The nation honored Gerald R. Ford today in a high-powered fanfare for the common man who was summoned to the presidency in the Watergate crisis. He was remembered 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 high 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.
The elaborate invitation-only service at the Washington National Cathedral was the final assembly in the capital’s portion of the state funeral for the 38th president, before Mr. Ford’s interment tomorrow in Grand Rapids, Mich.
The elder President Bush, opening the eulogies, called Mr. Ford a “Norman Rockwell painting come to life” and pierced the solemnity of the occasion by cracking gentle jokes about Mr. Ford’s reputation as an errant golfer. He said Mr. Ford knew his golf game was getting better when he began hitting fewer spectators.
Former President Clinton and Vice President Dick Cheney joined in the laughter.
Henry Kissinger, Mr. Ford’s secretary of state, paid tribute to Mr. Ford’s leadership in achieving nuclear arms control with the Soviets, in the first political agreement between Israel and Egypt and in helping to bring majority rule to southern Africa, among other achievements often overlooked in the modest man.
“In his understated way he did his duty as a leader, not as a performer playing to the gallery,” Mr. Kissinger said. “Gerald Ford had the virtues of small town America.”
Another eulogist, NBC newsman Tom Brokaw, said Mr. 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 Mr. Nixon in his final days.
The crisp steps of the military pallbearers echoed through the cavernous space as Mr. Ford’s remains came to a church he had visited at least seven times as vice president, president or ex-president. Supreme Court justices occupied a front row.
On a national day of mourning that closed most of the government as well as financial markets, the cortege brought his 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, including the three living ex-presidents, mourned the man who was charged with restoring trust in government after Richard Nixon’s downfall. They remembered an unassuming leader who was content with his congressional career until history called him to higher office.
“When President Nixon needed to replace a vice president who had resigned in scandal, he naturally turned to a man whose name was a synonym for integrity,” Mr. Bush said. “And eight months later, when he was elevated to the presidency, it was because America needed him, not because he needed the office.”
He escorted Mr. Ford’s widow, Betty, down and 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.
The three living ex-presidents, Mr. Clinton, the elder Bush and Jimmy Carter, who defeated Mr. Ford in 1976, all attended.
Thousands of average Americans filed into the Capitol Rotunda over two days and a night to pay final respects to Ford.
Afterward, Mr. Ford’s remains briefly lay in repose outside the Senate chamber in tribute to his tenure as Senate president when he served as Nixon’s vice president. Similarly, his casket had rested outside the House chamber upon its arrival Saturday in remembrance of his quarter century as a Michigan congressman.