Video: Reagan procession

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updated 6/10/2004 2:16:21 PM ET 2004-06-10T18:16:21

Ronald Reagan made history, and the nation’s farewell to him on Wednesday did so, too.

From Taft Park, the procession and the state funeral presented themselves as the juxtaposition of great sound and utter silence. 

The solemn music of the military bands then quiet, were interrupted by the clatter of boots and hoof steps. The deafening roar of those F-15s overhead, were followed by the almost instantaneous silence of the citizens as the caisson drew slowly past.  The quiet orders of the honor guard echoing through the stilled rotunda. 

RIDERLESS HORSE WITH RIDING BOOTS OF FORMER US PRESIDENT REAGAN NEAR THE WHITE HOUSE
Mike Segar  /  Reuters
A riderless horse (Sergeant York) with the riding boots of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan walks behind the casket along Constitution Avenue, in front of the White House, June 9, 2004.

The tradition of the riderless horse 
Today Sergeant York, a standard breed, retired from the racetracks of New Jersey. 

It is to overwhelm the probable with the sentimental—to apply the human to the animal—to suggest that Sergeant York was less aware of his tasks than his most famous predecessor in solemnity.

But these events are days for sentimentality, and in 1963 on-lookers had no doubt about the riderless horse in President Kennedy’s state funeral procession.

He was Blackjack.  And as he trailed Kennedy's caisson, he was never out of the control of his handler, but we wanted to believe that his rearing and spiritedness was an acknowledgement of the lost president.  He, said his handler of Blackjack, was proud.  The riderless horse is not just a tradition, it is an ancient ritual predating the nation itself by perhaps a millennium. 

Genghis Khan was said to have been buried this way, with the horse provided to bear the great warrior or great leader on the road to another world.

A combination of rituals, of presidents
Rituals that formally bore Ronald Wilson Reagan through the capital today are an utter mix, some derivations of ancient Roman burials, some of the 10th Century, some of the Civil War, and some of 1973.  Mr.  Reagan based his ceremony in large part on that which had been enacted for Lyndon Johnson 31 years ago, the last formal state funeral in this country, a fact which, whenever it is mentioned, invokes the question—what about Richard Nixon?

And in that answer is contained the most curious fact about today's Washington farewell:  The official state funeral here is anything but official. 

Nixon did not have one.  Watergate was a factor, but ultimately the decision was his and his family's.

But nor was Franklin Roosevelt honored in the way Mr. Reagan was today.

Nor Harry Truman, memorialized at his presidential library in Independence, Missouri, not in this city of which his wife once famously said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” 

In Texas, the Truman ceremony still wounds many.  Lyndon Johnson traveled there in the frigid days after Christmas 1972.  And 28 days later, Johnson too was dead. 

Ultimately, all of what we saw today traces most directly back to the frozen moments of the funeral possessions for John F. Kennedy and for Abraham Lincoln.  The ritualized expression of a nation's sadness is directed to the memory of Ronald Reagan, but, in a broader sense, it remembers all of our presidents.

And each element today ultimately contained only the meaning we have assigned it. 

Consider the procession of dignitaries, one of the searing images of the Kennedy funeral, the leaders of the world marching into Arlington Cemetery, 19 kings, presidents and princes.  And the order in which they marched, the intertwining and interweaving of the traditions and vanities of 20 nations, the protocol of grief was not found in no diplomat's handbook nor a remembrance of Genghis Khan.

The State Department simply asked them all to walk in alphabetical order by the name of their country, a solution both egalitarian and commonsensical, which would have appealed to today's honoree. 

There was an innovation today, one that might have been thought disrespectful at any of the earlier processions and funerals: After the bands and the caisson had passed a given point along the route, there was thunderous applause again and again for Nancy Reagan and her family.

It was another juxtaposition of great sound and utter silence and perhaps, and also a new component to the ever-evolving tradition. 

Keith Olbermann hosts 'Countdown with Keith Olbermann.' The show airs weeknights, 8 p.m. ET on MSNBC.

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