Warm Eulogies On a Windy Winter's Day

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 3, 2007

It was a stiff but egalitarian wind that battered mourners who gathered yesterday to say goodbye to former president Gerald R. Ford.

Sweeping off the hilltop towers of the Washington National Cathedral, it blew against old and young, fit and frail, Democrats and Republicans. It pummeled senators, Cabinet secretaries, mayors, political candidates, foreign dignitaries, diplomats, police officers, official greeters and bystanders.

Everyone, it seemed, but the late president's widow, Betty, 88, who appeared thin and weary but unruffled during the 90-minute celebration of the president's life.

Gusts of 30 mph blew hats off the military guard, mussed the hair of the honorary pallbearers and tugged at the flag on the president's coffin.

It was even mentioned -- "O wind of heaven" -- in one of the hymns sung by the Armed Forces Chorus.

Under a clear blue sky, on the cold January morning, a common exchange at the Ford farewell went:

"How are you?"


But the wind did not chill the accolades that continued for the nation's 38th president, who was raised in Michigan and died Dec. 26 in California at 93.

Inside and outside the cathedral on Wisconsin Avenue NW, people spoke warmly yesterday of the man one eulogist called "the gentleman from Grand Rapids."

Former secretary of state Colin Powell, clad in a coat and tie, seemed oblivious to the weather as he strode toward the cathedral with his wife, Alma.

"I watched the country go through the terrible period from '68 to '74 with the death of Bobby Kennedy and the death of Martin Luther King and then the resignation of the president . . . the counterculture, drugs, Vietnam, racial difficulties," he said. "People thought we were down and out. And then suddenly along came this simple guy from the Midwest."

Alma Powell described Ford as a man "of great decency and kindness. He was a good man. That says it all about him."

Former vice president Walter Mondale paused on a cathedral sidewalk to say that Ford "was a wonderful man, wonderful president. Old friend of ours. We wanted to be here to honor him."

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, looking warm in a black overcoat, said Ford "personified the Grand Rapids, Michigan, world. I think he never left that world. He really very much enjoyed serving his country. He enjoyed politics. But he was never too pretentious, never saw himself as bigger than the guy that Grand Rapids sent to Washington."

Former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney also seemed unfazed by the weather. Ford "was a great friend of Canada's," he said. "On a personal level, he was a delight to be with."

Bundled in a top coat, retired Army Gen. Alexander M. Haig Jr., who was Ford's chief of staff, said of Ford: "I loved him dearly and respected him immensely."

Ford served 25 years as a Republican congressman from Michigan before he became Richard Nixon's vice president in 1973, succeeding the disgraced Spiro T. Agnew, who had resigned. He became president in 1974 when Nixon was forced to resign in the wake of the Watergate scandal. In one of his early acts as president, he issued a pardon absolving Nixon of any Watergate-related crimes -- a decision that helped cost him the 1976 election.

Across the street from the main entrance to the cathedral, Gladys Lanier, a military chaplain assigned to the 980th Engineer Battalion in Austin, brought a half-dozen roses for the man she called a "beloved commander in chief."

They were bright yellow, for the golden years of the Ford presidency, said Lanier, who was in town visiting injured soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

"He was a man who represented grace in a time when we were not very forgiving," the chaplain said.

Moments later, the face of Betty Ford, from the back of a limousine, flashed by Lanier and hundreds of other onlookers assembled behind steel barricades.

Waving the bouquet at the motorcade, Lanier watched as Ford and other members of the Ford family were whisked past. "I wish I could give it to them," she said.

Nearby stood Joyce Buchanan, 63, a London-based flight attendant for United Airlines who spent the last hours of a Washington layover waiting in the cold for a glimpse of the Ford motorcade.

"I really respected him," said Buchanan, who was raised in Sweetwater, Tex. "He was Middle America. He was someone all of Middle America could identify with. He made his own coffee, put out the garbage and got the newspaper and his kids all the same -- normal people. He was really the last of them."

Andy Bittner, one of the cathedral's official greeters who was on hand to help elderly mourners navigate the gusty cathedral steps yesterday, explained that the building, with its mammoth twin towers, can be one of the chilliest places in town on a windy day.

"It's real dynamic," he said. "It absolutely is. . . . I call these two towers sky rakes, because that's what they do." He said they catch the wind and dump it "down on your head."

Whatever the local forecast for wind and weather might be, he said, at the cathedral in winter, "add 15 miles per hour and drop 10 degrees."

Washington's final goodbye to the late president began yesterday morning when his body was taken from the Capitol Rotunda, where it had lain in state since Saturday.

As several hundred spectators gathered at Constitution and Delaware avenues NE to see the president off, a military honor guard marched up the Capitol steps at 8:43 a.m. and formed a cordon through which the coffin would soon pass. A motorcade of black limousines pulled up at 8:57 a.m., and moments later Ford's flag-draped coffin was carried to a hearse amid an artillery salute and the music of "Hail to the Chief."

Betty Ford, who had been standing with a crowd of people at the base of the steps, was then walked to a waiting limousine and helped inside by a military officer.

With that, the caravan left for Washington National Cathedral. Authorities said there were no traffic or security problems during the day's events.

Terry Davidson, who waited at the corner of Constitution and Delaware to watch, said he came out of respect. "He's one of the first presidents I can remember when I was a kid," said Davidson, 42. "He was a good man, very decent and honest. He was right to try to move the nation forward.''

Along Constitution Avenue, a family of five, newly transplanted from Cleveland to Manassas Park, had watched in the cold in front of the National Gallery of Art.

Only Bruce Haber, 48, who works for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, recalled the late president.

His wife, Christine, 38, was in elementary school when Ford was president. "I wasn't really politically aware then," she said. "I'm learning a lot about him right now."

Clad in thick coats and mittens, they said they were not bothered by the chilly morning. "We're from Cleveland," Haber said. "This is warm!"

The route of the cortege went along Pennsylvania Avenue, where the procession slowed outside the White House and staffers lined up to bid Ford goodbye.

After the cathedral service, the procession headed to Andrews Air Force Base. There an honor guard removed the coffin from the hearse and carried it to a waiting plane as an American flag carried by the guard snapped in the wind.

As the presidential jet rumbled down the tarmac, former colleagues placed their hands over their hearts, and one, former housing secretary Carla Hills, lifted her arm and waved farewell.

Staff writers Henri E. Cauvin, Hamil R. Harris, Allison Klein, Carol D. Leonnig, Jerry Markon, Sue Anne Pressley Montes, Mary Beth Sheridan and Eric M. Weiss contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company