Ford brings rare silence to Washington

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WASHINGTON – There are few sounds one associates with the capital as seldom as silence. On Tuesday, the funeral of former President Gerald R. Ford brought one of those refreshing, if fleeting, moments.

Before it arrived, one might have confused the assemblage at the towering National Cathedral with that of a wedding. Old friends smiled and clasped hands outside, while spouses wondered about the identity of a nearby acquaintance from long ago. The atmosphere was decidedly convivial.

Of course this was not a typical wedding crowd. This was a seamless melding of a significant slice of the American political, business, cultural and media elite.

There was Democratic power lawyer and fixer Vernon Jordan. Twenty feet away was a household name from the near past, television’s Sam Donaldson, a mere guest on this day as his anchor successors, such as NBC’s Brian Williams and CBS’s Katie Couric, stood atop their makeshift podiums outside.

And if there was a doubt about the inevitable link between the corporate and political realms, it was quickly dispelled as former Secretary of State James Baker, recently in the news with his catalytic Iraq Study Group report, ambled in with Sanford Weill, one of Wall Street’s true kingpins.

Presidential children were everywhere, spanning many generations. Chelsea Clinton was hot in conversation with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice just as Lynda Johnson Robb settled into her seat. Inevitably, especially with the likes of Chelsea Clinton out of public view for so long, there was the inclination to ask, “Remember what she looked like back then?”

There was also the inevitable manifestation of security in a post-Sept. 11 age. Secret Service and other personnel, including sharpshooters, were discretely everywhere. (And, curiously, exhibited a good deal more racial and ethnic diversity than the mostly white, older crowd).

Confronting a portion of that phalanx was Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., the only Republican member of the House from New England after the big Democratic midterm election victories. He simply wanted to get to a bathroom in a hallway just outside the main floor.

But a guard said, sorry, the vice president’s convoy was about to arrive. And Shays would have to bide his time for 15 or 20 minutes. He did so, entering into an amiable chat with a reporter in which he uttered a very politically incorrect view on this day, namely that Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon was a huge mistake. “It undermined the entire American political process,” Shays said.

It was when Ford’s casket finally arrived outside and the huge throng stood that the rarest of moments here played out. It was three minutes of virtual silence. In a time of war, with the country divided and voices raised, the solemnity was striking.

For three minutes there was no sense of the cable TV food fights over Iraq or the Democratic takeover of Congress.

No. There was just three minutes of rare unity. No words at all as the casket made it into the towering and resplendent cathedral.

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