A nation bids Ford farewell

His `decency was ideal remedy' for Watergate

January 03, 2007|By Jonathan D. Rockoff and Paul West | Jonathan D. Rockoff and Paul West,Sun Reporters

WASHINGTON -- Former presidents, a glittering array of old colleagues and everyday Americans honored Gerald R. Ford during a state funeral and other solemn ceremonies here yesterday that marked a national day of mourning for the 38th president.

Friends and family, fighting tears as they recalled a kind and modest man thrust into a leadership role in a time of crisis, paid their respects during a somber service at the National Cathedral.

"Jerry Ford's decency was the ideal remedy for the deception of Watergate. For this and so much more, his presidency will be remembered as a time of healing for our land," said former President George Bush, who served as Ford's director of central intelligence.

The elder Bush emphasized Ford's kindly character, describing him as a "Norman Rockwell painting come to life." He brought smiles to Ford's family and the capacity crowd with a joke about Ford's reputation as a "suspect" golfer.

His son, President Bush, said, "In President Ford, the world saw the best of America, and America found a man whose character and leadership would bring calm and healing to one of the most divisive moments in our nation's history."

A longtime Michigan congressman, Ford holds a unique place in American history: He was the only president never elected to either of the nation's top two offices. Ford was appointed vice president after Spiro T. Agnew pleaded no contest to federal tax evasion charges in a Baltimore courtroom. He ascended to the presidency in 1974, after Richard M. Nixon resigned. During his 2 1/2 years in office, he pardoned Nixon and oversaw the fitful end of America's involvement in Vietnam.

Ford died Dec. 26, at age 93, at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Thousands of mourners have paid tribute in California and in Washington, circling past his flag-draped coffin in the Capitol Rotunda. The scene was repeated yesterday evening in Ford's boyhood home of Grand Rapids, Mich., where his body lay in repose.

A final day of mourning in the nation's capital began with the removal of Ford's casket from the Capitol. After a 21-gun salute and the playing of "Hail to the Chief," the casket was placed in a hearse by a military honor guard and driven past adoring but mostly small crowds. Washington police in dress blues lined the route. Presidential staff assembled outside the White House. Spectators stood on street corners and sidewalks, offering personal salutes to the former president with farewell waves and hands held over their hearts.

Inside the cavernous National Cathedral, an invitation-only crowd of 3,000 included the three living ex-presidents, former first lady Nancy Reagan, Cabinet members, senators, congressmen and other dignitaries, past and present. Among those in attendance were a number of the nation's most celebrated government leaders of the past half-century, all of whom list the Ford administration on their resumes: Vice President Dick Cheney, former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

All served as honorary pallbearers and stood in the chill January breeze as Ford's casket was carried from the Capitol, into and out of the National Cathedral and finally to Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland, where it was loaded aboard a presidential 747 for a final flight to Michigan.

Among those who gave eulogies at the memorial service was Tom Brokaw, the broadcaster, who contrasted Ford with his predecessor and related the country's long-lasting affection for a man who "left the Oval Office a much better place." Kissinger, who stayed on after Nixon resigned to serve as Ford's secretary of state, recalled the 38th president's middle-American virtues of "sincerity, serenity and integrity" and his Cold War policy accomplishments.

"For his friends, he leaves an aching void. Having known Jerry Ford and worked with him will be a badge of honor for the rest of our lives," Kissinger said.

Except for the occasional smile at a speaker's fond recollection of her husband, Betty Ford and their four children mostly wiped away tears during the 75-minute service. Under soaring arches and fluttering flags, the family and a capacity crowd faced the flag-draped casket, which rested on a black table placed atop the nave.

It was a brisk and blustery day for the somber events. The city was unusually quiet, with federal government offices closed in commemoration. Financial markets across the country were shuttered in memoriam.

The events followed time-honored traditions, though the Ford family chose not to pull out all of the ceremonial stops, such as the horse-drawn caisson that carried former President Ronald Reagan's casket through the streets of the capital in 2004, accompanied by a riderless horse.

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