President Ford Lies in State at Capitol

The body of former President Gerald Ford lies in state at the Capitol Rotunda, a particularly fitting tribute for a man who spent a quarter-century in Congress. At a Saturday night service, Vice President Cheney and others paid tribute to the 38th president.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Former President Gerald Ford's body is lying in state this morning at the U.S. Capitol. Members of the public will be able to pay their respects to the 38th president over the next two days. Yesterday, Ford was honored with a state funeral that included much of the ceremonial pomp he tried to avoid during his life. But the day was also filled with tributes to the former president's modesty and the crucial role he played in the aftermath of Watergate.

NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: Mr. Ford's body arrived in Washington from his home in California aboard one of the 747s used as Air Force One. He and his family, including wife Betty, were greeted at Andrews Air Force Base with a 21-gun salute before a military Honor Guard carried the flag-draped casket to a waiting hearse.

(Soundbite of "My Country Tis of Thee)

FESSLER: The former president's family had requested the hearse in lieu of the more formal horse-drawn caisson used for the funeral processions of Presidents Reagan and Kennedy. And instead of going directly to the Capitol, the Ford motorcade wound its way first through the streets of nearby Alexandria, Virginia, where the former president and his family lived most of the 25 years he served in the House of Representatives.

The procession then moved to the World War II Memorial on the Washington Mall for a short tribute to Mr. Ford's service in the Navy. There the former Eagle Scout was saluted by a group of Boys Scouts and World War II veterans. Female service members were also on hand to honor Mr. Ford's role in opening up the military academies to women.

Navy Lieutenant Commander Tamara Maider(ph) said she had another reason to be there.

Lieutenant Commander TAMARA MAIDER (United States Navy): When I was 11, I wrote a letter to the president.

FESSLER: And she says President Ford wrote her back.

Lieut. Com. TAMARA MADERS: It was the nicest letter, saying thank you so much for sending me this letter. You're so lucky to be young in the United States at this time, because you have so many opportunities available to you. You can be anything you want. And here I am.

FESSLER: It was the kind of personal act by Mr. Ford that seemed to have touched many of those who turned out for his final trip through Washington. Hundreds of people lined the streets as the motorcade made its way to the east side of Capitol. There the procession was met with another 21-gun salute.

(Soundbite of gunshots)

FESSLER: Mr. Ford's casket was slowly carried up the steps leading to the House. And in a departure from tradition, it was placed briefly by the open door of the House chamber. The casket was accompanied by many of the lawmakers who served with Mr. Ford in Congress, including former Senator Bob Dole, and those who served in his administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney, who was his chief of staff.

After the brief stop outside the House, the casket was brought into the Capitol Rotunda.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

FESSLER: Hundreds of lawmakers, administration officials and diplomats stood somberly as military pallbearers placed the former president on the same pine catafalque used for Abraham Lincoln's body in 1865. House speaker Dennis Hastert told the mourners that Ford, who never sought the White House, made an historic impact when he assumed the presidency after the resignation of Richard Nixon.

Representative DENNIS HASTERT (Republican, Illinois): In the summer of 1974, America didn't need a philosopher king or a warrior prince, an aloof aristocrat, a populist firebrand. We needed a healer.

FESSLER: And that healer, he said, was Mr. Ford. Hastert said the quiet, civil former congressman was the right man to bring together a nation torn apart by the war in Vietnam and distrust of the White House.

Rep. HASTERT: We needed honesty and candor, and courage.

FESSLER: Vice President Cheney said the hardest and most controversial decision President Ford had to make was one of his first. Cheney, a longtime family friend, said Ford was almost alone in understanding that he needed to pardon President Nixon if the nation was to move on.

Vice President DICK CHENEY: The consensus holds that this decision cost him an election. That is very likely so. The criticism was fierce, but President Ford had larger concerns at heart. And it is far from the worst fate that a man should be remembered for his capacity to forgive.

FESSLER: The vice president said the nation is in Mr. Ford's debt. With that, the mourners began to file past the former president's body. A frail Betty Ford led the way. Helped by one of her sons, she paused briefly as she touched the casket and leaned her head in close.

Meanwhile, outside, hundreds of members of the public waited quietly in line for their turn to pay their respect. For many, like Elaine Cam(ph), a retired nurse from Maryland, the reasons they had come were extremely simple.

Ms. ELAINE CAM: I loved the story about him coming to get the papers in his pajamas when he was vice president, and staying in the same house, and then just an ordinary person in extraordinary times.

FESSLER: Thousands of additional mourners, including President Bush, are expected over the next two days.

The former president's body will be brought to National Cathedral for another funeral service on Tuesday. He will then be flown to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he'll be buried on the grounds of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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