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.
"My wife and I felt he was someone who has served his country in a dignified way," said Dave Hunsaker, 60, of Fairfax, who was among the first to walk through the Rotunda yesterday. "He was respectful of others. And I'll tell you, frankly, that's kind of hard to find now. He deserves some of my time."
The crowds appeared smaller than those that came to honor former president Ronald Reagan when he was lying in state in the Capitol in June 2004. Some stood in line to see Reagan for more than eight hours.
"Everything has been running rather smoothly," said Sgt. Kimberly Schneider, a Capitol Police spokeswoman. She noted the moderate turnout, saying, "It might be the holidays or people being out of town."
As they waited outside, many mourners discussed New Year's plans. A young couple was planning to ring in the new year aboard a cruise on the Potomac. Others firmed up dinner plans during cellphone conversations. Some extended their vacations to come honor Ford. Others cut them short.
Vickie Mears, 39, wore high heels when she walked past the coffin. They were one of only two pairs of shoes the Leesburg woman packed for a New Year's party at a Hyatt in the District.
"I wasn't expecting to do this, of course," she said, explaining the heels and her fur-trimmed coat. The party was to start at 8 p.m., and "the champagne is already on ice."
Mears and her boyfriend, Dan Weber, 42, arrived Saturday in the District for the bash at the hotel, where 500 people were expected.
"We'll always remember this New Year's," Mears said. "We can say we remember 2007 -- definitely."
Joanne Bienes-Carranza, a 33-year-old teacher visiting from Miami, had no firsthand recollection of Ford's years in the White House but considered his viewing momentous.
"I felt that this was a very important part of history, and I wanted to be part of it," she said. "From what I know if his presidency, he was a very giving person. He made decisions that were good for the country -- not only for his own good."
Lorie Kennedy, 52, echoed that view. The Pennsylvania woman woke up at 4:30 a.m. to drive to Washington with her 12-year-old son to participate in the tribute. She had just graduated from college when Ford assumed the presidency, and she remembered backpacking through Europe, feeling under scrutiny for being an American.
"Nixon and Watergate were the two words" that Europeans immediately identified with Americans, she said. "There was a lot of negativity."
She voted for Ford in 1976, when he lost to Jimmy Carter, and wondered how the late president would have influenced history had he been given four more years in the White House. "It probably would be a lot different today," she said, "with the views he had -- the wisdom."
Jim Christie, 56, a retired Navy officer who lives in Woodbridge, brought his daughter Rachel, 10.
After waiting in line about 90 minutes, Christie said he was moved to find Ford's son Jack in the Rotunda. Jack and his brother Steven were greeting the visitors.
James Dozier, 25, who works for a nonprofit organization in Denver, didn't expect to stay in Washington for New Year's. But he extended his vacation after Ford's death. He had been here when Reagan died, and he stood in line for more than eight hours then to go through the Rotunda. But Ford's memorial carried more significance, he said.
"Although I wasn't alive" during his presidency, "I've always admired and respected President Ford," he said. "When you look at politicians today, there's so much cynicism. He wasn't elected. He did what he thought was right. I'd probably say he was my favorite president."
Ford was the commencement speaker at Barbara Stull's graduation ceremony at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria. His son Steve was in her class, which graduated in 1974, while Ford was still vice president. Stull said she didn't remember what he said. But she said she will never forget his voice and demeanor.
"He was like everyone's father," she said. "He kind of reminded me of my dad. He was quite a gentleman."
As police escorted a few stragglers from the guest book signing area about 6:30 p.m., a young couple spoke about their plans for the evening. Heather Harber, 23, and Zack Ryan, 28, had driven all night from Massachusetts. They expected to watch the fireworks with friends in Alexandria. Their night was still young.
"There's still five hours left," Ryan said.