GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The nation remembered Gerald R. Ford on Tuesday for what he didn’t have — pretensions, a scheming agenda, a great golf game — as much as for the small-town authenticity he brought to the presidency.
In an elaborate national funeral service in Washington and then more simply at his final homecoming in Grand Rapids, the 38th president was celebrated for treating politics as a calling rather than blood sport.
The last act of Ford’s state funeral was playing out at his presidential museum, open throughout the night and Wednesday morning for the public to pay final respects. 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 Wednesday 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.
Ford brought 'calm and healing'
The service in Washington unfolded in the spirit of one of its musical selections — “Fanfare for the Common Man” — as powerful people celebrated the modesty and humility of a leader propelled to the presidency by the Watergate crisis that drove predecessor Richard Nixon from office.
“In President Ford, the world saw the best of America, and America found a man whose character and leadership would bring calm and healing to one of the most divisive moments in our nation’s history,” President Bush said in his eulogy.
Bush’s father, the first President Bush, called Ford a “Norman Rockwell painting come to life” and pierced the solemnity of the occasion by cracking gentle jokes about Ford’s reputation as an errant golfer. He said Ford knew his golf game was getting better when he began hitting fewer spectators.
Ford’s athletic interest was honored too in the capital and in Michigan. At the Grand Rapids airport that bears Ford’s name, the Michigan band played the school’s famous fight song, “The Victors,” as Ford’s flag-draped casket was transferred to a hearse.
Chose law school over pro football
He had played center for the Wolverines in their undefeated, national championship seasons in 1932 and 1933 and turned down several pro football offers to go to law school at Yale instead.
Jimmy Carter, the Democrat who defeated Ford in 1976 and became his friend, not only attended the Washington service with the two other living ex-presidents, the elder Bush and Bill Clinton, but came to Grand Rapids on the plane with Ford’s family and his remains.
Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, delivering one of the most emotional tributes of the day, spoke as if addressing Ford directly, in remarks at the museum. “You were a paradoxical gift of remarkable intellect and achievement wrapped in a plain brown wrapper,” said Granholm, a Democrat.
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Under towering arches of the cathedral in the morning, Henry Kissinger, Ford’s secretary of state, paid tribute to his leadership in achieving nuclear arms control with the Soviets, pushing for the first political agreement between Israel and Egypt and helping to bring majority rule to southern Africa.
“In his understated way he did his duty as a leader, not as a performer playing to the gallery,” Kissinger said. “Gerald Ford had the virtues of small-town America.”
Another eulogist, NBC newsman Tom Brokaw, said Ford brought to office “no demons, no hidden agenda, no hit list or acts of vengeance,” an oblique reference to the air of subterfuge that surrounded Nixon in his final days.
In his homily, Episcopalian minister Robert Certain touched on the fractious debate in the church over homosexual relationships, and said Ford did not think the issue should be splitting Episcopalians. He was Ford’s pastor at St. Margaret’s Church in Palm Desert, Calif.
“He asked me if we would face schism after we discussed the various issues we would consider, particularly concerns about human sexuality and the leadership of women,” Certain said. “He said that he did not think they should be divisive for anyone who lived by the great commandments and the great commission to love God and to love neighbor.”
Thousands line streets
On a national day of mourning that closed most of the government as well as financial markets, the cortege brought Ford’s casket to the cathedral in blustery winds that blew off the hats of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, and members of the honor guard outside the service.
White-gloved police officers lined the route passing the White House to the cathedral; light, subdued crowds watched the cortege.
Inside, more than 3,000 people mourned the man who was charged with restoring trust in government after Nixon’s downfall. They remembered an unassuming leader who was content with his congressional career until history called him to higher office.
President Bush escorted Ford’s widow, Betty, down the aisle of the great stone cathedral, which stretches nearly the length of two football fields and has soaring towers, 215 stained glass windows and an organ with 10,650 pipes.
Carter engaged Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in an animated conversation while waiting for the funeral party. Rice also chatted with Chelsea Clinton, daughter of Bill and Hillary Clinton, and at one point the three ex-presidents — Carter, the elder Bush and Clinton — shook hands.
Among others at the cathedral: Nancy Reagan, who mourned her husband Ronald there in 2004; former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a presidential prospect for 2008.
Thousands of average Americans had filed into the Capitol Rotunda over two days and a night to pay final respects.
Funeral services were held there for former presidents Eisenhower in 1969 and Reagan in 2004, and ex-President Wilson is buried there.
Ford died at 93 on Dec. 26 at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
He 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 2½ years.
A month after taking office, Ford pardoned Nixon for any Watergate crimes he might have committed.
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