In State Funeral, a Farewell to Ford

Former first lady Betty Ford is joined by her children as she kneels by her husband's casket. The former president is to be buried in Michigan.
Former first lady Betty Ford is joined by her children as she kneels by her husband's casket. The former president is to be buried in Michigan. (Nikki Kahn - The Washington Post)
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Gerald Rudolph Ford, the Boy Scout, football star and congressman thrust by history rather than ambition into the presidency at a fateful moment for his nation, was bidden farewell by Washington in a regal state funeral yesterday and taken home to Michigan for burial.

As cannons boomed and bells pealed and 10,650 organ pipes echoed through the cavernous Washington National Cathedral, Ford received a sendoff he could hardly have imagined as a young Midwestern boy abandoned by his father shortly after birth 93 years ago. A "Norman Rockwell painting come to life," as former president George H.W Bush described him, Ford was honored as a man of little pretense whose impact extended beyond his 895 days in office.

"Gerald Ford assumed the presidency when the nation needed a leader of character and humility, and we found it in the man from Grand Rapids," President George W. Bush told 3,772 heads of state, justices, lawmakers, military officers, Cabinet secretaries, diplomats and other mourners. "President Ford's time in office was brief, but history will long remember the courage and common sense that helped restore trust in the workings of our democracy."

Betty Ford, 88, endured the fifth straight day of official ceremony with grief playing out on her face, and yet the former first lady never lost her composure and even smiled wistfully as Bush recounted funny stories from the early days of her 58-year marriage. She and her family then headed to Andrews Air Force Base, boarded one of the presidential jets that serve as Air Force One and took her husband's body to Grand Rapids, Mich., where more than 10,000 people waited in lines as long as a half-mile to visit his casket during an all-night repose at his presidential museum.

The day's events brought together all four living presidents and leaders of both parties for Washington's second state funeral in 2 1/2 years. Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) shook hands and sat behind outgoing Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), while former presidents Bill Clinton and the elder Bush cheerfully renewed their friendship. But as Democrats assume control of Congress tomorrow, the bipartisanship that many extolled in Ford appears little more than a testimonial to the past. Just minutes before Ford's casket was brought into the cathedral, the office of House Republican leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) e-mailed reporters a statement assailing Democrats for being partisan in their plans for the new Congress.

Ford knew what it was like to be in the minority. A lawyer who served in the Navy during World War II, the Republican was elected to the House in 1948 and over the course of a quarter-century rose to be minority leader in a chamber long dominated by Democrats. His greatest aspiration was to be speaker, but his fate changed when his party was engulfed by scandal.

President Richard M. Nixon appointed him vice president in 1973 to replace Spiro T. Agnew, who was forced from office by corruption allegations, and then on Aug. 9, 1974, Ford succeeded Nixon, who was forced from office by Watergate. In the process, Ford became the first commander in chief never to have been elected president or vice president.

His pardon of Nixon for any crimes he may have committed became Ford's signature decision, one that may have cost him the 1976 election but over time has come to be seen as an act of statesmanship that saved the nation the wrenching ordeal of putting a former president on trial. Ford's eventful presidency also saw the ignominious end of the Vietnam War, a stubborn recession at home, a Middle East cease-fire, a daring raid to rescue a merchant marine crew captured by Cambodians, and arms control and human rights treaties with the Soviet Union.

"In recent days, the deserved commentary on Gerald Ford's character has sometimes obscured how sweeping and lasting were his achievements," former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger said in a eulogy at the cathedral.

The state funeral was a classic Washington affair, soaked in power and pageantry even if not quite as elaborate as the one held for Ronald Reagan in June 2004. For two hours before it began, many of the men and women who have run the country for the past three decades flowed into the vaulted cathedral.

As Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" was played, Boy Scouts stood at strategic points holding up signs reading "SS" and "Green" to indicate sections where guests were supposed to sit, according to a peculiar Washington hierarchy that distinguishes between political rock stars and the merely powerful. The south transept was for congressional leaders and Supreme Court justices, including John Paul Stevens, the oldest member of the court and Ford's only appointee. The north transept was for the diplomatic corps and the honorary pallbearers.

In front of the altar sat the honored guests: the Ford family and the former presidents. Before the service began, Jimmy Carter, sitting in the front row with his wife, Rosalynn, leaned back over his chair to chat with Clinton, as Chelsea Clinton talked with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. When the elder Bushes arrived, Barbara headed straight to her seat, while the 41st president stopped to shake hands with former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres.

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