President Bush, others pay respects at Capitol Rotunda

WASHINGTON – President Bush bowed his head in silence on Monday before the flag-draped casket of Gerald R. Ford, joining thousands of mourners who paid their respects to the man who guided the nation after the tumultuous Watergate years.

Silence fell under the Capitol dome when the president and his wife, Laura, walked toward the casket, illuminated by spotlights and guarded at each corner by members of a military honor guard.

The president, who will eulogize Ford today, said nothing during the brief, one-minute visit Monday.

As three days of public viewing drew to a close, Ford’s widow, Betty, returned to the Capitol and sat in the Rotunda for about 20 minutes with her three sons, her daughter and their spouses. She clutched the hand of son Michael. Son Steven helped her up when she walked over to the casket, touching it one last time.

Two of the former president’s grandchildren, Heather Vance and Tyne Vance Berlanga, embraced after they were overcome with emotion at the casket.

It was a rainy, overcast day, and people waited in line under umbrellas and parka hoods to say farewell to Ford, who died Dec. 26 at age 93.

Funeral services will be held today at Washington’s National Cathedral, where a bell will toll 38 times for the 38th president. Ford will be buried at his presidential museum in Michigan.

On Monday, ordinary Americans started the new year by joining official Washington in paying their respects to the former president.

Karen Olson, 53, of Herndon, Va., said the rain couldn’t dampen her determination to see Ford. Her mother, who’s now deceased, was on his staff, she said.

“I wanted to come pay my respects. He was a big part of my life,” said Olson, who was among the people lined up before 9 a.m. EST to enter the Capitol building. “I have a lot of ties to his family.”

“The few times that I met him, he was just really nice,” she said.

Both of Olson’s parents have passed away.

“I kind of felt like I wanted to be there for them,” she said. “There’s just an emotional connection there.”

Among the dignitaries to pay their respects Monday were Bush’s parents, former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara; former President Bill Clinton and former first lady, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.; Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who this week becomes the first woman speaker of the House; Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.; former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld; former Vice President Dan Quayle; and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Mid-afternoon, members of Ford’s family greeted mourners. Michael Ford and his sister, Susan Ford Bales, handed remembrance cards to some of the visitors.

The blue cards had the presidential, vice presidential and House of Representatives seals and a biography of Ford on one side. On the other was a photograph of the former president in the Oval Office, his head bowed.

The message on the card: “The family of Gerald R. Ford deeply appreciates your prayers and many kindnesses as together we celebrate and honor the life of a devoted husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather and the 38th president of the United States.”

Michael Ford shook 8-year-old Christopher Witkowski’s hand and gave him one of the cards. “My father would have wanted you to have this,” he told Christopher, from Alexandria, Va.

Bush last week praised Ford as a “true gentleman.” He recounted how Ford stepped into the Oval Office after President Nixon resigned in disgrace after the Watergate scandal.

“President Ford was a great American who gave many years of dedicated service to our country,” Bush said in a statement released after his death. “With his quiet integrity, common sense and kind instincts, President Ford helped heal our land and restore public confidence in the presidency.”

After viewing the casket, the Bushes drove to Blair House, across the street from the White House, to visit for a half-hour with Betty Ford. The Bushes then walked down Pennsylvania Avenue back to the Executive Mansion.

Ford was appointed vice president by Nixon to replace Spiro Agnew, who resigned in a bribery scandal stemming from his days as Maryland governor. After Nixon resigned in disgrace, Ford assumed the presidency for 2-1/2 years. A month after taking office, Ford pardoned Nixon for any Watergate crimes he might have committed – a move that political analysts say was perhaps the main reason he lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter.

“At a time that the nation was under a lot of pressure, a lot of fire, he stood up for the things that he thought were right at the time,” Edna Reeves, 61, of Oxon Hill, Md., said as she walked to the Capitol in the rain. “Much blessings to him for knowing compassion enough to pardon President Nixon. I think that was beautiful. You see he didn’t think of himself, he thought about the nation.”

Associated Press Writer Ann Sanner contributed to this report.

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