San Diego Union Tribune

January 3, 2007

Nation pays tribute to Ford

Modest man hailed for the decency he brought to high office

COPLEY NEWS SERVICE


 
JIM WATSON / AFP

Top officials from today and three decades ago, including several who worked for President Ford, gathered at Washington National Cathedral Tuesday.
 

WASHINGTON – The nation bid farewell to Gerald Rudolph Ford yesterday in a state funeral that mixed the pomp of an official service with the laughter of friends remembering the 38th president as an ordinary man who assumed power in extraordinary times and calmed a troubled nation.

The funeral in the majestic Washington National Cathedral was the next-to-last phase of the mourning that began when Ford, who had lived longer than any U.S. president, died Dec. 26 at age 93 at his home in Rancho Mirage.

This emotional day ended amid longtime friends with Ford's return to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich., where he will be buried today near his presidential museum.

But even for the former president's widow, Betty Ford, and the large Ford clan, laughter battled with tears for pre-eminence at yesterday's service. In life, Ford had shunned pretension. His hand-picked eulogists had no room for it in their heartfelt comments from the pulpit.

President Bush even drew a laugh and a smile from the former first lady when he recalled that Ford's “idea of a honeymoon was driving to Ann Arbor with his bride so they could attend a brunch before the Michigan-Northwestern” football game.

The 43rd president hailed Ford for the grace he brought to the White House when Ford was thrust into the Oval Office on Aug. 9, 1974, as Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. Ford became the only president never to have been elected to the presidency or the vice presidency.

“President Ford assumed office at a terrible time in our nation's history,” Bush said. “Amid all the turmoil, Gerald Ford was a rock of stability. And when he put his hand on his family Bible to take the presidential oath of office, he brought grace to a moment of great doubt.”

Outside the cathedral, Washington was enjoying a mild January day with temperatures reaching into the 50s. But a brisk wind made it seem much colder, at times compelling Ford's four children and his grandchildren to huddle around Betty Ford in an effort to shield her from the elements.

The children had been introduced to the nation as teenagers or young adults. But now Michael is 56; Jack, 54; Steven, 50; and Susan Ford Bales, 49. Jack Ford is a longtime resident of San Diego County who lives in Rancho Santa Fe.

On a national day of mourning that closed most of the federal government as well as financial markets, thousands of people watched the funeral procession as the hearse and its attending limousines worked their way from the Capitol, where Ford's body had lain in state since Saturday, past the White House and the vice presidential residence, finally stopping at the cathedral, which is perched atop the highest hill in Washington.

Inside were gathered top officials of the three branches of government – from today and three decades ago – and the diplomatic corps, including those friends who had worked with Ford during his long service as congressman, vice president and president.

Chief Justice John Roberts mingled with Vice President Dick Cheney, while former secretaries of state Colin Powell and Henry Kissinger talked. Seated together in two rows were the current president and first lady, Laura Bush; the three former presidents, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton; and former first ladies Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The chatting stopped when the current president slowly escorted Betty Ford, 88, down the long aisle of the historic cathedral.

The most emotional remembrance was offered by Bush's father, the 41st president. George H.W. Bush likened Ford to a “Norman Rockwell painting come to life.” He painted a fond portrait of “an avuncular figure quick to smile, frequently with his pipe in his mouth.”

He also hearkened back to the Nixon scandals, saying that “Jerry Ford's decency was the ideal remedy for the deception of Watergate.”

Like others, Bush joked about Ford's reputation as a golfer, quoting the late president as once saying, “I know I'm playing better golf because I'm hitting fewer spectators.”

Bush also struck a more serious note in recalling a role many have forgotten Ford played: He was the last living member of the Warren Commission that investigated President Kennedy's assassination. “Conspiracy theorists can say what they will,” Bush said, but Ford's credibility gave the commission “the final definitive say on this tragic matter . . . because Jerry Ford put his name on it and Jerry Ford's word was always good.”

Tom Brokaw, the former NBC anchor who covered the Ford White House, was invited to deliver a eulogy in a sign of Ford's affection for reporters. Brokaw drew one of the biggest laughs of the service when he reached back 30 years for an incident linked to San Diego that demonstrated the president's ability to laugh at himself.

Brokaw recalled how delighted Ford had been during a 1976 campaign event in San Diego when he spotted a man in a chicken suit. The man was Ted Giannoulas, who had donned the suit as a promotion for radio station KGB.

He later became famous as the San Diego Chicken. But his earliest fame came when New York Times reporter James Naughton – with the help of Cheney, who was then Ford's chief of staff – bought the top of the chicken costume and wore it later in the day to a campaign news conference in Portland, Ore.

“The chicken head was a bigger story than the president and no one was more pleased than the man that we honor here today,” Brokaw said.

The stunt delighted Ford so much he had the costume placed in his presidential library.

Brokaw also hailed Ford for his simplicity and basic values.

“Gerald Ford brought to the political arena no demons, no hidden agenda, no hit-list or acts of vengeance. He knew who he was, and he didn't require consultants or gurus to change him,” he said.

Kissinger, who served in Ford's Cabinet, talked of Ford's legacy, praising the steps he took to conclude the Vietnam War, deal with the Soviet Union, ease Middle East tensions and reassure allies left anxious by Watergate.

“Historians will debate for a long time over which president contributed most to victory in the Cold War,” Kissinger said. “Few 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 to its international role.”

Ford will be buried after another memorial service in the hometown he so loved, Grand Rapids. And the difference in tone was evident as soon as the presidential jet landed at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport there.

In Washington, there had been classical music provided by opera singer Denyce Graves, the U.S. Marine Band and the cathedral choirs. In Grand Rapids, there was the University of Michigan band playing the school's fight song, “The Victors,” in honor of a Wolverine football star.

Carter, the Democrat who defeated Ford in 1976 and became his friend, traveled to Grand Rapids with Ford's family.

Once again, there were renditions of “Hail to the Chief.” But also, more poignantly, there was a lone bagpiper who performed a mournful version of “Amazing Grace” as the military honor guard slowly moved the casket into Ford's museum.

 

 

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