The nation's capital prepared Wednesday to honor former President Gerald R. Ford with the pomp and solemnity of a state funeral, as tributes poured in for the self-effacing leader who in the mid-1970s steered the country through a particularly troubled period.
Memorials for the 38th president -- who died Tuesday at 93 at his Rancho Mirage home -- will begin Friday with observances in Palm Desert, continue in Washington and conclude Wednesday in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he will be buried in a hillside tomb near his presidential museum.
"My family and I are touched beyond words by the outpouring of affection and the many wonderful tributes we have received following the death of my husband," the president's widow, Betty, said in a statement released Wednesday. "The nation's appreciation for the contributions that President Ford made throughout his long and well-lived life are more than we could ever have anticipated. These kindnesses have made this difficult time more bearable."
Gregory D. Willard, a friend of the family who served as staff assistant during the Ford administration, said: "The president's passing was peaceful. He was with Mrs. Ford and her children at the residence in Rancho Mirage."
Ford's death came during a between-the-holidays lull in Washington's usually fevered activity. Funeral plans were forcing schedule changes for many, from lawmakers who will return a day earlier to police officers who must work the weekend as security precautions ramp up for an expected influx of visitors.
The new Congress will still be sworn in as planned on Jan. 4, but flags will fly at half-staff in observance of a 30-day mourning period ordered by President Bush.
For many Americans, the funeral will draw attention to how an earlier generation of political leaders dealt with divisive problems. A presidential funeral is an occasion for national reflection, said Donald A. Ritchie, associate Senate historian.
"It's comparable in a sense to an inauguration, since it's a moment of focusing on a person and a career of service to the nation," Ritchie said. "Where an inaugural is a period of promise, a funeral represents the conclusion, the finality of it all. But it brings out many of the same people and the same kinds of considerations."
Ford took office in 1974 after President Nixon was forced to resign to avoid impeachment in the Watergate scandal and at a time when the Vietnam War was winding down in defeat. At home, unemployment and inflation were high.
He assumed the nation's highest office without ever having been elected vice president, since Nixon appointed him to replace Spiro T. Agnew, who resigned after pleading no contest to a charge of income tax evasion.
"It was not the best of times for anybody to be president of the United States," said Bob Dole, the former GOP senator from Kansas. "President Ford was able to make the best of it and will be remembered for leaving a legacy of honor and integrity."
Dole was Ford's running mate in the 1976 race, in which the Republican ticket closed a wide deficit in the polls but lost narrowly to Democrat Jimmy Carter. Only about 30% of today's population would have been old enough to vote in that election.
Ford's most controversial act was his preemptive pardon of Nixon shortly after taking office, which scuttled any potential prosecution of his predecessor for alleged misdeeds related to the 1972 break-in at Democratic headquarters in the Watergate complex and the subsequent coverup. Ford said he made the decision on his own because he was convinced the nation needed to move on.
"It was a tough call either way, and I think he made the toughest call," Dole said. But some critics suspected a hidden political deal -- the promise of a pardon in exchange for the Oval Office.
A journalist who covered the White House at the time said Ford believed he was on a mission to unite a fractured nation. "His legacy can be summarized in the title of his memoir: 'A Time to Heal,' " said Tom DeFrank, Washington bureau chief for the New York Daily News. "At a moment of grave constitutional crisis, he began the arduous process of removing the poison from a damaged nation."
"He saw himself as a minister of reconciliation," said the Rev. Dan Rondeau, associate rector at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, where the Fords worshiped and where a private prayer service will be held Friday. A public visitation at the church will begin about 4:20 p.m. Friday and continue into Saturday morning.
Messages of praise continued to arrive Wednesday.
"As a congressman from Michigan, and then as vice president, he commanded the respect and earned the goodwill of all who had the privilege of knowing him," President Bush, vacationing in Crawford, Texas, said of Ford. "He assumed power in a period of great division and turmoil. 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."
In Grand Rapids, where he grew up, the Gerald R. Ford Museum opened its lobby 24 hours a day until further notice, so that well-wishers could offer condolences. And in New York, the Stock Exchange observed two minutes of silence before the start of trading, and Nasdaq asked traders to refrain from making trades during that time.
