WASHINGTON—Gerald R. Ford became virtually synonymous with his willingness to pardon, but few people will ever understand the healing effects like Archie Bowman.
Bowman was a World War II veteran who had been struggling under the weight of a war crime conviction by the time Ford got to the White House and famously pardoned Richard Nixon in 1974. Two years later, the president would also grant Bowman a pardon, something he'd been seeking for decades.
"It turned my life around," said Bowman, of Washington, D.C., who had served in an Army port battalion in England. "I've been doing good ever since."
Bowman was among the first people to stand in line Sunday to pay respects to Ford, who will lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda until Tuesday morning.
Folks who felt a special bond with the 38th president and his wife Betty drove to the capital from places like South Carolina and Pennsylvania for a chance to walk by his flag-draped coffin and reflect on what he'd accomplished. Others just wanted their children to participate in a special moment in history, a time for the public to honor one of only 43 men to lead the United States.
Many of them yearned for more public officials who could be defined by civility and decency and integrity. And they liked the lessons taught by his wife, who battled breast cancer in the White House and alcoholism after leaving Washington.
"I'm a big Betty Ford fan due to her addictions and her recovery," said Rick Cady of Chantilly, Va., who faced similar challenges and has been clean and sober for close to a dozen years.
Michelle Tompkins said she was living in San Diego when she first sought help for her own alcoholism, and considered Betty Ford to be courageous for the public way she handled her battle.
"She was pretty cutting edge for a first lady," Tompkins said. "Now there are all those talk shows and everyone admits that stuff. But then, she was pretty brave."
Many mourners talked about their admiration for the way Ford helped heal the country after Watergate, and mentioned his signature act as president—the pardon of former President Richard Nixon. But Bowman was hardly unusual in joining Nixon as a pardon recipient.
In all, Ford granted 382 pardons, 22 commutations and five remissions of fines while in office, though they were only a fraction of the petitions he received, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of the Pardon Attorney.
"He was a good man," Bowman said.
Though thousands of people gathered to see Ford's coffin, the line moved quickly and the backups were minimal Sunday compared to similar events in recent years, including the deaths of President Reagan and civil rights leader Rosa Parks.
The easy access was a relief to those gathered clad in mittens and scarves on a bright but crisp New Year's Eve as they entered and exited the Capitol, flags still at half-staff, protective barriers surrounding the building.
"He was my favorite president," said Mariko Murray of Maryland, who was impressed with Ford when as president he came to dedicate a new building for the FBI, where she was a clerical worker. "I was the biggest Democrat, and I crossed party lines to vote for him rather than Jimmy Carter. They didn't give Ford a chance to prove himself."
It didn't hurt that he gave federal workers one of the biggest raises she'd ever gotten, Murray laughed.
Gene Staley, a bookkeeper in Asheboro, N.C., said he drove the six hours to Washington to honor a man he'd first seen as a Boy Scout at the age of 10.
Marion Muhlenbeck of Greer, S.C., said she lived not far from Ford's hometown in Michigan when he moved into the White House after Nixon's resignation over the Watergate scandal.
"People were driving by to see where he lived," she said.
Nancy Barbour, the Washington lobbyist for the city of Grand Rapids, where Ford will be buried Wednesday, worked on Capitol Hill for another Michigan lawmaker, Rep. William Ford, when the future president was minority leader.
"We used to get his mail all the time, and he got ours," she recalled as she left the public viewing. "Those were the good old days, when Democrats and Republicans worked together. It was a different era and a different day.
"He was a team player. He wanted legislation passed that was good for the country."
For most, who had never seen Ford face to face, they came to honor the personal virtues and leadership qualities that they appreciated after a tumultuous time in U.S. history, including the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.
"He calmed the nation of unrest, of maybe fear, and he handled it with dignity and assurance and put a Band-aid where we needed one," said Lettie Trevarthan of Conklin, N.Y., who arrived with her daughter and two grandsons.
Wanda Speck, who drove more than three hours from Belleville, Pa., liked a quality about Ford that is exceedingly rare among politicians today. She liked "his quietness."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Need to map