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Remembering President Ford

Praise for 'a legacy of honor'

Tributes to President Ford pour in as services are announced. He will lie in state at the Capitol after visitation in Palm Desert.

December 28, 2006|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The nation's capital prepared Wednesday to honor former President Gerald R. Ford with the pomp and solemnity of a state funeral, as tributes poured in for the self-effacing leader who in the mid-1970s steered the country through a particularly troubled period.

Memorials for the 38th president -- who died Tuesday at 93 at his Rancho Mirage home -- will begin Friday with observances in Palm Desert, continue in Washington and conclude Wednesday in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he will be buried in a hillside tomb near his presidential museum.

"My family and I are touched beyond words by the outpouring of affection and the many wonderful tributes we have received following the death of my husband," the president's widow, Betty, said in a statement released Wednesday. "The nation's appreciation for the contributions that President Ford made throughout his long and well-lived life are more than we could ever have anticipated. These kindnesses have made this difficult time more bearable."

Gregory D. Willard, a friend of the family who served as staff assistant during the Ford administration, said: "The president's passing was peaceful. He was with Mrs. Ford and her children at the residence in Rancho Mirage."

Ford's death came during a between-the-holidays lull in Washington's usually fevered activity. Funeral plans were forcing schedule changes for many, from lawmakers who will return a day earlier to police officers who must work the weekend as security precautions ramp up for an expected influx of visitors.

The new Congress will still be sworn in as planned on Jan. 4, but flags will fly at half-staff in observance of a 30-day mourning period ordered by President Bush.

For many Americans, the funeral will draw attention to how an earlier generation of political leaders dealt with divisive problems. A presidential funeral is an occasion for national reflection, said Donald A. Ritchie, associate Senate historian.

"It's comparable in a sense to an inauguration, since it's a moment of focusing on a person and a career of service to the nation," Ritchie said. "Where an inaugural is a period of promise, a funeral represents the conclusion, the finality of it all. But it brings out many of the same people and the same kinds of considerations."

Ford took office in 1974 after President Nixon was forced to resign to avoid impeachment in the Watergate scandal and at a time when the Vietnam War was winding down in defeat. At home, unemployment and inflation were high.

He assumed the nation's highest office without ever having been elected vice president, since Nixon appointed him to replace Spiro T. Agnew, who resigned after pleading no contest to a charge of income tax evasion.

"It was not the best of times for anybody to be president of the United States," said Bob Dole, the former GOP senator from Kansas. "President Ford was able to make the best of it and will be remembered for leaving a legacy of honor and integrity."

Dole was Ford's running mate in the 1976 race, in which the Republican ticket closed a wide deficit in the polls but lost narrowly to Democrat Jimmy Carter. Only about 30% of today's population would have been old enough to vote in that election.

Ford's most controversial act was his preemptive pardon of Nixon shortly after taking office, which scuttled any potential prosecution of his predecessor for alleged misdeeds related to the 1972 break-in at Democratic headquarters in the Watergate complex and the subsequent coverup. Ford said he made the decision on his own because he was convinced the nation needed to move on.

"It was a tough call either way, and I think he made the toughest call," Dole said. But some critics suspected a hidden political deal -- the promise of a pardon in exchange for the Oval Office.

A journalist who covered the White House at the time said Ford believed he was on a mission to unite a fractured nation. "His legacy can be summarized in the title of his memoir: 'A Time to Heal,' " said Tom DeFrank, Washington bureau chief for the New York Daily News. "At a moment of grave constitutional crisis, he began the arduous process of removing the poison from a damaged nation."

"He saw himself as a minister of reconciliation," said the Rev. Dan Rondeau, associate rector at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, where the Fords worshiped and where a private prayer service will be held Friday. A public visitation at the church will begin about 4:20 p.m. Friday and continue into Saturday morning.

Messages of praise continued to arrive Wednesday.

"As a congressman from Michigan, and then as vice president, he commanded the respect and earned the goodwill of all who had the privilege of knowing him," President Bush, vacationing in Crawford, Texas, said of Ford. "He assumed power in a period of great division and turmoil. For a nation that needed healing and for an office that needed a calm and steady hand, Gerald Ford came along when we needed him most."

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