An easy promise to keep

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WASHINGTON – A few years ago, during a visit to his California home, Gerald R. Ford matter-of-factly informed me I was on the invitation list to his funeral.

“And I’m going to be damned sore if you don’t show up,” he said, absolutely serious.

I told him I suspected he’d outlive us all, but that in the unfortunate event I was wrong about that, I’d be honored to attend.

“Good,” he replied before changing the subject and seeing me to the door of his office. “I want you there.”

It was an easy promise to keep to a president whose generosity of spirit and uncommon decency prompted hundreds of the exalted and the ordinary to brave wintry wind gusts to say farewell to the 38th president.

“This was a nice deal for him,” said honorary pallbearer Bob Barrett, Ford’s Army aide and his first chief of staff in retirement. “After all these years, it’s hard to believe he’s gone.”

If ever a piece of music fit a funeral, it was Aaron Copland’s aptly titled “Fanfare for the Common Man,” a musical metaphor for the president some friends called “Good Old Jerry.”

There was the usual scrum of big-name mourners: Colin Powell kibitzed with former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, while Bill and Hillary Clinton chatted up Barbara Bush. The guests included former Vice Presidents Walter Mondale, Dan Quayle and Al Gore and a slew of Ford’s pals from his 13 terms in the House of Representatives.

But Washington National Cathedral was also filled with retired Secret Service agents and Air Force One stewards, White House secretaries, pro football legend Pat Summerall and Billy Dale, who worked in the White House transportation office for a quarter-century.

In a typical Ford touch ordered personally by the only Eagle Scout to make president, the usher corps was led by scouts proudly sporting their khaki uniforms.

Many of the guests couldn’t figure out why they’d been invited because they barely knew Ford, but they were honored to be there anyway.

“We considered Ford our savior,” said Marlin Fitzwater, who was a young midlevel civil servant at the Environmental Protection Agency when Ford replaced Richard Nixon and later was press secretary to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. “He helped pull the government back together.”

Tuesday’s glowing eulogies no doubt would have embarrassed Ford a bit, but he would have especially enjoyed Dale’s simple tribute as he waited to pick up his ticket.

“Of all the presidents I worked for,” Dale recalled, “he was the most normal.”

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