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Published: Saturday, 12/30/2006

Ford's casket arrives at U.S. Capitol

ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON - With the thunder of cannon and the whistle of a bos'n pipe, the nation's capital honored Gerald R. Ford's memory today in funeral ceremonies recalling the touchstones of his life, from combat in the Pacific to a career he cherished in Congress to a presidency he did not seek.

Lights bathed the granite arch of the World War II memorial commemorating the Pacific theater as Ford's nighttime funeral procession, bearing his wife, Betty, and the casket of the 38th president, stopped there in tribute to his years as an ensign and gunnery officer. The other arch, representing the Atlantic theater, stood in darkness.

An aircraft from the White House fleet brought Ford's body to Andrews Air Force Base from services near his adopted California home, where mourners streamed past his casket in quiet remembrance of the even-keeled man summoned to the presidency in a time of national trauma 32 years ago.

Vice President Dick Cheney, Ford's chief of staff long ago and an honorary pallbearer now, stood silently among the dignitaries attending the brief arrival ceremony, which was punctuated by cannon fire. The arrival opened the Washington portion of Ford's state funeral, with procession that took his casket from Maryland to Virginia and then over the Memorial Bridge dressed in flags and funeral bunting to the memorial, past the White House without pausing and on to the U.S. Capitol for the first service and a lying in state that continues until Tuesday morning.

Mrs. Ford sat stoically in the snaking line of gleaming limousines, clutching a tissue and dabbing her face on occasion, then walked slowly at the Capitol in the arm of her military escort, soon followed by the casket bearing her husband of 58 years. Another round of cannon fire rang out.

The pageantry was muted, as Ford wanted, but the ritual unfolded with regal touches and according to exacting traditions dating back to the mid-1800s.

In one departure from tradition, pallbearers placed his flag-draped casket outside the House chamber before it was taken to the Rotunda to lie in state. That honored Ford's years of service in the House as a congressman from Michigan and minority leader.

Similarly, Ford's body will rest briefly outside the Senate chamber on Tuesday, commemorating his service as vice president, which also made him Senate president.

Ford's Capitol funeral ceremony was interrupted briefly when an elderly guest collapsed.

The white-haired man was laid out on the floor of the Rotunda and Sen. Bill Frist (news, bio, voting record), a physician, went to his aid. The unidentified man later was taken out in a wheelchair.

The planned program resumed after about five minutes.

On the way to Capitol Hill, World War II veterans and Boy Scouts gathered by the memorial and saluted at the brief, poignant stop. Mrs. Ford waved through the window. A bos'n mate stepped forward to render "Piping Ashore," a piercing whistle heard for centuries to welcome officers aboard a ship and now to honor naval service.

The event, without words, recalled Ford's combat service aboard the aircraft carrier USS Monterey. In December 1944, when a typhoon struck the Third Fleet, Ford led the crew that battled a fire sparked by planes shaken loose in the storm, taking actions that some credited with saving the ship and many lives. He sought no award, and received none.

The Capitol commemorated a man whose highest ambition, never realized in an era of Democratic control of Congress, was to become House speaker.

History intervened; he became vice president when Spiro Agnew resigned in scandal, then president when Watergate shattered Richard Nixon's presidency. "A funny thing happened to me on the way to becoming speaker," he once cracked.

In Palm Desert, Calif., a 13-hour period of public viewing ended just as the sun rose over the resort community where Ford and his wife settled nearly 30 years ago. People waited up to three hours to pay their respects at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church.

The funeral procession to the Capitol lacked the full trappings, by the design of Ford and his family. A motorcade was arranged instead of the horse-drawn caisson most familiar to Americans from the funerals of Ronald Reagan in 2004 and John Kennedy in 1963.

Ford, a man of modest character whose short presidency lacked the historic drama of JFK's and Reagan's, also was mourned without the riderless horse customarily included in the procession.

The thundering military flyover that is also part of a full-throttle state funeral in Washington will happen instead in Grand Rapids, Mich., where Ford will be entombed Wednesday on a hillside near his presidential museum. Ford represented the city in the House for 25 years.

Ford died Tuesday at age 93. He became president when Nixon resigned in August 1974 and then was defeated by Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election.

Six days of national mourning began Friday with military honors and a simple family prayer service at St. Margaret's, where the Ford family has worshipped for many years. Mourners ranging from children to the elderly had walked through quickly and then reboarded their buses a process taking less than two minutes.

Barbara Veith, 69, said Ford's "everyman" persona drew her to the viewing.

"There is something personal about his passing even though we didn't really know him," Veith said. "He just kind of had an everyman quality to him though he was far from it he was the president."

During his weekly radio address today, President Bush called Ford a "courageous leader, a true gentleman and a loving father and husband."

"Gerald Ford distinguished himself as a man of integrity and selfless dedication," Bush said. "He always put the needs of his country before his own, and did what he thought was right, even when those decisions were unpopular. Only years later would Americans come to fully appreciate the foresight and wisdom of this good man."

Bush was referring obliquely to Ford's decision to pardon Nixon, a step so divisive it was widely thought to have contributed to his defeat in 1976. In the years since, some critics of the pardon, as well as a number of historians, have come to see it as a wise move that spared the nation further pain from Watergate.

When they return to Washington from their Texas vacation on Monday, Bush and first lady Laura Bush plan to pay their respects to Ford while he lies in state at the Capitol. On Tuesday, the president will speak at Ford's funeral service at Washington National Cathedral before Ford's remains are taken to Grand Rapids.

Read more in later editions of The Blade and toledoblade.com.



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