WASHINGTON – A nation deeply polarized by war and partisanship came together Wednesday to mourn Gerald Rudolph Ford as a healer during a previous era of division while Washington, D.C., began preparing an elaborate, pageantry-filled farewell for the most modest of presidents.
Ford, who died at his California home Tuesday night at age 93, will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol for two days starting Saturday and be memorialized at a service at Washington National Cathedral on Tuesday, following the same pattern set by Ronald Reagan’s death two years ago.
With presidents and lawmakers of both parties assembling in the nation’s capital for the occasion, the ceremonies marking Ford’s passage promise to set a bipartisan tone to begin a week in which power will change hands in Washington, D.C. Two days after the the service at the cathedral, Democrats will assume control of Congress, for the first time in a dozen years, opening a period of divided government for the remainder of President Bush’s time in office.
Ford’s legacy as a bridge-builder before, during and after his short presidency dominated the discussion in Washington, D.C., and across the country Wednesday, standing in contrast to a time when leaders in both parties often seem unable to join hands on the big issues of the day. During his final years, mostly privately but sometimes publicly, Ford often expressed regret at what he saw as a coarsening political environment that personalizes policy differences and undermines national unity.
Bush, who stocked his administration with veterans of the Ford White House, paid tribute Wednesday to the 38th president’s ability to work across the aisle. “He assumed power in a period of great division and turmoil,” Bush told reporters at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he is spending the week. “For a nation that needed healing and for an office that needed a calm and steady hand, Gerald Ford came along when we needed him most.”
Jimmy Carter, who ousted him in 1976 only to become friends after office, called Ford “one of the most admirable public servants and human beings I have ever known.” In a statement, he said Ford “wisely chose the path of healing during a deeply divisive time in our nation’s history. He frequently rose above politics by emphasizing the need for bipartisanship and seeking common ground on issues critical to our nation.”
Ford had been in declining health for months and underwent heart procedures in August. Still, in November, he surpassed Reagan to become the longest-living president. He passed away at 9:45 p.m. EST on Tuesday at his Rancho Mirage home, according to a statement issued on behalf of the family that did not give a cause of death. White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten notified Bush, who then called Betty Ford about 11 p.m. to offer condolences.
Under plans announced Wednesday night, Ford’s funeral will mirror Reagan’s in June 2004. A service will be held in California on Friday and then his body will be flown on Saturday to Washington, D.C., where it will be brought to the Capitol for a formal state funeral that evening. His casket will lie in state in the Rotunda and open to the public through Monday. After the service at the Washington National Cathedral, Ford will be taken home to Grand Rapids, Mich., where he will be interred Wednesday in a hillside tomb on the grounds of his presidential library.
Ford was the accidental president, the only one never elected on a national ticket, yet served as an important transitional figure in a time of powerful cynicism. An Eagle Scout, football player, lawyer, Navy officer and congressman, he never aspired to the White House but had it thrust upon him when he was chosen to succeed first Spiro Agnew, driven from the vice presidency by corruption charges, and then Richard Nixon, who resigned amid the Watergate scandal on Aug. 9, 1974.
Ford’s first major act in office probably guaranteed that he would not keep it, as his decision to pardon Nixon triggered a political backlash and widespread suspicion that he had cut a deal to take over the presidency. He denied it and insisted that the pardon was the only way to move the country beyond Watergate.
It took many years, even decades, but eventually even some of his fiercest critics came to agree. Roger Wilkins, then a New York Times editorial writer who repeatedly condemned Ford over the pardon, wrote a letter to the former president just last month to say he had changed his mind and then earlier this month delivered a speech at the Ford library saying the same thing.
“Ford was right,” Wilkins said in an interview. “The country really needed to move on. The picture of a president in the dock with these motley Democrats hounding him, it would have made the country – we’d gone through some ugly times, but it would have been uglier. … If Ford hadn’t done a thing else in his presidency, that would have been a great service to the country.”
Other Democrats have come around to the same conclusion. At the time, Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., said Wednesday, he thought the pardon was “the absolutely wrong thing to do.” But now, Obey said, he realizes Ford did the right thing. “He served as a healing agent for the country.”
Gracious if not always graceful, Ford by the time he died had achieved stature and respect that eluded him in office. The amiable klutz lampooned on “Saturday Night Live” had become transformed into a symbol of decency and moderation, a throwback to a time when Republicans and Democrats would fight by day and share cocktails and war stories by night.
“He was a man who was willing to work with Democrats when and where and how he could,” said Rep. John Dingell, a Democrat who served in the Michigan delegation with Ford. “He played golf with (Speaker Thomas P.) Tip O’Neill. After he was elevated to the presidency, we worked very closely together on energy matters, we had huge fights, but worked together. He was a man who was very careful in his personal conduct and so his fights lent respect to him.”
He never forgot his humble roots, famously presenting himself as “a Ford not a Lincoln.” He was not even born a Ford. His original name was Leslie Lynch King Jr., but his parents divorced and he was eventually renamed Gerald R. Ford Jr. for his mother’s second husband. After the University of Michigan, he turned down offers from the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears and eventually graduated from Yale Law School. He served nearly four years in the Navy during World War II before returning to Michigan to run for the House.
Ford worked his way up to House minority leader, making him an easily confirmable choice as the first vice president appointed under the 25th Amendment that set rules for succession. Upon taking over the Oval Office, he declared, “Our long national nightmare is over.”
The tributes poured in Wednesday. Vice President Dick Cheney, who served as his chief of staff, saluted Ford’s “strength, wisdom and good judgment” and said, “He was a dear friend and mentor to me until this very day.” Former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who served Ford in the same capacity, hailed his “great decency and towering integrity.” Former president George H.W. Bush, who served as Ford’s envoy to China, called him “one of the most decent and capable men I ever met.”
But the words Ford might have appreciated most came from former senator Bob Dole, his 1976 running mate. “He was a friend to everyone who met him,” Dole said. “He had no enemies.”