Bush, first lady silently honor Ford

Published: Tuesday, January 2, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 1, 2007 at 10:54 p.m.

WASHINGTON — President Bush on Monday bowed his head in silence before the flag-draped casket of Gerald R. Ford — a man the president said used a calm, steady hand to guide the nation after the tumultuous Watergate years.

On a rainy, gloomy afternoon, Bush and first lady Laura Bush joined thousands of other mourners in paying their respects to the 38th president lying in state at the Capitol.

Silence fell under the Capitol dome when the president walked toward the casket, illuminated by spotlights and guarded at each corner by members of the military honor guard. He and Mrs. Bush lowered their heads for a few moments, as if in prayer, then turned and walked away across the Rotunda's polished stone floor, which reflected the flag's red and white stripes.

Bush, who said nothing during his one-minute stop in the Rotunda, is to eulogize Ford today at his funeral at the National Cathedral. After he died last Tuesday, Bush called him a "true gentleman" and recounted how Ford stepped into the Oval Office after President Nixon resigned in disgrace after the Watergate scandal.

"President Ford was a great American who gave many years of dedicated service to our country," Bush said in a statement released after Ford's death. "On Aug. 9, 1974, after a long career in the House of Representatives and service as vice president, he assumed the presidency in an hour of national turmoil and division.

"With his quiet integrity, common sense and kind instincts, President Ford helped heal our land and restore public confidence in the presidency."

Bush visited the casket after returning from a weeklong stay at his Texas ranch. Afterward, the Bushes drove to Blair House, across the street from the White House, to visit for a half-hour with Ford's widow, former first lady Betty Ford. The Bushes then walked down Pennsylvania Avenue back to the Executive Mansion.

Bush visited the Capitol, where a changing military guard kept a watchful vigil throughout the night.

Shortly before the three-day public viewing ended, Mrs. Ford returned to the Capitol and sat in the Rotunda for about 20 minutes with her three sons and daughter and their spouses. Her son Steven helped her up when she walked over to the casket, touching it one last time.

Among the other dignitaries to pay their respects Monday were Bush's father, former President George H.W. Bush, and his wife, Barbara; former President Bill Clinton and former first lady, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.; and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Members of Ford's family greeted mourners who came to the Capitol on New Year's Day wearing parkas, packing umbrellas and clutching snack sacks.

Karen Olson, 53, of Herndon, Va., said the rain couldn't dampen her determination to see Ford. Her mother, who's now deceased, was on his staff, she said.

"I wanted to come pay my respects. He was a big part of my life," said Olson, who was among the people lined up before 9 a.m. to enter the Capitol building. "I have a lot of ties to his family."

"The few times that I met him, he was just really nice," she said.

Both of Olson's parents have passed away.

"I kind of felt like I wanted to be there for them," she said. "There's just an emotional connection there."

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