Nation honoring Ford under soaring arches of cathedral

Published 7:41 pm Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Gerald R. Ford left his beloved U.S. Capitol for the last time Tuesday as the period set aside for ordinary Americans to say goodbye gave way to an elaborate invitation-only funeral at the Washington National Cathedral.

Thousands filed into the Rotunda over two days and a night to pay respects to the man summoned to the highest office when Watergate consumed Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974.

Afterward, Ford’s remains briefly lay in repose outside the Senate chamber in tribute to his tenure as Senate president when he served as Nixon’s vice president. Similarly, his casket had rested outside the House chamber upon its arrival Saturday in remembrance of his quarter century as a Michigan congressman.

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The thunder of cannon heralded Ford’s departure from the Capitol, a military honor guard carrying his casket down the steps as his widow, Betty, watched, and his honorary pallbearers stood with hands over their hearts.

On a national day of mourning that closed most of the government as well as financial markets, the cortege wound under blue, blustery skies through the streets of the nation’s capital, white-gloved police officers lining a route passing the White House to the cathedral.

More than 3,000 guests came to the cathedral for a service marking the life of the 38th president with the tolling of the bell 38 times. Jimmy Carter, the Democrat who defeated Ford in 1976, chatted with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as the high-powered assembly waited for the procession.

The stone church stretches nearly the length of two football fields and has soaring towers, 215 stained glass windows and a great organ with 10,650 pipes. Funeral services were held in the cathedral for former presidents Eisenhower in 1969 and Reagan in 2004, and ex-President Wilson is buried there.

President Bush, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw were eulogists.

Outside the Senate chamber, the historic Ohio Clock Corridor was alive with symbolism around the casket. Ford’s vice presidential bust had been moved at the family’s request from around the corner to the door of the chamber for the occasion, gazing over the casket.

Ford’s children and half brother, Jack, paused in their prayers to glance briefly from the bust to the casket.

Off to their right stood a reminder of how Ford rose to his place in history. Set back in a niche stood a bust of Nixon, the head turned toward the casket.

On Monday under gray, rainy skies, Bush and first lady Laura Bush along with former presidents Clinton and Bush and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, were among thousands of Americans who viewed the casket at the Capitol.

Mrs. Ford sat with members of her family, who held hands as they watched the military honor guard and the casket. Her son Steven helped her up when she walked over to the casket and touched it.

“It’s a very close family,” Rev. Robert Certain, a pastor from California, said Tuesday on CBS“s “The Early Show.”

“They’re one of the most wonderful couples I’ve ever known,” said the minister, who led services attended by the family in California. “They’re gentle, they’re kind, they’re thoughtful. They’re self-effacing in many ways.”

In his visit Monday, Bush bowed his head at the casket. He and his wife stayed at the Capitol only a few minutes in midafternoon, and then immediately afterward went to Blair House, across the street from the White House, to visit Mrs. Ford before she went to the Rotunda.

Ford died at 93 on Dec. 26 at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

Following Tuesday’s funeral service in Washington, Ford’s remains were to be flown to Grand Rapids, Mich., where he grew up, for a brief private service at his presidential museum and public viewing overnight. A private funeral service was to take place at Grace Episcopal Church in East Grand Rapids on Wednesday, followed by a private burial on the museum grounds.

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, 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.