38th President Leaves A Legacy of Healing

Jim Kristan of Kentwood, Mich., leaves mementos at a makeshift memorial outside the Gerald Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Jim Kristan of Kentwood, Mich., leaves mementos at a makeshift memorial outside the Gerald Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich. (By Morry Gash -- Associated Press)
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 28, 2006

A nation deeply polarized by war and partisanship came together yesterday to mourn Gerald Rudolph Ford as a healer during a previous era of division, while Washington began preparing an elaborate farewell for the most modest of presidents.

Ford, who died at his California home Tuesday night at age 93, will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol for two days starting Saturday and will be memorialized at a service at Washington National Cathedral on Tuesday, following the pattern set by Ronald Reagan's death two years ago.

With presidents and lawmakers of both parties assembling in the nation's capital for the occasion, the ceremonies marking Ford's passage promise to set a bipartisan tone to begin a week in which power will change hands in Washington. Two days after the service at the cathedral, Democrats will assume control of Congress for the first time in a dozen years, opening a period of divided government for the remainder of President Bush's time in office.

Ford's legacy as a bridge builder before, during and after his short presidency dominated the discussion in Washington and across the country yesterday, standing in contrast to a time when leaders in both parties often seem unable to join hands on the big issues of the day. During his final years, mostly privately but sometimes publicly, Ford often expressed regret at what he saw as a coarsening political environment that personalizes policy differences and undermines national unity.

Bush has stocked his administration with veterans of the Ford White House, and he paid tribute yesterday to the 38th president's ability to work across the aisle. "He assumed power in a period of great division and turmoil," Bush told reporters at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., where he is spending the week. "For a nation that needed healing and for an office that needed a calm and steady hand, Gerald Ford came along when we needed him most."

Jimmy Carter, who ousted Ford in 1976 but became friends with him after leaving office, called him "one of the most admirable public servants and human beings I have ever known." In a statement, he said Ford "wisely chose the path of healing during a deeply divisive time in our nation's history" and "frequently rose above politics by emphasizing the need for bipartisanship and seeking common ground on issues critical to our nation."

Ford had been in declining health for months and underwent heart procedures in August. Still, in November, he surpassed Reagan to become the longest-living president. He died at 9:45 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday at his Rancho Mirage home, according to a statement issued on behalf of the family. It did not give a cause of death. White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten notified Bush, who then called Betty Ford about 11 p.m. to offer condolences.

Under plans announced last night, Ford's funeral will mirror Reagan's June 2004 services. A service will be held in California tomorrow, and his body will be flown to Washington on Saturday, where it will be brought to the Capitol for a formal ceremony that evening. His casket will lie in state in the Rotunda and will be open to the public through Monday. After the service at the Washington National Cathedral, Ford's remains will be taken to Grand Rapids, Mich., where he will be interred Wednesday in a hillside tomb on the grounds of his presidential museum.

Ford was the accidental president, the only one never elected on a national ticket, yet he served as an important transitional figure in a time of profound cynicism. An Eagle Scout, football player, lawyer, Navy officer and congressman, he never aspired to the White House but had it thrust upon him when he was chosen to succeed first Spiro T. Agnew, driven from the vice presidency by corruption charges, and then Richard M. Nixon, who resigned amid the Watergate scandal on Aug. 9, 1974.

Ford's first major act in office probably guaranteed that he would not keep it, as his decision to pardon Nixon triggered a political backlash and widespread suspicion that he had cut a deal to take over the presidency. He denied the allegation and insisted that the pardon was the only way to move the country beyond Watergate.

It took many years, even decades, but even some of his fiercest critics came to agree. Roger Wilkins, then a New York Times editorial writer who repeatedly condemned Ford over the pardon, wrote a letter to the former president just last month to say he had changed his mind. Then Wilkins delivered a speech at the Ford museum earlier this month saying the same thing.

"Ford was right," Wilkins said in an interview. "The country really needed to move on. The picture of a president in the dock with these motley Democrats hounding him, it would have made the country -- we'd gone through some ugly times, but it would have been uglier. . . . If Ford hadn't done a thing else in his presidency, that would have been a great service to the country."

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