Capitol opens door to Ford mourners

The Capitol opened its doors to ordinary people wishing to pay last respects to Gerald R. Ford after dignitaries praised the 38th president as a healer and a rock in the dispiriting aftermath of his predecessor’s disgraced presidency.

Hundreds of people filed into the Capitol Rotunda late Saturday to view Ford’s closed, flag-draped casket. They remembered a leader without pretensions or even the ambition to be president until the job was thrust upon him in the last chapter of Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal in August 1974.

Whether teenagers in sweat shirts or mothers pushing infants in strollers, they flowed into the night in two steady streams along velvet ropes encircling the casket, pausing only for the periodic changing of the military guard standing watch.

Public visitation was resuming Sunday.

Ford will lie in state for two more days before his funeral service at the Washington National Cathedral on Tuesday and interment the next day in a hillside tomb near his presidential museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., the city he served in Congress for a quarter-century.

President Bush and his wife, Laura, on vacation in Texas, planned to view the casket upon their return to Washington on Monday. Bush will deliver a eulogy at the cathedral service.

Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon, so divisive at the time that it probably cost Ford the 1976 election, was dealt with squarely in his funeral services by Dick Cheney, the current vice president who was Ford’s chief of chief.

“It was this man, Gerald R. Ford, who led our republic safely though a crisis that could have turned to catastrophe,” said Cheney, speaking in the Rotunda where Ford’s body rested. “Gerald Ford was almost alone in understanding that there can be no healing without pardon.”

The Washington portion of Ford’s state funeral opened with a procession that took his casket from Maryland to Virginia. Then it was over the Memorial Bridge — adorned with flags and funeral bunting — and to the World War II Memorial. Next, the procession went past the White House and to the Capitol.

Although Ford’s family planned the state funeral to emphasize Ford’s long service in the House, Watergate quickly set the tone of the proceedings.

Said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.: “In 1974 America didn’t need a philosopher-king or a warrior-prince. We needed a healer, we needed a rock, we needed honesty and candor and courage. We needed Gerald Ford.”

The ceremony was interrupted when William Broomfield, 84, a former Michigan congressman who served with Ford in Congress, collapsed. He was laid out on the floor of the Rotunda and attended to by Sen. Bill Frist, a physician, before being taken out on a wheelchair. Frist later indicated Broomfield was OK.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press