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THE NATION | Remembering President Ford

`Good man, faithful servant' honored

Dick Cheney and others eulogize a steady leader in a time of crisis, as Ford begins lying in state at the Capitol.

December 31, 2006|Jonathan Peterson and Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — In a day of somber ceremony, the body of Gerald R. Ford was flown Saturday from Palm Springs to Washington, where the former president was hailed for his role in helping heal the nation in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.

A black-draped bier of rough pine used in funerals for Abraham Lincoln and other American dignitaries held the coffin of the 38th president, who will lie in state inside the Capitol until Tuesday.

Ford will be transported to Washington National Cathedral on Tuesday morning for a memorial service that will be attended by President Bush. The six days of funeral rites are scheduled to end Wednesday, when Ford will be buried in his boyhood home of Grand Rapids, Mich.

As the focus shifted Saturday from Ford's adopted home in the Coachella Valley to the nation's capital, the former president was fondly saluted by career politicians who, along with family members and longtime friends, attended the evening service in the Capitol Rotunda.

"In 1974, America didn't need a philosopher-king or a warrior-prince," said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "We needed a healer. We needed a rock. We needed honesty and candor and courage. We needed Gerald Ford."

At the evening service, speakers repeatedly described Ford as a man of decency who led a traumatized nation away from a divisive political crisis.

"He was not just a nice guy, the next-door neighbor whose luck landed him in the White House," said Vice President Dick Cheney in the main eulogy of the night. Cheney, who served as chief of staff to Ford, said his former boss "led our republic safely through a crisis that could have turned to catastrophe."

"For all the grief that never came, for all the wounds that were never inflicted, the people of the United States will forever stand in debt to the good man and faithful servant we mourn tonight," Cheney said.

The honorary pallbearers included longtime Republicans such as Cheney; James A. Baker III, who served as Ford's undersecretary of Commerce and went on to become secretary of State; Alan Greenspan, a top economic advisor to Ford who later became Federal Reserve chairman; and former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. Former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld also was scheduled to be a pallbearer but was unable to reach Washington from New Mexico because of bad weather.

The day's events, which featured patriotic music, military honors and touching moments of family privacy, bore the down-to-earth imprint of Ford, who took part in his own funeral planning and sought to play down some of the majestic trappings of a state funeral.

"He would not want it to be ostentatious," said William Brock, a Republican senator from Tennessee during Ford's presidency.

Before reaching the Capitol, Ford's hearse passed through the suburban neighborhood he lived in as a congressman and vice president, and paused for a moment of respect near the World War II Memorial.

Ford had declined a Washington military flyover and chose a standard hearse rather than a horse-drawn caisson for his trip to the Capitol. Those choices contrasted with those of some earlier presidents, such as Ronald Reagan and Lyndon B. Johnson, both of whom had military flyovers and horses at their state funerals.

In another unusual gesture, Ford had chosen to have his flag-draped coffin rest briefly outside the House chamber, where he served for a quarter-century as a congressman, including more than eight years as Republican leader.

After the stop at the House chamber, military pallbearers hoisted the coffin past onlookers lining the House's amphitheater-like Statuary Hall, past carved likenesses of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and carried the casket into the circular heart of the Capitol, the ornate Rotunda that features busts of presidents and explorers, wreathed panels and frescoed scenes of American history.

They then placed it on the 141-year-old bier, known as a catafalque, beneath the soaring Capitol dome.

Ford died Tuesday at age 93. President Nixon appointed him vice president after the resignation of Spiro T. Agnew, and he became an unelected president in 1974 when Nixon resigned during the Watergate scandal. Ford later pardoned Nixon, an act that enraged much of the country and may have doomed his prospects to be elected president.

On Saturday, however, his leadership was applauded. "In our nation's darkest hour, Gerald Ford lived his finest moment," said Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska.

At one point, as a Navy choir began a tribute to Ford, the ceremonies were interrupted when former Rep. William S. Broomfield (R-Mich.) collapsed. Broomfield, who was among the official greeters at the Capitol when the funeral procession arrived, was taken from the chamber. Among those tending to Broomfield was outgoing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a physician.

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