Current, Former Presidents Pay Their Respects to Ford

Barbara Bush, former president George H.W. Bush, former secretary of state James A. Baker III and his wife, Susan, stand before the casket of Gerald R. Ford, which has been lying in state at the Rotunda of the Capitol.
Barbara Bush, former president George H.W. Bush, former secretary of state James A. Baker III and his wife, Susan, stand before the casket of Gerald R. Ford, which has been lying in state at the Rotunda of the Capitol. (Nikki Kahn - The Washington Post)
By Peter Baker and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 2, 2007

President Bush opened the new year on a somber note yesterday, returning from his Texas holiday break to pay tribute to former president Gerald R. Ford and to contemplate what has gone wrong in a war that has claimed more American lives than the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

With his wife, Laura, clutching his arm, Bush silently marched into the Rotunda of the Capitol and up to the flag-covered casket holding the remains of the 38th president. The Bushes held hands and bowed their heads for about a minute, then turned and left without a word, heading in their motorcade to Blair House to offer condolences to former first lady Betty Ford.

The grim start to 2007 reflected grim times as the U.S. military death toll in Iraq passed 3,000 and the videotaped execution of Saddam Hussein continued to roil a country already riven by sectarian strife. This week alone, Bush will deliver a eulogy for a fellow Republican president today, endure the installation of an opposition Congress on Thursday, and try to draft a new strategy for a war he once had thought would be winding down in success by now.

In a written holiday message, Bush expressed hope that the new year will turn things around. "In the New Year, we will remain on the offensive against the enemies of freedom, advance the security of our country, and work toward a free and unified Iraq," he said. "Defeating terrorists and extremists is the challenge of our time and we will answer history's call with confidence and fight for liberty without wavering."

For the day, though, Ford remained the focus as Washington wrapped up its second full day of mourning the man lying in state in the Rotunda. Former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush joined a succession of other dignitaries as well as thousands of residents, tourists and others who made their way to the Capitol on a drizzly, dreary day. Two of Ford's children greeted some mourners and gave out commemorative cards, while several grandchildren touched his coffin to say their goodbyes.

The rest of the Ford family made an emotional final trip to the Rotunda yesterday evening to pay respects again. Betty Ford approached the casket and knelt before it, clasping her hands on top of it and bowing her head for several long minutes as her sons rubbed her back in support. Her face was etched with the pain of the moment, yet she remained stoic as she finally stood and walked back to a row of seats set aside for relatives.

The memorials to Ford extended to the other coast: Players on the football team of his alma mater, the University of Michigan, wore stickers on their helmets honoring him during yesterday's Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. The stickers said "Bo 48" -- the first a reference to Bo Schembechler, the legendary Michigan football coach who died in November, and the second representing Ford's number when he was a star player in the 1930s.

The ceremonies will continue today with a service at Washington National Cathedral, where much of the country's past and present political elite will remember the unlikely president who took over the White House after the scandal of Watergate and put an end to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

The casket will be taken first to the closed Senate doors in a nod to his time as vice president -- who serves as president of the upper chamber -- and then loaded into a motorcade. The cathedral's Bourdon Bell will ring out 38 times as the cortege carrying the 38th president travels from the Capitol. It is scheduled to arrive at 10 a.m.

The Right Rev. John Bryson Chane, the Episcopal bishop of Washington, will lead the officiating clergy through a service that will include readings by two of the former president's children, Jack Ford and Susan Ford Bales, and eulogies by the president and his father, former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger, and former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw. Opera singer Denyce Graves, the U.S. Marine Orchestra, the Armed Forces Chorus, and the Cathedral Choirs of Men, Boys and Girls will perform.

It will be the third presidential state funeral at the 114-year-old cathedral, following Ronald Reagan's in 2004 and Dwight D. Eisenhower's in 1969. The cathedral also hosted the burial of Woodrow Wilson, the only president buried in Washington. Ford was on hand in 1976 when the cathedral's nave and west rose window were dedicated.

After today's service, Ford is to be flown to his childhood home town of Grand Rapids, Mich. There he will be interred in a hillside tomb at his presidential museum as a 21-aircraft flyover in missing-man formation jets up the Grand River.

Bush's trip to the Capitol yesterday was his first participation in the six-day Ford funeral events. The president made comments to cameras the day after Ford's death at 93 last week but did not cut short a stay at his Crawford, Tex., ranch.

The White House has maintained a studied silence about Ford's posthumously disclosed criticism of Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003. In an interview with The Washington Post's Bob Woodward embargoed until after his death, Ford said Bush and his team -- including two former Ford chiefs of staff, Vice President Cheney and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld -- made a mistake in how they justified the war and said he would not have ordered the attack. Cheney made no mention of the matter in a tribute speech at the Capitol on Saturday night.

Bush went to the Capitol shortly after landing back at Andrews Air Force Base yesterday, along with aides Joshua B. Bolten, Karl Rove and Joel D. Kaplan. The Bushes walked briskly to the coffin at 3:06 p.m. and paused beside the honor guard. As he did at Reagan's casket in 2004, Bush looked up after a few moments. He blinked and turned to the first lady and appeared to say "Okay." The couple turned and left.

Ten minutes later, George H.W. Bush appeared with Barbara Bush, as well as former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former senator Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) and their wives. The Bushes and Bakers then went to Blair House to visit Betty Ford.

Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) went to the Rotunda later in the afternoon, and House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) went earlier along with her husband, Paul, and Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.). Pelosi crossed herself in front of the coffin. Other elder statesmen who paid respects included Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.). and former senator Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.).

Members of the public, sometimes decked out in slickers and boots, waited in the rain for nearly an hour to get in, and some were allowed to witness the presidential visits. "I didn't expect him to walk in," said Melissa Koenig, 28, who saw former president Bush. The Michigan native once met Ford in Grand Rapids and said she wanted to pay respects.

Kathy Fredickson of Bethesda said she felt fortunate to be present. "I came for all of my family members who could not come."

Susan Ford Bales and brother Michael Gerald Ford greeted some mourners and gave them cream-colored cards with the seals of the president, vice president and House of Representatives. The cards were embossed: "In final tribute from a grateful nation. The lying in state of President Gerald R. Ford."

One of the most poignant moments of the day came around 3:30 p.m. when some of Ford's grandchildren were escorted into the Rotunda. Becca Ford Cook, Sarah Ford Goodfellow, Hannah Ford, Heather Vance and Tyne Vance Berlanga slipped inside the velvet rope and placed their hands on the coffin.

"He was a president by accident, but he did a lot of wonderful things," said Barbara Feiner, 57, of St. Louis, who came with her husband, Tom. Feiner said Ford's legacy extended beyond healing the country and pardoning Richard M. Nixon: "He was the right guy for that time. He handled Watergate, I thought, even though I didn't agree with his decision at the time."

Staff writers Eric M. Weiss and Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company