The last hurrahs of the nation’s capital rang out Tuesday for Gerald R. Ford, honoring a common man with uncommon decency and humility who ran a brief but consequential presidency at a time of great political turmoil.
Eulogists from President Bush to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger praised the nation’s 38th president for using old-fashioned Midwestern qualities to cool the nation’s Watergate passions.
The last act of Ford’s state funeral was playing out at his presidential museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., open throughout the night and this morning for the public to pay final respects. About 5,000 people an hour were filing past Ford’s casket Tuesday night, waiting in line four hours on average, according to the National Guard.
Scouts came forward three by three and saluted by his casket to open 18 hours of visitation, before a final church service and Ford’s hillside burial this afternoon.
The marching band from the University of Michigan, the school where he played football, greeted the White House jet carrying his casket, members of his family and others in the funeral party.
In the eulogists’ laudatory remarks at Washington’s National Cathedral, there also appeared to be an undercurrent of unspoken regret that such values have become rarer in America’s politics. Indeed, analysts have criticized a higher degree of nastiness and lack of authenticity in today’s politics.
“Gerald Ford assumed the presidency when the nation needed a leader of character and humility, and we found it in the man from Grand Rapids,” President Bush said in his eulogy, also citing Ford’s “courage and common sense.”
The president’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, said: “As Americans, we generally eschew notions of the indispensable man, and yet during those traumatic times, few if any of our public leaders could have stepped into the breach and rekindled our national faith as did President Gerald R. Ford.”
In some respects, Ford was different because he was an anomaly in the White House. He rose to power in Congress, where compromise is a way of life, and never aspired to be president. Only through the resignations of Vice President Spiro Agnew and then President Richard Nixon was he thrust into the office in 1974 during the middle of the Watergate scandal.
Former NBC television anchor Tom Brokaw said Ford came to office with “no demons, no hidden agendas, no hit lists, no acts of vengeance” that he implied other presidents might have had. Brokaw said Ford knew who he was and didn’t require consultants or gurus to change him. And, he called Ford “the most underestimated” president.
The senior Bush added, “To know Jerry was to know a Norman Rockwell painting come to life, an avuncular figure quick to smile, frequently with his pipe in his mouth.”
The comments weren’t always so kind when Ford was in office. There were questions about his qualifications, his intelligence and his inability to appear “presidential” – that is, imperialistic or official or regal. And, on television, he was lampooned for being a stumbler.
Yet, on this day, he was honored as a man with many achievements not generally recognized at the time, a man who presided over the end of the Vietnam era and played a big role in the international arena. The president had declared a national day of mourning. The government and the financial markets were closed.
Kissinger cited a number of Ford foreign-policy initiatives, including in the Middle East and in adoption of an international human-rights standard that he said helped bring about the demise of the former Soviet Union.
“Few (historians) will dispute that the Cold War could not have been won had not Gerald Ford emerged at a tragic period to restore equilibrium to America and confidence in its international role,” Kissinger said.
The sun was bright but the wind was stiff as official Washington – and former Washington officials – paid their last tribute to Ford, who died a week ago Tuesday at the age of 93. Later in the day, his body was flown to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich., where he will be buried on Wednesday.
Some touches trimmed
Tuesday’s service had some of the same pomp and circumstance common to state funerals of other fallen heads of state, but the Ford family – true to the late president’s wishes – had trimmed some of the more elaborate touches here in Washington, such as a horse-drawn carriage and a military fly-over.
The cathedral was jammed with political VIPs, from former Presidents Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush (and their wives) to former first lady Nancy Reagan. The late president’s wife, Betty, sat in the front row with her family and fought back tears.
Clinton, sitting next to his wife Hillary, now a senator and likely presidential candidate, could be seen wiping away a tear during the ceremony.
Though there were many young people in the audience, the crowd included many political figures that Ford either appointed or influenced in their careers – Vice President Dick Cheney, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of State James Baker, and former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.
For the most part it was a solemn service, but President Bush’s father added a touch of humor that brought laughter to the audience, including Mrs. Ford and her family.
The senior Bush said he and Ford shared a love for golf and that Ford’s play was suspect. Bush reported that Ford told friends that “I know I’m playing better golf because I’m hitting fewer spectators.”
Bush said that Ford could laugh at those who mimicked him, and then added: “I remember that lesson well, since being able to laugh at yourself is essential in public life. I’d tell you more about that, but as (comedian and Bush mimic) Dana Carvey would say, “Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.”‘
At the ceremony, Ford’s son, Jack, and his daughter, Susan Ford Bales, read scriptures from the Bible. It was a traditional Christian funeral with music provided by military bands and, in one case, by opera star Denyce Graves, who sang “The Lord’s Prayer.”
Ford’s body was brought to Washington on Saturday from California, and there was a service Saturday night in the Capitol Rotunda. Thousands visited the Capitol to view the coffin over the holiday weekend.
It was a long Washington farewell for the man from Michigan. As he closed his eulogy, Brokaw said: “Farewell, Mr. President. Thank you, citizen Ford.”