Washington Sketch

At the Capitol, VIP Roll Call Has Many No-Shows

Earlier, an aircraft from the White House fleet brought Ford's remains to Andrews Air Force Base from California, where funeral services were held at a church in Palm Desert.
Earlier, an aircraft from the White House fleet brought Ford's remains to Andrews Air Force Base from California, where funeral services were held at a church in Palm Desert. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 31, 2006

The military band drilled. Wreaths with white roses hung outside the House and Senate chambers. In the Capitol Rotunda rested the black velvet catafalque that once bore the remains of Abraham Lincoln.

Everything was in place for Gerald R. Ford's state funeral last night -- everything, that is, but the statesmen.

President Bush sent his regrets; he was cutting cedar and riding his bike on his ranch in Texas. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his deputy, Richard Durbin, couldn't make it, either; they were on a trip to visit Incan ruins. Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took a pass, too -- as did nearly 500 of the 535 members of Congress.

A 6-to-3 majority of the Supreme Court, including Ford's appointee, John Paul Stevens, ruled against attending. All the nation's governors were invited; few, if any, came. Apparently only two Cabinet members -- Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez -- accepted the invite.

Congressional staffers and Ford family representatives scrambled to find sufficient greeters and honorary pallbearers to join Vice President Cheney and a score of former lawmakers and Ford administration officials. Organizers had to scratch one name they had circulated Friday as a pallbearer: Elford Albin Cederberg, the former Republican congressman from Michigan, died eight months ago.

Waiting in the Capitol crypt -- the holding place for lawmakers attending the rites for Ford -- Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) noted the absence of a quorum. There were only eight congressmen in the room, and a couple of them were watching the Texas-Iowa football game. "What's the score?" one called out.

"Everybody's got to deal with their own schedule," Sensenbrenner, who brought his wife and son to the funeral, said of his absent colleagues. But in his minority view, funerals "are important," he said. "When you're in an official position, it's one of the things that's the right thing to do."

The American people quickly outdid their representatives in respect for the departed president, as several hundred citizens lined up for a late-night public viewing of the casket. But the populace, too, was slow to rally. Capitol police erected barriers to contain thousands, but by mid-afternoon yesterday, only 20 people were in line -- providing a luxurious person-to-portable-toilet ratio of 1:1.

Ford, a onetime college football star, would have understood that New Year's weekend is a difficult time for a funeral. His 6:30 ceremony was tucked in between the 4:30 p.m. Alamo Bowl (Texas vs. Iowa) and the 8 p.m. Chick-Fil-A Bowl (Virginia Tech vs. Georgia). And it was just bad luck that the ceremony would fall on the same day as James Brown's funeral, a Redskins home game and the appearance of photos showing Saddam Hussein in the hangman's noose.

The modest 38th president -- a "Ford, not a Lincoln" was his famous self-description -- probably would not have fretted about the attendance.

His family, reflecting his wishes, dispensed with the horse-drawn caisson, the military flyover and the round-the-clock viewing that accompanied Reagan's rites here in 2004. And high officials will have a chance to improve on their performance when a second ceremony is held for Ford on Tuesday at Washington National Cathedral. Certainly, though, official Washington could have done better by Ford last night.

Had the majority of America's leaders dragged themselves to the Capitol, they would have developed the inevitable lumps in the throat as they felt the percussive pounding of the cannon battery, heard the gentle strains of "America the Beautiful" and viewed the crisp steps of a military guard carrying the flag-draped casket. But, as it happened, there were only 77 chairs put out for mourners in the vast Rotunda; staffers were invited in to pad the crowd and make the room look less empty.

Bob Dole, Alan Greenspan, Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft and other luminaries from the Ford orbit were there. Chuck Hagel, Bill Frist and Mitch McConnell were among about 10 senators visible in the crowd, and departing Speaker Dennis Hastert and outgoing Senate President Pro Tempore Ted Stevens offered workmanlike eulogies.

Cheney graciously overlooked his old boss's posthumously published view that the Bush administration had made a "big mistake" and should not have gone to war in Iraq. "He answered discourtesy with courtesy," Cheney told the mourners. Former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, an honorary pallbearer, was a no-show -- reportedly the victim of a delayed flight. And if pallbearer James A. Baker III was in attendance, he proved elusive to the cameras.

Democratic attendance was rather more sparse. The official greeters included Rep. John Dingell, former congressman Lee Hamilton and former speaker Tom Foley. Spied in the crowd were Sens. Chuck Schumer, Carl Levin and Byron Dorgan, and incoming House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.

Conservatives were quick to condemn Reid and Durbin, who proceeded with four other senators on a trip to South America, knowing they would miss the rites in Washington. "He's the incoming Senate majority leader, for crying out loud, and he can't even show a little bit of respect?" commentator Mike Gallagher demanded on Fox News.

But the disregard was bipartisan. The White House sent out a press release from Crawford, Tex., detailing the logistics of last night's service, then added an asterisk: "Please note that President George W. Bush will not be attending this event." He will pay his respects when he comes back to Washington, then go to the other service on Tuesday. Aides pointed out that this was the same thing Bush did for Reagan's funeral, but Bush had a better excuse that time: He was hosting the G-8 summit of world leaders, not clearing brush on the ranch.

Instead, Bush phoned in a eulogy, using his usual Saturday radio address to proclaim Ford a man of "selfless dedication" and saying, "He always put the needs of his country before his own."

It was a rare trait in official Washington last night.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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