WASHINGTON – Not all of them voted for Gerald Ford.
Some were too young, some not yet born, and some, well, “I wish I had,” said David Thomas, waiting in line Sunday to file past the former president’s casket. Thomas wore a maize and blue jacket, scarf and socks to honor his fellow University of Michigan graduate.
While he once thought of Ford as a conservative, in retrospect “he was right in the middle,” said Thomas, 73, formerly of Detroit, but now a Washington resident. “He was a Republican, but it was a different time. People got along. It’ s too divisive today, just too much sniping at each other. Ford, himself, he just couldn’t stay mad at anybody.”
Thomas’s remarks reflected those of many close Ford associates, historians and political observers, as well as the ordinary people who waited in a line that snaked back and forth through a rope maze in front of the U.S. Capitol. Some waited an hour or more to make their way up the Capitol steps and into the Rotunda, where Ford’s body lay in state.
“Oh, by today’s standards, he was a most moderate man,” said James Cannon, Ford’s domestic policy adviser and an honorary pallbearer. “I think the (Republican) party changed. He stayed the same.”
Cannon, author of the book “Time and Chance: Gerald Ford’s Appointment with History,” described his former boss as a “centrist. In his time, he was a fiscal conservative, but a moderate centrist on social issues. He certainly was not as conservative as the current conservatives.”
Ford, who died Tuesday at age 93, favored a woman’s right to choose abortion, pardoned Vietnam draft resisters and appointed John Paul Stevens, who became the Supreme Court’s leading liberal. Unofficially, Ford’s wife, Betty, may have been his most influential adviser, Cannon said.
“Any time he had a big decision to make, he’d say, “Let me talk it over with Betty,”‘ he recalled.
Melissa Coggeshall, who stood in line with her husband, Todd, and their 17-month-old daughter, Kathryn, called Ford “one of the last moderate Republicans.”
Her husband, a Coast Guard lieutenant commander based in Washington, noted Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon, which many believe cost him the 1976 election. “He was interested in doing the right thing, regardless of the cost personally,” he said. “I find that admirable, so we decided to come out and pay our respects.”
So did Washington residents Jason and Sandra Nelson.
“I think he was a voice of common sense, rather moderate” Jason Nelson said. “You want to pay respect for a man like that.”
Eventually, they made their way into the Rotunda and past Ford’s mahogany casket, covered with a U.S. flag and resting on the same bier as President Lincoln’s. Slowly hundreds filed past – men and women, the elderly in wheelchairs, babies in arms.
Fewer stood in line than for former President Ronald Reagan in 2004, but Ford’s funeral, at his family’s request, has been accompanied by far less pomp.
Five guards from each branch of the service stood motionless around the casket. A Vietnamese man knelt down, put his hands to his face and bowed. During Ford’s short time in office, the U.S. completed its withdrawal from Vietnam.
Ford’s casket will remain in the Rotunda until Tuesday morning, then will be moved to the Washington National Cathedral after pausing briefly at the doors to the Senate chamber, where Ford, as Nixon’s vice president, presided.
After a funeral there, Ford’s body will be flown home to Grand Rapids for a final service and burial on Wednesday.