Both Republicans and Democrats praised Ford.
"An outstanding statesman," said Carter, who succeeded Ford.
"One of the kindest, most sincere elected officials whom I have known," said Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.)
"When he left office, he had restored public trust in the presidency," said Vice President Dick Cheney, who served as Ford's White House chief of staff.
"A good man who became the respected leader of the free world in unique times," said Patricia Nixon Cox, a daughter of the man Ford succeeded. "An American hero whose integrity and honesty helped lead our nation through times of uncertainty and skepticism."
Many praised Ford for his moderate views and consensus approach to governance.
The Log Cabin Republicans, the nation's largest gay GOP organization, said that Ford always believed in inclusiveness in welcoming gays into the party.
"President Ford recognized that all Americans deserve to be treated with dignity and fairness," said the group's president, Patrick Sammon. "Throughout his presidency, President Ford served with integrity as a leader for all Americans."
And former First Lady Nancy Reagan said that Ford's early support of stem-cell research, opposed by the conservative wing of the GOP, was important "in getting the U.S. Congress to debate the potential lifesaving cures and treatments that may result."
A creature of Capitol Hill -- Ford served in Congress for 25 years -- he was the last moderate Republican in the White House who aimed for the center.
Ford was also remembered as an approachable person, one who wore the mantle of the presidency lightly. "He was an ordinary guy in the noblest sense of the term, as down-to-earth and unpretentious as they come," DeFrank said.
At their church, Rondeau said, the Fords were private people but could be gracious with their time. "If people stopped them, they talked or posed for pictures," Rondeau said. "Enough people talked to them, so it always took them a while to get from the back to the front of the church."
After services Friday in Palm Desert, Ford's body will be flown to Washington on Saturday afternoon. His hearse will pause at the World War II Memorial on its way to the Capitol in honor of his comrades in arms. Ford served on a Navy carrier in the South Pacific, earning 10 battle stars and attaining the rank of lieutenant commander.
The former president will lie in state this weekend in the Capitol Rotunda, his casket placed on a simple wooden bier draped in black that was built for President Lincoln's coffin. A state funeral will be conducted Saturday evening in the Rotunda, after which members of the public will be able to pay their respects.
In commemoration of Ford's more than two decades of service in Congress, the casket will stop at the doors to the House on its way to the Rotunda. Afterward, Ford will lie in repose outside the Senate.
On Tuesday, a funeral service will be held at Washington National Cathedral, an imposing edifice on a ridge overlooking the city's monuments and main government buildings.
Times staff writers Jonathan Abrams and Ashley Powers contributed to this report from Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Friday: Private prayer service at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, followed by public viewing.
Saturday: The casket will be flown to Washington for viewing and a state funeral in the Capitol Rotunda.
Sunday and Monday: Public viewing will continue in the Rotunda.
Tuesday: Funeral at National Cathedral in Washington.
Wednesday: Service in Grand Rapids, Mich., and burial at presidential museum.
Full schedule, Page A28
Ford's funeral plans
President Ford requested a state funeral in Washington, D.C., and burial at his presidential museum in Grand Rapids, Mich. The public ceremonies are shaped by military protocol as well as his family's desires. The casket will remain closed throughout.
Friday (All times local)
* Private 12:30 p.m. prayer service at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Palm Desert followed by a visitation for invited friends.
* Public repose begins at 4:20 p.m and continues into Saturday.
* Casket transported from St. Margaret's at 9 a.m. to Palm
Springs International Airport.
* President Ford's body flown to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland at 10 a.m.
* After arrival at Andrews at 5:20 p.m., a motorcade transports the casket past the World War II Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
* Motorcade continues to the U.S. Capitol Rotunda for a state funeral at 7 p.m. Ford lies in state with public viewing of the closed casket beginning at 8:20 p.m.
Sunday and Monday
Public viewing continues through New Year's Day.
* Casket lays in repose outside the Senate chambers at 8:30 a.m.
* Funeral service at the National Cathedral at 10:30 a.m.
* Ford's body flown from Andrews at 12:15 p.m. to the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., for public repose.
* Funeral service at Grace Church in Grand Rapids at 2 p.m.
* Internment on the north grounds of the presidential museum.
Sources: Associated Press, ESRI