Correction to This Article
A Dec. 31 article incorrectly said that former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was present as an honorary pallbearer when former president Gerald R. Ford's casket arrived in Washington to lie in state. Rumsfeld was not there^ , because his plane had been ^ was delayed.

A Solemn Homecoming

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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 31, 2006

To the strains of a Navy piper's farewell, the clank of sword scabbards and the bang of an artillery salute, Washington welcomed the body of former president Gerald R. Ford last evening.

The ceremonies began four days of services and tributes in the city he left three decades ago.

The journey of the president's body, from its arrival at Andrews Air Force Base about 5:15 p.m. to its installment in the Capitol Rotunda about two hours later, took place in the early evening darkness that was broken by floodlights, streetlights and simple holiday decorations.

It was attended by modest but somber crowds that lined the avenues of Alexandria, where the former president once lived. People also gathered in silence as his hearse, and the limousine bearing his wife, Betty, 88, paused beside the flickering fountains of the World War II Memorial. The cortege of about 40 vehicles then moved slowly along the broad and empty expanse of Constitution Avenue toward the gleaming dome of the Capitol, bright against the night sky. The casket bearing Ford's body was carried up the steps to the grand, columned east entrance of the House of Representatives.

The casket was placed on the same bier as the one used for Abraham Lincoln 141 years ago and Ronald Reagan 2 1/2 years ago.

In the ceremony that followed, Betty Ford looked composed as she sat between Vice President Cheney and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). The service closed with the former first lady bowing her head over her husband's casket, her clasped hands on the flag that covered it. It was Washington's second presidential state funeral in 31 months and different from the more elaborate leave taking accorded Reagan. But there was elegance to last night's proceedings, as the former chieftains of 30 years ago, several using canes, stood by with younger mourners who said they knew little more than that the former president had been an honorable and decent man.

"It was this man, Gerald R. Ford, who led our republic safely through a crisis that could have turned to a catastrophe," said Cheney, among those who eulogized Ford at the service. "We do know this: America was spared the worst, and this was the doing of an American president. For all the grief that never came, for all the wounds that were never inflicted, the people of the United States will forever stand in debt to this faithful servant we mourn tonight."

U.S. Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R), who represents the Grand Rapids, Mich., district where Ford was a congressman decades ago, teared up as he said, "People are finally starting to realize what he did for this country and how special he was."

President Bush did not attend last night's ceremonies. He and first lady Laura Bush plan to pay respects tomorrow, when they return to Washington from Texas. Bush also plans to speak at Ford's funeral Tuesday at Washington National Cathedral.

Bush, in his weekly radio address yesterday, said: "Gerald Ford distinguished himself as a man of integrity and selfless dedication. He always put the needs of his country before his own, and did what he thought was right, even when those decisions were unpopular. Only years later would Americans come to fully appreciate the foresight and wisdom of this good man."

Ford served 25 years as a Republican congressman from Michigan before he became Richard Nixon's vice president in 1973, succeeding the disgraced Spiro T. Agnew. He became president in 1974 when Nixon resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal. In one of his early acts as president, he issued a pardon absolving Nixon of any Watergate-related crimes.

He died Tuesday at age 93 at his home in California.

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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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