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Mourners honor Gerald Ford at Capitol funeral service

WASHINGTON—Gerald R. Ford Jr. journeyed a final time to the U.S. Capitol, the building that once held his highest aspirations, to be remembered for what he accomplished at the opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where as president he steadied the nation in one of its darkest hours.

In a state funeral Saturday night in the Capitol's grand Rotunda, beneath wreaths of olive branches, Ford's former chief of staff, Vice President Dick Cheney, remembered the affable 38th president, an athlete and Navy man with a regular-guy appeal.

"Few have ever risen so high with so little guile or calculation," Cheney said. "The distance of time has clarified many things about President Gerald Ford. He was not just a cheerful and pleasant man. . . he was not just a nice guy. . . It was this man, Gerald R. Ford, who led our republic safely through a crisis that could have turned to catastrophe. "

Frail but composed, widow Betty Ford sat beside the vice president, who held and at times patted her hand. Her eyes were moist but at times she beamed as Cheney and others paid tribute. At the end of the funeral, in an aching scene, she limped to the flag-draped casket, placed her clasped hands atop it and bent her head close.

Best remembered for restoring dignity to the White House after President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace in 1974, Ford, who died Tuesday at 93, will lie in state at the Capitol until Jan. 2.

It is a particularly fitting setting for a 25-year congressman from Michigan who wanted nothing more than to be Speaker of the House of Representatives but instead found himself as the unlikely commander in chief after Watergate.

The service drew sitting lawmakers but also many former colleagues from both sides of the aisle, reflecting an era when bipartisan friendships flowed more easily on Capitol Hill, also a testament to Ford's affable demeanor.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Senate President Pro Tem Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, also delivered eulogies.

"While his path to office was unlikely, history will know Gerald Ford's presidency was no accident," said Stevens. "He woke us from our long national nightmare."

President Bush did not attend the Capitol service, choosing to remain at his Texas ranch until Monday, when he will return to Washington to pay his respects.

Earlier in the day, he praised Ford in his weekly radio address.

"Providence gave us Gerald Ford's steady hand and calm leadership during a time of great division and turmoil," Bush said. In a comment that had echoes of his own presidency, he added, " He always put the needs of his country before his own, and did what he thought was right, even when those decisions were unpopular. Only years later would Americans come to fully appreciate the foresight and wisdom of this good man."

Ford's funeral took place less than a day after Saddam Hussein's execution in Iraq, a fresh reminder of what many in the United States have begun to fear is another war that can't be won.

Ford, who governed at the end of the Vietnam War, counted himself among the doubters about Iraq. He told the Washington Post's Bob Woodward two years ago that President Bush had made a mistake by invading Iraq.

It was not Vietnam, however, that defined Ford's presidency.

Watergate filled that role. Ford won wide acclaim for the way that he restored dignity to the White House after Nixon's resignation in 1974. But it was his decision to pardon Nixon that turned much of the country against him, and helped Jimmy Carter oust Ford from the White House in the 1976 election.

After two days in which California mourners paid their respects, Ford's remains were flown to Washington Saturday afternoon. A 21-gun salute and the playing of "Hail to the Chief" marked precise military ceremonies at both ends of his flight from Palm Springs to Washington.

Ford had wanted to avoid much of the pomp that surrounded Ronald Reagan's dramatic procession in 2004 with horse-drawn caisson. Even so, there was an inevitable pageantry to Ford's procession.

A motorcade traveled through Alexandria, Va., where he and his family lived during his congressional years, and where Americans lined the streets.

The next stop was on the National Mall at the memorial honoring veterans of World War II, during which Ford served in the Navy. As president, Ford also signed a law opening up the nation's military academies to women.

At the Capitol, "America the Beautiful" played as Ford's coffin was carried up the east steps of the House of Representatives, his workplace for two dozen years before Nixon tapped him to replace Spiro Agnew as vice president in 1973.

After stopping briefly outside the House chamber, the funeral procession brought the casket into Statuary Hall, a historic chamber flanked by marble columns and statues of some of America's greatest leaders.

There, Betty Ford and her family were joined by legislative leaders and military escorts who accompanied the coffin into the center of the Capitol rotunda.

Ten other presidents, including Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, have lain in state beneath the spectacular paintings, frescoes and sculptures that depict some of the most dramatic events of early U.S. history. Ford's coffin was placed on the same pine platform, known as a catafalque, where Lincoln's body once lay.

The service interrupted briefly when a Ford friend, former Rep. William Broomfield, R-Mich., collapsed and was attended to by Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., a physician, among others.

Participants in Saturday's ceremony overlaid several generations of Washington politics.

Honorary pallbearers included a who's who of Republican advisers with longevity. Among them were Cheney, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, who had been Ford's chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, and former Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kan., who was Ford's vice presidential candidate in their losing 1976 campaign.

Public viewing began after the state funeral, and was scheduled to continue today and Monday. As is traditional when a former president lies in state, a joint-service Honor Guard stands vigil with the remains.

Regular folks gathered hours before the service on Saturday, waiting on a crisp but sunny afternoon to come inside and pay their respects.

Ralph Schreiner of Clinton, Md., said he had flown as an airborne radio operator with Ford on a trip to Las Vegas when he was vice president.

He fondly recalled his assignment: to put in a call to someone on the ground with whom Ford was not particularly interested in speaking.

"He kept saying, `I can't hear you,'" Schreiner laughed. "When he hung up, he said to me, `You did well, I could hear him perfectly.'"

Sally Lee of Orange County, Calif., and Marianne O'Riley of northern Virginia, said they considered Ford the right president for his time.

"He was a great civil servant, and underrated as a president," O'Riley said. "He worked hard to bring the ability of the presidency back to the level where it should be."

After public viewing is closed Tuesday morning, Ford's casket will be driven to the Washington National Cathedral, where President Bush will speak on a day declared as a national day of mourning.

Later, he will be flown to his final resting place, a burial site at a museum named for him in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): FORD FUNERAL

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