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Americans Prepare to Bid Farewell to Reagan - 2004-06-08

Throughout American history, presidential funerals have been times of national mourning and reflection. This week's state funeral for former President Ronald Reagan is likely to continue that tradition.

For those of a certain age, the images of President John Kennedy's state funeral in November, 1963, remain vivid. They are a reminder not only of the grief and sorrow of a presidential assassination, but also of the healing power of a national memorial event shared by millions through television.

TV Announcer: "And so this stately, magnificent, majestic funeral procession has passed the Lincoln Memorial, across the Potomac River toward the final resting place of our 35th president."

From George Washington to Richard Nixon, the death of a president, whether in office or retired from public life, has often prompted a period of national mourning and reflection.

"America has no kings. It has no queens," said American University presidential historian Allan Lichtman. "Our presidents are the ones who establish that special mystical bond with the American people and a presidential state funeral would be equivalent to the funeral of one of the great crowned heads of the world."

The last presidential state funeral was held ten years ago for Richard Nixon, but the Nixon family chose to have the service in California and decided against a state funeral in Washington.

Professor Allan Lichtman says it has been a while since Washington played host to the funeral of a former president.

"The national grieving process, at least focused on the nation's capital like this one and having a president lie in state in the [Capitol building] Rotunda is very rare," he said. "This country has not seen a state funeral in Washington, D.C. since 1973 when Lyndon Baines Johnson died."

Ironically, former President Johnson died just a few weeks after attending the funeral of former President Harry Truman. The Truman family also declined to have a state funeral in Washington and the former president was buried in his home state of Missouri.

Historian Michael Beschloss says former President Johnson was determined to pay tribute to Harry Truman, even to the detriment of his own health. He spoke on the 'Don Imus' show on MSNBC television. "And one of the guests was Truman's friend, [former President] Lyndon Johnson, who at that point had very bad heart problems," he noted. "His doctors told him not to go. He loved Truman, felt at the time that Truman had not gotten enough respect. He went to the funeral and Johnson hated attending funerals. He went back and went into a decline and Johnson died about three weeks later and his family thinks that one of the things that brought on his final fatal heart attack was the stress of going to that funeral."

Presidential historian Allan Lichtman believes Ronald Reagan was one of the most influential political figures of the 20th century. He says the Reagan funeral will no doubt spark national reflection, discussion and, in some cases, debate about the former president's legacy. "These funerals of state in the capital are a time to reflect on the individual, the president's contributions to American history and to reflect on the times, the meaning of those times and finally, to consider the lessons that the legacy and the times have for the present day," he said.

Only presidents and former presidents are automatically eligible for state funerals, but the president may designate other recipients. The nation's first state funeral was held in 1865 for President Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated just days after the end of the American Civil War.