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.
"In the nation's darkest hour, Gerald Ford lived his finest moment. . . . He knew the road to national healing began with the courage to forgive," said Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the Senate's president pro tem, who also spoke at the state funeral.
Outside the Capitol, hundreds of people waited to pay their respects. Some waited five hours or longer before getting into the Rotunda late in the night.
They included Becky Reese, 47, and her husband, Ralph, 48, of West Chester, Ohio, who prolonged a stay in Washington to attend the viewing. They were with their sons, Benjamin, 12, and Evan, 9. They planned to drive home as soon as they left the Rotunda last night.
Becky Reese sat on the ground with her back against the metal grates. Her children were huddled against her: "We decided this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity." She said her children saw the services for former president Ronald Reagan on television and said they wanted to be on hand when Ford was honored.
Her husband said that Ford was the first presidential candidate he ever voted for, and he fondly recalled the Ford years as calmer than the presidencies before and after it. "There was just no real big news," he said. "You didn't have Iran. You didn't have Watergate. It was quiet. No news was good news."
As midnight approached, the crowd diminished, but people continued to come.
The day began with private services at Ford's church in California. Then his body was carried aboard an official presidential jumbo jet for the cross-country flight to Andrews Air Force Base.
The plane arrived in darkness, and Ford's flag-covered casket was carried from the aircraft to a black hearse by eight uniformed service members.
Black artillery pieces fired a 21-gun salute, belching smoke that drifted like fog across the tarmac, as a military band played "Hail to the Chief" and "America (My Country 'Tis of Thee)", which had been requested by the family.
Standing by in the evening chill were several dozen honorary pallbearers, including former secretaries of state Henry A. Kissinger and James A. Baker III, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former transportation secretary William T. Coleman Jr. and Cheney, who had once been Ford's chief of staff.
Once the music stopped, the quiet was broken only by a long roll of drums and the shouted orders of the military commanders.
Betty Ford, looking tiny on the arm of white-gloved Army Maj. Gen. Guy C. Swann 3d, watched as the casket was carried by and then took a seat in a limousine, where she could be seen wiping her face with a handkerchief.
The cortege left the air base at 5:53 p.m. and traveled via the Capital Beltway, which was briefly closed, to Alexandria, where the Fords lived when the former chief executive represented his Michigan district in the U.S. House.
Along Washington Street, a crowd of several hundred assembled around the intersection with King Street, and those who went to pay respects were joined by a throng of shoppers. Word spread through the crowd that Ford had once lived in Alexandria.
Sylvia Lukens, a 37-year resident of Alexandria, waited in the cold for about an hour to see the president who had once lived a few blocks from where the motorcade was passing. "I liked that Ford still had affection for this town," Lukens said. "Even when he entered the high echelons of power he stayed here. That says a lot about the man."
As the motorcade drove through, the crowd burst into soft applause. "He had no pretenses, that was what was so refreshing about the man," Lukens said.
The procession then made its way north, crossing Memorial Bridge over the Potomac River and heading for the World War II Memorial.
At the Ford family's request, the cortege paused on floodlit 17th Street before the twin stone arms of the Mall's World War II Memorial plaza.
Ford served as a navigator and gunnery officer on the aircraft carrier USS Monterey at the height of the war in the Pacific, and one of the memorial's 24 metal relief panels depicts a frenetic moment on the deck of a carrier, with a plane about to take off amid hurrying pilots and crew.
As the hearse stopped, Navy Chief Boatswain's Mate Carlos Ribbot, 41, stepped forward, saluted with his right hand and with his left raised a stainless steel boatswain's pipe hanging from an ornately braided rope lanyard around his neck.
Ribbot, a native of Humacao, Puerto Rico, played the three long, solemn notes that constitute "piping the side," the Navy's traditional farewell.
As Ribbot piped, a group of 12 Eagle Scouts from local Boy Scout troops gave their three-fingered salute as they stood at attention in olive green pants and tan shirts, draped in merit badge sashes. Ford is the only president to have been an Eagle Scout, said Alan F. Lambert, scout executive of the National Capital Area Council.
One of the Scouts was Jeb James, 17, of Arlington County, a member of Troop 664 in Baileys Crossroads. "It's a pretty big honor," James said. "He's the only Eagle Scout to become president. . . . Didn't he fight in World War II, and he saved his boat? He played for Michigan, and was the MVP center for his team."
The cortege moved along Constitution Avenue and just before 7 p.m. wheeled slowly around a corner into the Capitol plaza, which was illuminated by floodlights.
American flags on the front fenders of the hearse barely fluttered in the evening stillness, as the hearse pulled up in front of the broad stone steps leading up to the House chamber. In two lines, flanking the path of the coffin, stood dignitaries and celebrated figures from Ford's past.
After cannon volleyed again in salute, Ford's casket was carried slowly up the steps to the House portico. At 7:43 p.m., with the coffin on the Lincoln bier, in the Rotunda, beneath the dome, the service began.
Ford joins a list of presidents who have lain in state beneath the Rotunda. It includes Reagan, Dwight D. Eisenhower, William H. Taft, Warren G. Harding, William McKinley Jr., James A. Garfield and Herbert Hoover.
Last night, after leaving the Rotunda, Joris Nieuwint, 28, from the Netherlands described the scene as impressive.
"It was very stately -- a huge room with a very big casket with a U.S. flag around it," he said. His wife, Dorien, 26, said people in line had been complaining about the cold while waiting. "Once you got in the room," she said, "everything was forgotten. Everyone was silent and respectful."
Staff writers Hamil R. Harris, Jerry Markon, Philip Rucker, Mary Beth Sheridan, Valerie Strauss, Martin Weil, Eric M. Weiss, Clarence Williams and Joshua Zumbrun contributed to this report.