the days ahead, as we compare what was and what is we take measure of the man.

In some ways, this era of terrorism that we're experiencing had its roots during the Reagan years. There was the Beirut bombing. There was Pan Am 103. But I remember when we used to go to work at the White House. All you had to do during the Reagan years is show your pass and walk in. Now there's a much more elaborate security procedure.

I remember when there was talk of Libyan terrorists, and they put snipers on the rooftop of the White House because they didn't know who else might be out here. You'll recall, it was Ronald Reagan who was told by the Secret Service that he should shut down Pennsylvania Avenue. And Ronald Reagan said, no way, you're not going to close Pennsylvania avenue. This is the people's house, he used to refer to it. That's how he referred it to. And Pennsylvania Avenue has to stay open.

And, of course, it's closed, too. So, as the late president returns to Washington, it's a different place, but in many ways, it has antecedence during his years in the White House as the world began to change.

BLITZER: Paula, I understand we're getting some additional information now on what may have caused this false alarm?

ZAHN: It's very preliminary information, but we're told that a private plane violated the airspace over that part of Washington running from the Capitol to the White House. The airspace will actually shut down for a period of time here this evening. And initial reports suggest it was a plane carrying the governor of Kentucky.

BLITZER: This is all too common, unfortunately.

As all of our viewers I think know by now, airspace over Washington, over the nation's capital, is highly restricted. There are routes where planes can go, but all the areas over the District of Columbia, basically, where the White House is, Capitol Hill is, all the monuments, no planes can over there. And if a plane strays across, a private plane, that causes all sort of things to unfold. It's like a chain reaction. You just have to get into that mode and you have to think of the worst-case scenario.

And this plane, unfortunately, managed to get into this restricted zone over the District of Columbia, that can clearly cause the kind of nervousness that we just saw, Jeff.

ZAHN: I am going to make a little bit of an amusing turn here, Jeff, because I think you can reflect on this. David Stockman, who was the budget director for Ronald Reagan, told us a couple days on the air that, because the airspace is closed off, that the current president can't use the excuse of the drone of the planes overhead when he doesn't want to answer reporters' questions.


ZAHN: And he reminded us of the number of occasions where Ronald Reagan would not answer questions because there clearly was commercial air traffic over the White House.



But what Ronald Reagan also had and what George W. Bush has is the whirlybird. As he was going to the helicopter and Sam Donaldson would yell at him, Reagan would always cup a hand -- he was very hard of hearing -- and, say, I'm sorry, I just can't hear you. So I think they can still get the helicopter going even if they can't have commercial airline traffic to disrupt it.

BLITZER: There will be planes flying over this nation's capital as part of this funeral service. Later today, there will be F-15s flying in formation in honor to pay tribute to the former president of the United States. It's a rare occurrence. They rehearsed it last night, 3,000, 5,000 feet. It was very, very spectacular. That will be coming up later.

We're only about 15 minutes or so from the scheduled arrival of this presidential jet bringing the casket of Ronald Reagan to Washington. These are pictures -- you're looking now on the left side -- these are the pictures of Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C., in suburban Maryland, where we will shortly see this plane, this 747, this Boeing, coming in.

All of the color guards, the honor guards are already in place, getting ready for an intricate, very detailed service that will take place with all the tradition and all the honor that is accorded a president of the United States who has passed away.

Robert Dallek, give our viewers a sense of the historic importance of what we're about to see in the coming hours.


Well, it is going to mark a moment that people are going to remember. They will remember -- of course, they're not alive now, but in the history books, you can read about Lincoln's funeral. It was such a telling moment. The country had passed through that Civil War; 620,000 people had been slaughtered. And the sense of tragedy in the country, because Lincoln, another casualty of that conflict.

Franklin Roosevelt, that moment when he died was such a shock to the nation. And it's burned in people's memories, the train coming back from Warm Springs, Georgia, people standing by the tracks, crying, waving handkerchiefs as the train went by, because it went up to Hyde Park, New York. It did come first to Washington, his body lying in repose in the West Wing of the White House.

But, then, he didn't have a state funeral. He went on to Hyde Park. The Kennedy funeral, everyone remembers.

