A fitting goodbye to a former President

Keith Jackson, wearing a brand new “In loving memory of Gerald R. Ford” T-shirt, drove five hours from Steubenville, Ohio, to stamp his feet in the cold wind outside the Washington National Cathedral on Tuesday.

“More than anything, I remember him as a grandfatherly, friendly man, and that was who I thought a president should be at that time,” the 35-year-old physical therapist said. Arriving just after 8 a.m. for the 10:30 funeral, Jackson listened to the whole service standing atop a brick wall with a radio tuned to C-Span.

Hundreds lined the street in front of the massive cathedral’s west facade, braving temperatures in the low 40s and a strong breeze that made it feel colder. They had a variety of reasons for paying their respects, though most mentioned wanting to see a part of history unfold before them. A small knot of noisy protesters stood by, one with a poster reading “America is doomed.”

Cathedral Heights resident Michelle Morrison, 66, a French teacher at the Washington International School closed for the national day of mourning, paused while walking her corgi Duchesse, to say she always liked Ford.

“He knew he wasn’t chosen by the people but he was determined to do his best,” said Morrison, who came to the United States from Toulouse, France, in 1972. “I feel he was close to the people — honest, simple.”

Inside the cathedral and beamed around the world, speakers at the ceremony thanked Ford for his stewardship during a time of turmoil and said farewell to a decent man seemingly appreciated now more than then.

A phalanx of his four remaining presidential successors joined Ford’s family and luminaries from his three decades of Washington service in the majestic nave of the cathedral, where the country honors its most esteemed citizens.

Those who spoke — including President Bush, former President George H.W. Bush and ex-TV anchor Tom Brokaw — depicted Ford as just that, an honorable man whose word was always good and his leadership selfless.

Praising Ford for bringing “calm and healing” to an America riven by the Vietnam War, racial unrest and the Watergate scandal, the current president hailed the 38th president’s affability and firm resolve.

“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,” President Bush said.

Ford as healer was a theme invoked frequently by the mighty and by ordinary Americans over four days of Washington tributes to the “accidental” president who succeeded the disgraced Richard Nixon in 1973 and inherited a country even more politically polarized than it is today.

Perhaps viewed through today’s prism of raging partisanship, Ford was eulogized as a relic of a long-past Capitol Hill era in which comity as often as conflict marked the functioning of Congress.

In fact, his tenure came amidst the economic disaster of double-digit inflation and the ignominious fall of Saigon. Ford drew passionate criticism from those on the left for his pardon of Nixon and from the right for his conditional amnesty for draft dodgers.

He also was ridiculed for his verbal flubs, his propensity for beaning spectators on the golf course, and a physical clumsiness that belied his past as a college football star. Lampooning Ford’s frequent stumbles helped jumpstart comedian Chevy Chase’s career.

At the service, moments of levity brought welcome chuckles. George H.W. Bush poked fun at Ford’s golf gaffes and at his own years as comic material for Dana Carvey, a Chase successor on “Saturday Night Live.”

“Wouldn’t be prudent,” Bush said, mimicking Carvey mimicking him.

Brokaw also drew laughs when he lamented the fashions of the 1970s and Ford’s propensity for occasionally wearing plaid sports jackets. “Some of those jackets are eligible for a presidential pardon,” Brokaw said.

Ford’s casket came to the cathedral after lying in state on Capitol Hill since Saturday, where thousands passed by silently to pay their respects. After the cathedral, the casket was bound next for Grand Rapids, Mich., where Ford will be buried Wednesday on the grounds of his presidential library.

The morning service began with Ford’s only daughter, Susan Ford Bales, reading a passage from the Bible in a voice on the verge of cracking.

Arrayed among the 3,000 at the service were such once-famous figures as Ford Cabinet members William Coleman and Carla Hills, as well as others — including Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who both served as top Ford White House aides.

Former first lady Nancy Reagan attended, as did Jimmy Carter, the Democrat who narrowly defeated Ford for the presidency and has now emerged as one of the strongest opponents of the war in Iraq. Carter sat next to Lynne Cheney, the vice president’s wife.

Ford’s widow, Betty, cast her eyes downward during most of the service, holding tight to the hands of her youngest children, Susan and Steven. She smiled occasionally, particularly when Ford Secretary of State Henry Kissinger detailed his former boss’ foreign policy successes.

In the crowds four deep outside, many appreciated that Ford ended the war in Vietnam, and said he put the best interests of the country before his own ambition in pardoning Nixon.

Jay Thayer, 54, who works at the Nuclear Energy Institute also closed for the day of mourning, said he avoided going to Vietnam in part because of Ford, but also praised Ford’s foresight in the Nixon pardon.

“History has judged him, in hindsight, to have been exactly right for the time,” Thayer said. “It was what the country needed to try to move on, and to forget about the ugliness of the Nixon presidency.”

As the motorcade bearing Ford’s flag-draped casket rolled out to Andrews Air Force Base for the trip to Michigan, Jackson, the physical therapist from Steubenville, said the rites seemed more “lighthearted” than he had anticipated, “but I guess that’s who he was.”

And was it worth a five-hour drive to stand for four hours in the cold?

“Definitely,” he said.