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Political grief mixes with sorrow

Remembering President Ford

Some dislike Bush's and Democratic senators' actions. And Ford's own words make waves.

December 29, 2006|James Gerstenzang and Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writers

CRAWFORD, TEXAS — President Bush declared this coming Tuesday a day of mourning for former President Ford, and the White House announced Thursday that Bush would return to Washington a few hours earlier than planned, pay his respects at the Capitol and speak at Ford's memorial service.

Thursday's announcements capped a day of political sensitivity about Washington's four-day farewell for the 38th president.

Newspapers on Thursday published Ford's previously unreported condemnation of Bush's Iraq war justification as "a big mistake." Ford made the criticism in a July 2004 interview with the Washington Post's Bob Woodward, on condition it not be published until after Ford's death.

"I imagine folks in the White House aren't overjoyed that he spoke up," said Bill Seidman, Ford's chief economic advisor.

But White House Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino said Bush was not troubled by Ford's opposition and instead was "focused on grieving for the late president and praying for his family during this difficult time."

Meanwhile, some conservatives assailed the Senate's top two Democrats -- Harry Reid of Nevada and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois -- for having left Wednesday on a fact-finding mission to Latin America; the delegation is expected to return Tuesday, too late to attend that day's memorial service. Others on the trip include Republican Sens. Robert F. Bennett of Utah and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire.

"It is astonishing to me that the [incoming] majority leader and his deputy would not immediately return to honor the memory of a former president and former president of the Senate," said Hugh Hewitt, a conservative Los Angeles radio talk show host. "If their counterparts in the GOP were to decline to attend the funeral of President Carter or President Clinton, I would feel the same way."

Grumbling also came Thursday from some inside the Ford camp who questioned why the Bush administration had not earlier declared a national day of mourning for Ford, who died Tuesday evening. That honor for President Reagan was announced immediately after his death in June 2004.

White House Deputy Press Secretary Scott Stanzel said Bush would follow the same schedule he did when Reagan died, visiting the Capitol to pay his respects six days after the death and taking part in the cathedral service the next day.

Stanzel said the White House was also making one of the 747s that the president uses -- known as Air Force One when he is aboard -- available to Ford family members as they travel from California to Washington and then to Michigan for the burial.

Bush also declared that federal offices would be closed Tuesday.

Ford's casket will arrive at the east Capitol steps Saturday evening and be carried to the door of the House, in recognition of his 25 years of service as a Michigan congressman. After a 7 p.m. state funeral in the Capitol Rotunda, his body will lie in state there until Tuesday morning, when the casket will rest briefly at the closed doors of the Senate in recognition of his service as president of the Senate while he was President Nixon's vice president.

At 10 a.m. Tuesday, a memorial gets underway at the National Cathedral with dignitaries from around the world. The Ford family will leave Andrews Air Force Base shortly after noon to fly to Grand Rapids, Mich., where Ford's body will lie in public repose until Wednesday afternoon, when he will be interred just north of his presidential museum.

The scheduling of the Ford funeral was sensitive for Washington, coming just two days before the new Congress takes office.

Beginning Tuesday, incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) is to hold a four-day inaugural-like celebration of her position as the first female speaker in U.S. history.

In preparation for the Ford events, the Capitol closed for tours at noon Thursday. Members of the Army's ceremonial unit known as the Old Guard, and similar units in the other military services, rehearsed their casket-bearing duties.

The Department of Homeland Security designated the four-day Ford ceremony as a special security event.

And senators and representatives who had planned to linger in their home districts scrambled to get back to Washington.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who becomes minority leader when the new Congress convenes Thursday, is flying back early to attend the Saturday-evening state funeral at the Capitol, his spokesman said. McConnell was a deputy assistant attorney general during the Ford administration; his wife is Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.

james.gerstenzang@latimes.com

johanna.neuman@latimes.com

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