BLITZER: In 1963, right.


DALLEK: John Jr. saluting. Everyone remembers the...

GREENFIELD: I have a question for you as an historian.


GREENFIELD: Can you remember this much focus being given to the funeral of a man who has not been president for 15 years?


And I think, Jeff, what it speaks to is the continuing hold that the man has on the public's imagination. What it speaks to is I think that the country has been through such acrimonious politics over the last four years, the election in 2000, and the tensions which are in the air already over this current election.

Reagan dies. People, in a sense, recapture the feeling of unity, of shared values of an America that had a sense of pride. The pride is back, made in the USA. See, this what Reagan -- that's his main legacy, I think. This is what he stands for. This is what people are drawn to by his passing, not a profound sense of grief. He was 93 years old when he died. But here we are honoring him. Your point is so well-taken, yes, 15 years later. It's amazing.

BLITZER: He was 93 years old, the 40th president.

Paula, these are pictures that we're seeing now, this is back here in the nation's capital. This is the west side of the Capitol. These stairs will eventually lead into the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol and the casket of the former president will be brought up these stairs.

But let's go back to Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington. This is a working Air Force base. It's an Air Force base that is the home of course of the fleet of planes that we call Air Force One, Air Force Two. This special plane is designated SAM 28000. It's a special air mission. It left about 4 1/2 hours ago from Point Mugu Naval Air Station in California.

Together with the casket, of course, Nancy Reagan, the children, Patty Davis, Ronald Reagan, Michael Reagan, their spouses and close personal family friends, including Merv Griffin, the entertainer, Charles Wick, the former head of the USIA, a very close friend of Mrs. Reagan.

ZAHN: And for those of you who were watching us about 10 minutes ago, you might have seen the spectacle of Anderson Cooper on camera, delivering a live report at a time that an evacuation along the procession route came down.

We have Kathleen Koch on the phone right now with some preliminary reporting on what led to that scare.

Kathleen, what do we know?

KATHLEEN KOCH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Paula, the airspace over Washington, D.C., obviously, since 9/11 is highly restricted. There were some areas that were off-limits before.

But especially at times like this, the officers are very, very careful. And, apparently, a small aircraft went into this restricted area. The spokesman of the Federal Aviation Administration, Laura Brown, tells me that this plane just skirted the southwest edge of the restricted zone. They do have that -- they are in contact with the pilot. They are talking with him right now.

And authorities say they no longer view this person as a threat. But, apparently, for some period of time, this person was not in touch in the proper manner with airport authorities. And they had to evacuate.


ZAHN: Kathleen, can you hold on?



BLITZER: Yes, I want to just tell our viewers, Kathleen, this is the plane carrying the casket of Ronald Reagan. It has now touched down, is about to touch down at Andrews Air Force Base, pretty much on schedule, maybe a few minutes early. It left about five minutes late. The pilot clearly made up that time in the 4 1/2 hour cross-country tour from Point Mugu Naval Air Station in California.

It's now on the ground at Andrews Air Force Base just outside Washington, D.C.

And let's, Paula, briefly go through what we anticipate will now happen. This has been all very carefully worked out. Fortunately, that false alarm has now gone away. Everything can go back as scheduled, as clearly worked out.

Once this plane touches down -- and it is now on the ground -- eventually, it will pull up. It will stop. The party, the delegation will emerge from the front. The casket will be taken off from the rear.

ZAHN: And then the family members are expected to exit the plane, along with some of their close friends, among those, Merv Griffin, who had been friendly with the president and first lady, starting off with the friendship in their early years of Hollywood together.

Also on board, Fred Ryan, who served in the White House virtually all eight years. He was the director of scheduling appointments. And Charles Wick, who ran the U.S. Information Agency during Reagan's presidency.

BLITZER: Jeff, as you look at this plane taxiing now and come to a halt, getting ready for this next stage in this very, very carefully planned out series of events, what goes through your mind?

GREENFIELD: I'm thinking of one of the last times Ronald Reagan flew to Washington before Alzheimer's took him away. And it was such a classic Reagan moment. He had come in for a fund-raiser.

