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.
As Carter, Clinton and the elder Bush greeted one another, it served as a reminder that the world's most exclusive club has shrunk considerably in the past few years. Nancy Reagan, last at the cathedral to memorialize her own husband, arrived wearing dark glasses. When former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw forgot to mention her as he greeted the first families in his eulogy, she whispered to Rosalynn Carter, then made a slight, sardonic wave in Brokaw's direction.
Ford's Washington farewell began at the Capitol, where his casket lay in state over the weekend. About 36,000 people came through the Rotunda to pay respects, a considerable showing but a fraction of the estimated 100,000 who showed up for Reagan. The casket, initially brought to the House doors to remember his time there, was moved yesterday morning to the Senate doors to mark his service as vice president and Senate president.
Draped in a flag and borne aloft by a nine-man military honor guard, the casket left the Capitol to a 21-gun salute, and the motorcade paused by the White House en route to the cathedral, where it was welcomed to the strains of "Hail to the Chief." As the organ played "America, the Beautiful," President Bush escorted Betty Ford down the center aisle, her eyes focused forward, never glancing at the crowd.
She stood in the front row amid her children, Michael, Jack, Steven and Susan, as the honorary pallbearers entered, including Vice President Cheney, former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan and former secretary of state James A. Baker III, all Ford administration veterans. The honor guard brought in the casket and lay it on a catafalque before the pulpit.
Jack Ford recited a passage from Isaiah and Susan Ford Bales from James. Her voice quavered a bit as she read. The elder Bush lightened the atmosphere, telling stories illustrating the former president's less serious side. Ford, he said, understood the value of laughing at himself. Bush said he could elaborate but would not, then imitated comedian Dana Carvey imitating Bush: "Not gonna do it. Wouldn't be prudent."
Brokaw likewise mixed seriousness and humor, joking that some of Ford's 1970s-era jackets should be "eligible for a presidential pardon." But he praised him as "the most underestimated" president. "Gerald Ford brought to the political arena no demons, no hidden agenda, no hit list or acts of vengeance," Brokaw said. As he finished, he turned to the casket: "Farewell, Mr. President. Thank you, Citizen Ford."
In his homily, Ford's pastor from California, the Rev. Robert G. Certain, recalled that the former president shortly before his death raised with him the subject of the Episcopal Church schism over the consecration of a gay bishop and the blessings of same-sex unions. "He said that he did not think they should be divisive for anyone who lives by the great commandments and the great commission to love God and to love neighbor," Certain said.
After two hours, the casket was brought out of the cathedral and the bourdon bell tolled 38 times for the 38th president as the cortege made its way to Andrews for the final trip home. Accompanying the family was Jimmy Carter, who defeated Ford in 1976 but later grew to be a close friend. At Ford's request, Carter will speak at today's interment.
In contrast to the Washington pomp, Ford's return to Grand Rapids took place on a more personal scale. The casket was greeted at Gerald R. Ford International Airport by the marching band from the University of Michigan, where Ford was a football star, playing the school's rousing fight song.
As thousands of Michigan residents lined the streets near the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum on a cold, windy afternoon, a sign in Beaner's Coffee read, "Gerald Our Ford." Outside the Gerald R. Ford Federal Building, a young fan wore a Michigan football jersey and draped a school flag over his shoulders in Ford's honor. Boy Scouts from the Gerald R. Ford Council saluted the passing hearse.
"Michigan's president," he was called by the state's Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm. A man of intellect and achievement, she said, "in a plain brown wrapper."
Staff writer Peter Slevin in Grand Rapids contributed to this report.