President Bush and first lady Laura Bush briefly paid their respects Monday to Gerald R. Ford, joining thousands of ordinary Americans in saying goodbye to the former president.
At midafternoon on a rainy, overcast day, the first couple stood at Ford’s flag-draped casket and bowed their heads. Their stay at the U.S. Capitol lasted just a few minutes. Afterward, the Bush motorcade took the president to Blair House, across the street from the White House, where the Bushes visited former first lady Betty Ford for a half-hour and then walked back to the Executive Mansion.
Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, visited Mrs. Ford at Blair House just a few minutes later.
Bush, who had been vacationing until Monday at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, had saluted Ford in a statement from there last week after the former president died. Bush also devoted his weekly Saturday radio address to the fallen leader.
Bush and his wife visited the Capitol on the third day of mourning there for Ford, who died at 93. Two of Ford’s children stood in the Rotunda Monday, greeting people who came to pay last respects to their father.
Just a few moments later, Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, and his wife, Barbara, came, stood by the casket and bowed their heads, and left.
Michael Gerald Ford shook 8-year-old Christopher Witkowski’s hand and gave him a blue remembrance card. "My father would have wanted you to have this," he told Christopher, from Alexandria, Va. Ford’s sister, Susan Ford Bales, stood nearby, greeting others who had come to pay their respects.
Before the Bushes went to the Hill, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who this week becomes the first woman speaker of the House, paid her respects. And former President Clinton and his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, were to visit as well.
Karen Olson, 53, of Herndon, Va., said the rain couldn’t dampen her determination to see him. Her mother, who’s now deceased, was on his staff, she said.
"I wanted to come pay my respects. He was a big part of my life," said Olson, who was among the people lined up before 9 a.m. EST to enter the Capitol building. "I have a lot of ties to his family."
"The few times that I met him, he was just really nice," she said.
Both of Olson’s parents have passed away.
"I kind of felt like I wanted to be there for them," she said. "There’s just an emotional connection there."
Inside the Rotunda, Ford’s daughter and son handed remembrance cards to some of the visitors.
The blue cards had the presidential, vice presidential and House of Representatives seals and a biography of Ford on one side. On the other was a photograph of the former president in the Oval Office, his head bowed.
The message on the card: "The family of Gerald R. Ford deeply appreciates your prayers and many kindnesses as together we celebrate and honor the life of a devoted husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather and the 38th president of the United States."
The mourners came wearing parkas, bearing umbrellas and clutching snack sacks on a rainy New Year’s Day.
Kirk Scofield, 44, and his wife Mary Scofield, 50, of Sterling, Va., also were among those who lined up early.
Mary was dressed in a parka, poncho and had "6 hours of food" in her backpack. She said she was expecting a six-hour wait, though they had been in line less than an hour. "She looks like she’s ready to go camping," Kirk joked.
Mary said she wanted to come to the viewing because it was a unique opportunity.
"It’s just kind of neat to see."
John Erb, 56, and his wife Karen Erb, 55, of Alexandria, Va., said they were in line at 8:20 a.m. and stood less than an hour to see Ford’s casket.
"Between being New Year’s Day and rain, it kept a lot of people from being ahead of us," John said.
John said he was in the Army during Ford’s administration and came to the viewing because "it’s part of the old commander in chief thing."
Following the pardon of Richard Nixon for any crimes from Watergate, Ford lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter. Former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, Ford’s running mate in that campaign, returned unannounced to pay his respects again Sunday, after being among the invited guests as an honorary pallbearer at Saturday evening’s ceremonies in the Rotunda.
Political analysts believe the pardon played a major — if not the major — role in Ford’s defeat.
Ford was out of the White House after just 2- 1/2 years in office and he is the only unelected president. Nixon had appointed Ford vice president to replace Spiro Agnew, who resigned in a bribery scandal stemming from his days as Maryland governor.
The Rotunda was closed to the public at just after 6 p.m. Sunday, but a military guard, changed every hour, stood silent vigil throughout the night, and then reopened Monday morning.
Ford was to lie in state for public viewing through Monday.
On Tuesday morning, Ford’s remains will rest outside the Senate chamber before a funeral service at Washington National Cathedral where Bush will deliver a eulogy.