Solemn Faces on a Day of Revelry

Visitors stop to view Gerald R. Ford's coffin as they follow the line through the Capitol Rotunda. Mourners began lining up at 5 a.m. to pay their respects to the 38th president.
Visitors stop to view Gerald R. Ford's coffin as they follow the line through the Capitol Rotunda. Mourners began lining up at 5 a.m. to pay their respects to the 38th president. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

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By Ernesto Londoño and Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 1, 2007

Outside the Capitol and elsewhere in the Washington area, the new year marched in to the usual soundtrack of high heels clacking, alcohol sloshing, music thumping and fireworks exploding.

But inside the Capitol Rotunda -- where Gerald R. Ford, the nation's 38th president, lay in a flag-draped coffin -- there was stillness removed from the celebration.

The 93-year-old, who died Tuesday at his home in California, was surrounded by six members of an honor guard. Among them was Army Pvt. Joseph Staples, a soft-spoken and bespectacled 20-year-old from Missouri, who volunteered to spend midnight by the coffin.

"This is higher than New Year's," he said before his shift began. "This is higher than our personal lives. We consider this to be far more important. This is going to be one of the higher points in my career."

Mourners started lining up in front of the Capitol at 5 a.m. yesterday to pay tribute to Ford. Some had gray hair and limped slightly as the line inched forward -- members of a generation for whom the tribute prompted vivid memories of the tumultuous era that ushered Ford into the Oval Office in 1974.

But people in their 20s and 30s came, too, many wearing jeans and college sweat shirts, to say farewell to a man they learned about primarily in history books.

Some were greeted by two of Ford's sons, who spent part of the day shaking hands with mourners in the Rotunda.

Calvin Brown, 37, of Rutherglen, Va., cut a vacation in Virginia Beach short to come to the Capitol. He awoke at 3:30 a.m., dragged his 7-year-old daughter, Alexandra, out of bed and drove to Washington while she slept in the car.

"Majestic is the best description for me," he said. "This is a man who stood for matters of courage, regardless of political causes."

Ford's body was flown to Washington on Saturday for four days of official tributes. The public will be able to view his coffin in the Rotunda again today from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Much of official Washington, including President Bush, will gather with Ford's widow, Betty, and other members of the Ford family at Washington National Cathedral tomorrow morning for the funeral. He will be buried Wednesday near his presidential library in Grand Rapids, Mich.

The procession of mourners at the Capitol yesterday went smoothly. People waited in line for periods that ranged from 45 minutes to two hours. The crowds swelled in the afternoon.

After passing through metal detectors, visitors stepped into the Rotunda. More than 100 members of the armed forces were in the Capitol, sleeping in cots downstairs, awaiting their turn to guard the coffin. Honor guard members stood by the coffin in groups of six, standing still for 30-minute shifts as visitors walked around in two half-circle lines.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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