Solemn moments at Capitol

Times Staff Writer

President Bush, joining thousands of average Americans who started the New Year by saying goodbye to an old president, stopped Monday at the U.S. Capitol after returning from his Texas ranch to pay his respects to Gerald R. Ford.

Wearing a dark suit and gray tie, Bush was joined by First Lady Laura Bush and a small contingent of White House aides that included Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove. Shortly after 3 p.m., Bush and his wife walked into the Rotunda, where Ford’s body lay in state. They paused for about 10 seconds at the flag-draped casket, hands clasped and heads bowed, before walking out.

Most mourners -- a mix of young and old, in their Sunday best or simply sweatshirts and blue jeans -- spent a minute or two slowly circling the casket and its military honor guard.

Monday was the second and final day of public viewing for Ford, 93, who died last week at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He had lived longer than any former president and was the 32nd person to lay in honor under the Capitol dome. Ford’s casket rested on the same wooden bier used for Abraham Lincoln in 1865.


Bush declared today a national day of mourning as a funeral service will be held for Ford at Washington National Cathedral. Most federal offices, including the courts and post offices, will be closed.

Ford’s body will be flown to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich., for a final service and public viewing before burial at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday.

Bush will deliver the eulogy at today’s service. After paying his brief respects at the Capitol on Monday, Bush visited with former First Lady Betty Ford and her family for about 30 minutes at Blair House, across from the White House. Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, his wife, Barbara, and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III also joined them.

Betty Ford returned to the Capitol Rotunda about 5:30 p.m., shortly before the scheduled end of public viewing, along with her four children and their spouses. They sat in chairs in front of the casket for about eight minutes, with Betty Ford holding hands with sons Michael and Steven.

Then she walked to the casket, placed her hand on the American flag that covered the coffin, and bowed her head for about two minutes as her family gathered around her. She whispered a couple of words, then returned to her seat before being escorted out.

Michael and his sister, Susan Ford Bales, greeted mourners in the Rotunda on Monday morning. Five of his granddaughters performed the same service briefly later in the afternoon.

Bush was one of several dignitaries to pay respects to Ford on Monday as many officials returned to the nation’s capital following the holidays.

Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), accompanied by her husband, Paul, crossed herself in front of the casket earlier Monday afternoon. Former President Bush, accompanied by his wife, Baker and former Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), visited shortly after the president. And former President Clinton and his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), arrived in the late afternoon.

At the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, flags flew at half-staff in honor of Ford and the crowd paused for a moment of silence before the game. Ford played on two national championship football teams in 1932 and 1933 at the University of Michigan, which faced USC on Monday.

Michigan players also honored Ford. They wore stickers on their helmets with Ford’s number, 48, which the university retired in 1994, and the word “Bo” for their legendary former coach, Bo Schembechler, who died in November.

Outside the Capitol in Washington, the crowd started small as New Year’s Day dawned cold and rainy. But more people -- from babies in strollers to senior citizens in wheelchairs -- showed up throughout the day as the rain stopped.

One mourner, Glynn A. Crooks, vice chairman of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community of Minnesota, came in full headdress and Native American attire “to pay respects to President Ford.”

John Ciccone, 58, of Bethesda, Md., waited about 90 minutes with his wife, Christiane, and their 11-year-old twins, Alexander and Max, to honor a president who helped put the trauma of Watergate behind America.

“I remember the rancor and the bitterness that occurred at that time and when Gerald Ford came in there was a different tone,” said Ciccone. “He really was a profoundly decent man, and we needed a man like that at that time.”