Nancy Reagan still at side of her 'Ronnie'
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- She spent eight years close by Ronald Reagan's side, zealously protecting him as he navigated through the toughest job in the world. Then, robbed of an easy ride into the sunset, she spent 10 years caring for him as Alzheimer's disease sapped both his mind and irrepressible personality.
And Wednesday evening, Nancy Reagan was a slight, somewhat frail presence at the top of the steep stairs on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol, watching as military pallbearers carried the man she called "Ronnie" to a place of high honor in the Rotunda.
"Nancy, none of us can take away the sadness you are feeling," Vice President Dick Cheney said at the State Funeral ceremony for the former president. "I hope it is a comfort to know how much he means to us, and how much you mean to us as well."
"We honor your grace, your own courage and, above all, the great love that you gave your husband."
House Speaker Dennis Hastert thanked her "for sharing your husband with us, for your steadfast love and for your great faith."
Wednesday was a long day of ceremony, starting in California with an early morning departure from the Reagan Presidential Library, a salute at Point Mugu Naval Air Station as Reagan's casket was loaded aboard a presidential jet for his final journey to Washington and another ceremony upon arrival at Andrews Air Force Base.
Then, Reagan's cortege made its way up Constitution Avenue to the Capitol amid full military pomp, the first act in the formal farewell for the former president in the nation's capital, which will culminate in a funeral service Friday at the National Cathedral.
As Nancy Reagan stood watching while the flag-draped casket was loaded on the horse-drawn caisson, people in the crowd began to applaud and cheer her.
"We love you, Mrs. Reagan," a number of people shouted.
She waved back to them, then got into a limousine to follow the caisson -- and waved some more to applauding well-wishers along the route of the procession.
Throughout the long day of public events, Nancy Reagan, who will turn 83 next month, leaned on the arm of Maj. Gen. Galen Jackman, the commander of the U.S. Army's Military District of Washington. Dressed in black, she stood stoically through four renditions of "Hail to the Chief" and three 21-gun salutes, without tears.
The former first lady's emotions seemed to overcome her only once, briefly, in the Rotunda, after she walked up to her husband's casket and gently ran her hand across the American flag on top, as an Air Force chorus sang "America the Beautiful." She quickly stepped down from the platform and walked away, with Cheney by her side.
By the accounts of all who knew them, the Reagans' fierce devotion to each other was genuine, and took on additional poignancy during the years he slowly deteriorated after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 1994.
"It was a genuine love affair," said former President George H.W. Bush, who served as Reagan's vice president, in an interview with CNN's Larry King. "She set a huge example for the whole country in the way she has conducted herself over this long period of trouble."
And during these days of mourning and remembrance, as her husband's life and achievements are being lauded, her contribution is being appreciated as well.
"President Reagan achieved greatness in his life. Some might even argue he transcended it," said Senate President Pro Tempore Ted Stevens at the Rotunda ceremony. "He could not have accomplished this without Nancy."
"The love Ronald and Nancy Reagan shared tests the hearts of people everywhere."
CNN's John King, Chris Lawrence and David Mattingly contributed to this report.