Capital mourns `man of civility'

Body of Gerald Ford lies in state at Capitol Rotunda

December 31, 2006|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,Sun Reporter

WASHINGTON -- To the boom of cannons and the mournful notes of brass bands, the body of Gerald R. Ford returned to the Capitol yesterday, more than three decades since the former president left office after calming a nation riven by Watergate and Vietnam.

Old friends, family and colleagues honored the 38th president during stirring proceedings that carried Ford's casket from Andrews Air Force Base, past his longtime home in the Washington suburbs and into the Capitol Rotunda, where it will lie in state until Tuesday.

During somber ceremonies in the marbled hall, Ford's friends recalled a loving husband, decent gentleman and steady president.

"We were proud to call him our leader, grateful to call him our friend," said Vice President Dick Cheney, who was Ford's chief of staff.

Ford assumed the presidency in August 1974, after Richard M. Nixon resigned amid the Watergate scandal. Ford served 2 1/2 years before losing to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election.

Since his death at age 93 on Tuesday night, Ford has been remembered for healing a torn nation.

"In a time when turmoil and bitter division were all too common, he stood out as a man of deep civility, quiet thoughtfulness and sound judgment," House Speaker Dennis Hastert said.

Washington dignitaries filled the grand hall, from Supreme Court justices to congressional leaders to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Former Ford administration members in attendance included Henry A. Kissinger, who was secretary of state, and Alan Greenspan, who became Federal Reserve chairman.

Betty Ford sat stoically during most of the hourlong ceremony. Before leaving, she leaned over her husband's casket, briefly touching it with her clasped hands.

The events were interrupted for a few minutes by the collapse of William Broomfield, a former Michigan congressman.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a doctor, tended to the 84-year-old, who was given an oxygen mask and taken out in a wheelchair. Frist returned shortly and indicated that Broomfield would be fine.

After the relatives and dignitaries, other mourners who had waited hours to pay their respects filed through the Rotunda. They circled past the flag-draped casket, which was spotlighted from above, and left through a side entrance.

"I just wish I had taken smaller steps so I could have stayed in there longer," said Nancy Cook, 49, of Berwick, Maine. "It was so moving."

Her husband, Peter Cook, 65, called Ford "an incredible catalyst to bringing the nation together after a very trying time."

Jay and Sue Good, both 46, drove almost two hours from Glen Rock, Pa. "I don't know if he healed the country, but I think he saved the country from a lot more despair if President Nixon had gone on to an impeachment trial," said Sue Good, who had waited in line about three hours to pass Ford's casket.

Carrie Younger, 55, of Falls Church, Va., compared the Ford procession to that of Reagan, which she also witnessed. "This is much calmer, quieter, but it is still an honor. ... It's still pretty grand," she said.

Yesterday was the second of six days of commemorations. The former president's remains arrived aboard an Air Force jet from Palm Desert, Calif., near Ford's retirement home.

After a short ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base, a motorcade traveled with the casket through Alexandria, Va., where Ford had lived as a congressman, vice president and, for a brief period, as president before moving to the White House.

The motorcade next paused at the World War II Memorial on the National Mall, for veterans to pay tribute.

Then it moved on to the Capitol, where well-wishers gathered in long lines to pay tribute.

While marked by its share of pomp and circumstance, the pageantry of the event wasn't as august as the ceremonies for Ronald Reagan, the last president to receive a state funeral, in 2004.

Absent from the ceremonies were a slow march of a horse-drawn caisson, the clicking hooves of the riderless horse that is supposed to follow the wagon, and a ground-shaking flyover by 21 fighter aircraft.

Ford's family had requested the simpler ceremonies as more befitting his style. As vice president, Ford had continued living in the two-story Colonial in the suburbs that was his home while he served in Congress.

As president, he preferred that the University of Michigan fight song be played instead of "Hail to the Chief."

"That's just the way he was," said Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, a Republican from Michigan who sits in the seat Ford held from 1949 to 1973. Red-faced and fighting back tears, Ehlers recalled Ford as a good man and courageous president.

"I think people are finally starting to realize what he did for this country," he said.

The day's proceedings, while lower in key, were far from pedestrian.

A black hearse carried the remains from Andrews Air Force Base to the Washington. A military escort bore Ford's mahogany casket up the Capitol steps.

The procession paused before the House chamber, in honor of Ford's long service there.

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