By John Pomfret and Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 30, 2006
PALM DESERT, Calif., Dec. 29 -- The nation's six days of formal mourning for Gerald R. Ford commenced Friday afternoon with a private service for his family and a period of public repose at the church where the 38th president worshiped for the three decades since he left the White House.
As the quiet and simple service took place in California, a continent away, law enforcement agencies in Washington called in hundreds of officers to provide security for the second presidential funeral to take place in the nation's capital in three years.
The authorities said that a section of the Inner Loop of the Capital Beltway, near the Suitland Parkway, will be shut down for a short time starting at about 5:30 p.m. on Saturday to allow the motorcade carrying Ford's casket to pass by. A number of streets in Alexandria and in Washington will also be temporarily closed.
The state funeral service in Washington will occur amid heightened tensions in Iraq, where ousted leader Saddam Hussein was hanged Saturday morning for a mass killing in 1982. Homeland security officials said there has been no intelligence pointing to an increased threat to the United States.
Still, "you always plan for the worst," said William H. Pickle, the Senate's sergeant-at-arms.
Hundreds of Capitol Police, U.S. Park Police and D.C. police officers, as well as members of the Secret Service, are being called in over the New Year's weekend to bolster security, officials involved in the planning said. D.C. police canceled all days off for officers Tuesday, officials said.
Pickle, who helps oversee the Capitol Police, said checkpoints will be set up around the Capitol, and specialized units that detect chemical, biological and other hazards will be on alert. The Capitol Police will prohibit mourners from carrying food, drinks, or audio or video recording devices, as well as bags larger than 14 by 13 by 4 inches.
Kim Bruce, a spokeswoman for the Secret Service, which is coordinating security, said "there will certainly be bomb-sniffing dogs" patrolling the crowds. She declined to comment on the rest of the security arrangements. But, in a statement, the Department of Homeland Security said that regular measures for such events include portable fencing, barricades and pre-positioned teams that can respond to emergencies and nuclear incidents.
Pickle said that his office, the U.S. Army Military District of Washington and the House speaker's office have been planning for the funerals of Ford and other former presidents for years.
"We pretty much have a game plan in place," he said in an interview. In the past few days, he said, the plan has been fine-tuned "to fit the circumstances and . . . the family's needs and desires."
One uncertainty is the number of mourners who will attend Ford's services. About 200,000 people on both coasts turned out to view former president Ronald Reagan's casket in 2004; his funeral drew two dozen heads of state. Ford's funeral is expected to be a smaller, simpler affair, at his family's request.
Security concerns were paramount at the California service, as well. A phalanx of officers from the Riverside County Sheriff's Department on motorcycles escorted Ford's hearse to St. Margaret's Episcopal Church, located on a bluff overlooking the Coachella Valley. There were traffic detours around the church. Helicopters flew overhead, and bomb-sniffing dogs checked backpacks and packages.
Under a sunny sky, Betty Ford, her four children and seven grandchildren met the former president's mahogany casket outside the church. It was then carried up the steps by a Joint Services Color Guard to the tunes of "Ruffles and Flourishes," "Hail to the Chief" and the hymn "O God, Our Help in Ages Past," played by the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Band from Twentynine Palms, Calif. The Rev. Robert G. Certain, the rector of the church and a friend of the family, led the casket into the church.
"We receive the body of our brother, Gerald, for burial," Certain said.
Ford's closed casket remained on the church's altar for a private prayer service, a wake for close friends and dignitaries, and a public period of repose -- which drew a crowd of thousands. Among those who came for the wake were former secretary of state George P. Shultz and former congressman Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.).
On Saturday, it will be flown to Washington where it will arrive in the evening for a service at the Capitol Rotunda, to be followed by three days of public viewing. The funeral service for the country's 38th president will take place on Tuesday at the Washington National Cathedral.
Ford, who served as president for 2 1/2 years after Richard M. Nixon's resignation in 1974 amid the Watergate scandal, left the White House after he was defeated by Jimmy Carter in 1976. He is the only president in U.S. history not to have been elected to the White House.
Ford moved to the California desert in the 1970s and divided his time between a home on the grounds of the Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage, a resort town 120 miles east of Los Angeles, and homes near Vail, Colo. He spent his time golfing, skiing, enjoying his family, managing his investments and working for local charities.
As part of a tradition going back to the 1885 burial of former president Ulysses S. Grant -- last observed in 2004 with the death of Reagan -- the New York Stock Exchange and the Nasdaq Stock Market announced that they will be closed on Tuesday. Other U.S. financial markets are expected to close for at least part of the day.
Among the service members taking part in the California ceremony on Friday, there was a sense of both sadness and duty. Cpl. Victor Norris, 25, an alto saxophone player from Birmingham, Ala., said he was "grateful to have the privilege of touching the lives of these people."
"When you play music in an attempt to move people," he said shortly before joining the rest of the 43-member Marine Corps Band, "it can be difficult. But, today, I believe we will definitely perform in a manner that will be worthy of our former commander in chief."
Certain, the church rector who led Ford's casket into St. Margaret's, said Betty Ford, 88, and the rest of her family, not including her three small great-grandchildren, would mourn from "The President's Pew" -- the pew where they had worshiped on Sundays starting in 1977. "This was their spot, and it will always be their spot," he said. Certain said former president George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, among others, had joined the Fords there over the years.
After the Friday service, the former first lady is set to accompany her husband's remains across the nation for ceremonies that include the services in Washington and another in Grand Rapids, Mich., where Ford will be buried Wednesday on a hillside on the grounds of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum. Ford spent most of his childhood and practiced law in Grand Rapids before representing the area in Congress for 25 years.
Sheridan reported from Washington.