Washington Remembers Gerald Ford

Former first lady Betty Ford prays at the side of her husband, former President Gerald R. Ford's casket during the State Funeral service on Capitol Hill in Washington, Saturday, Dec. 30, 2006.
AP Photo/Ron Edmonds
With the thunder of cannon and the whistle of a bos'n pipe, the nation's capital honored Gerald R. Ford's memory Saturday in funeral ceremonies recalling the touchstones of his life, from combat in the Pacific to a career he cherished in Congress to a presidency he did not seek.

Old colleagues, today's leaders and ordinary Americans remembered him as a man called to heal the country from the wounds of Watergate, the scandal that shattered Richard Nixon's presidency in 1974 and brought the even-keeled Ford to the Oval Office.

Ford's decision to pardon Nixon, so divisive at the time that it probably cost him the 1976 election, was dealt with squarely in his funeral services by his old chief of staff, Vice President Dick Cheney.

"It was this man, Gerald R. Ford, who led our republic safely though a crisis that could have turned to catastrophe," said Cheney, speaking in the Capitol Rotunda where Ford's body rested in a flag-draped casket. "Gerald Ford was almost alone in understanding that there can be no healing without pardon."

"I think that history is going to look kindly on President Ford," said CBS News chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer. "In the first part of his presidency people thought he would be just sort of a footnote to history but, in fact, what he did may be one of the most significant things that any president in the last half of the 20th century did. He gave the country a chance to catch its breath and go forward."

"All those who eulogized President Ford talked about his commitment to country, his decency as an individual and of course, his love for Betty Ford," reports CBS News anchor Katie Couric. "It was really quite moving. One quoted the president as saying 'I'm indebted to no man, and only one woman.'"

Earlier, an aircraft from the White House fleet brought Ford's body to Andrews Air Force Base from services near his adopted California home, where mourners streamed past his casket in quiet remembrance of the even-keeled man summoned to the presidency in a time of national trauma 34 years ago.

Cheney, an honorary pallbearer, stood silently among the dignitaries attending the brief arrival ceremony, which was punctuated by cannon fire. The arrival opened the Washington portion of Ford's state funeral, with procession that took his casket from Maryland to Virginia and then over the Memorial Bridge — dressed in flags and funeral bunting — to the memorial, past the White House without pausing and on to the U.S. Capitol for the first service and a lying in state that continues until Tuesday morning.

Mrs. Ford sat stoically in the snaking line of gleaming limousines, clutching a tissue and dabbing her face on occasion, then walked slowly up the steps of the Capitol in the arm of her military escort, soon followed by the casket bearing her husband of 58 years. Another round of cannon fire rang out.

On the way to Capitol Hill, World War II veterans and Boy Scouts gathered by the memorial and saluted at the brief, poignant stop. Mrs. Ford waved through the window. A bos'n mate stepped forward to render "Piping Ashore," a piercing whistle heard for centuries to welcome officers aboard a ship and now to honor naval service.

The event, unfolding without words, recalled Ford's combat service aboard the aircraft carrier USS Monterey. In December 1944, when a typhoon struck the Third Fleet, Ford led the crew that battled a fire sparked by planes shaken loose in the storm, taking actions that some credited with saving the ship and many lives. He sought no award, and received none.

The Capitol commemorated a man whose highest ambition, never realized in an era of Democratic control of Congress, was to become House speaker.

History intervened; he became vice president when Spiro Agnew resigned in scandal, then president when Watergate shattered Richard Nixon's presidency. "A funny thing happened to me on the way to becoming speaker," he once cracked.

In Palm Desert, Calif., a 13-hour period of public viewing ended just as the sun rose over the resort community where Ford and his wife settled nearly 30 years ago. People waited up to three hours to pay their respects at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church.

When the doors were opened after a private service Friday, mourners started flowing in and filed past the casket all through the night and continued to come to pay their respects, reports CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker.

Buses brought people to St. Margaret's from a gathering point at a tennis center five miles away. Mourners ranging from children to the elderly walked through quickly and then reboarded their buses — a process taking less than two minutes.

"It's so moving, especially with someone like Ford, who had such an important place in history," said Michelle Dhami, who came with her two young children.

Ford lied in repose for public viewing of the closed casket until late Saturday morning, when former first lady Betty Ford boarded a Boeing 747 and accompanied her husband's body to Washington. Two services were planned in Washington, and Ford was to be buried in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Jan. 3.

The emphasis for the ceremonies will be on simplicity, very much in keeping with Ford's style, reports Schieffer

Thus the funeral procession to the Capitol lacked the full trappings, by the design of Ford and his family. A motorcade was arranged instead of the horse-drawn caisson most familiar to Americans from the funerals of Ronald Reagan in 2004 and John Kennedy in 1963.

Ford, a man of modest character whose short presidency lacked the historic drama of JFK's and Reagan's, also was mourned without the riderless horse customarily included in the procession.

The thundering military flyover that is also part of a full-throttle state funeral in Washington will happen instead in Grand Rapids, Mich., where Ford will be entombed Wednesday on a hillside near his presidential museum. Ford represented the city in the House for 25 years.

Ford died Tuesday at age 93. He became president when Nixon resigned in August 1974 and then was defeated by Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election.

Six days of national mourning began Friday with military honors and a simple family prayer service at St. Margaret's, where the Ford family has worshipped for many years.

Barbara Veith, 69, said Ford's "everyman" persona drew her to the viewing.

"There is something personal about his passing even though we didn't really know him," Veith said. "He just kind of had an everyman quality to him though he was far from it — he was the president."

During his weekly radio address on Saturday, President Bush called Ford a "courageous leader, a true gentleman and a loving father and husband."

"Gerald Ford distinguished himself as a man of integrity and selfless dedication," Bush said. "He always put the needs of his country before his own, and did what he thought was right, even when those decisions were unpopular. Only years later would Americans come to fully appreciate the foresight and wisdom of this good man."

Bush was referring obliquely to Ford's decision to pardon Nixon, a step so divisive it was widely thought to have contributed to his defeat in 1976. In the years since, some critics of the pardon, as well as a number of historians, have come to see it as a wise move that spared the nation further pain from Watergate.

When they return to Washington from their Texas vacation on Monday, Bush and first lady Laura Bush plan to pay their respects to Ford while he lies in state at the Capitol. On Tuesday, the president will speak at Ford's funeral service at Washington National Cathedral before Ford's remains are taken to Grand Rapids.

The private family service on Friday was followed by a visitation for invited friends, including former Secretary of State George Shultz, former New York Congressman Jack Kemp and former California Gov. Pete Wilson.