And in speaking to the group, he said, you know, I flew into Washington tonight, and it all looked the same, he said. There's the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, David Gergen in the White House, as Gergen had just gone to work with Clinton. And it was just a perfect way of Reagan putting a little needle in a former colleague of his who had gone to the other side without in any way being snarky about it. There was no sneer in Ronald Reagan. And I remember that because, shortly thereafter, he was incapable of flying anywhere at all.

There is something about this guy. He had a kind of a perfect pitch when it came to that kind of moment. He knew how to be politically tough, certainly when he got to be president and after, without stirring up bile. And I think Professor Dallek pointed out, the acrimony in our political life today is so great that this actually brings that to mind to me.

BLITZER: Frank Sesno, as you watch these pictures, we see the hearse getting ready to accept the casket of Ronald Reagan, and you watch this plane -- it's not Air Force One, but, of course, it's one of those Boeing 747s that is Air Force One once a sitting president is on board -- what goes through your mind, Frank?

SESNO: Oh, Reagan's relationship with this town. He's coming back for the last time.

This is Washington's opportunity to say goodbye and, in a sense, his opportunity to say goodbye. And, you know, he had a complex relationship with Washington. He used to deride this town, the puzzle palaces on the Potomac, he would say, the bureaucrats who do the social engineering and the redistribution of wealth for the masses, he would quote them as saying.

I recall interviewing him his second year in office, Wolf. The assassination attempt had taken place. He was being very closely guarded. And he complained that, even though he was fascinated by Washington, of course, he loved his job. He felt like a bird in a gilded cage here because everything was so carefully choreographed, security was so tight then.

And what he really loved was something he never could find here, which was the great vast of expanse that he would have on the ranch and the ability to move around. And yet he worked this town. He knew how to lean on Congress when that was necessary or talk right over its head to the American people.

And he played that Air Force One shot you see now like a violin, going up those steps and waving or coming down and dropping a one- liner that would have the effect of thoroughly intimidating or outmaneuvering his political opponents. So a very complicated relationship between this president, this man, and this town. He was not of it and by it. And he always said it was he just pass going through.

BLITZER: Frank, you will remember this. It was during the Reagan administration. They of course set the stage for the transition from the old Boeing 707s, which were Air Force One, to the Boeing 747s, which of course are now Air Force One.


BLITZER: He was hoping to be the first president to fly in this super -- the 747. It didn't happen because Boeing got a little bit delayed in production. George Bush, president No. 41, turned out to be the first president to use these new 747s.

But you flew a number of times on the old and the new Air Force Ones to know how deeply excited every president is, including Ronald Reagan, to fly on Air Force One.

SESNO: And that first Air Force One was, by comparison to the 747s the presidents fly in now, pretty cramped quarters.

He'd come back occasionally in the back. The press was there. We were cramped in with the Secret Service agents. We shared very little space. We had a couple of seats and a little table between us. It was like riding in a cramped commuter train. No complaints, because you were catbird seat to history, but there was not much running room.

And there was always the bowl of jelly beans there, because that was one of Reagan's trademarks. He loved traveling around in Air Force One. He loved the grandeur. It was part of the set. And I don't mean that in a derogatory at all. But Reagan appreciated the camera. He appreciated the drama. And he played to that.

I mentioned this the other day on -- I think when I was talking to Paula, perhaps. But Michael Deaver, one of his image advisers, said his job was to light the president. The president used every aspect of the presidency around him to elevate himself and the office.

ZAHN: Frank, Paula here.

I am going to jump in and give an our audience an idea of what is going to transpire here. We expect Mrs. Reagan to be among the first to leave the plane. She will be escorted by Major General Galen B. Jackman. He has been the man who has by side basically since we got the news that President Reagan had lost his life.

He is the commanding general of the military district of Washington. And then we are going to see quite an elaborate ceremony unfold here, with the use of honor guards and some really terrific patriotic music played by the U.S. Air Force Band. It is going to be short, but beautiful. BLITZER: It will be "Hail to the Chief," among other things, including "My Country 'Tis of Thee." All of us will be moved as we watch that, no doubt.


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