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Dignitaries Reflect on Former President Ford at Funeral

January 2, 2007 at 6:15 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: On a bright, chilly and windy Washington morning, the flag-draped casket carrying the remains of former President Gerald Ford was escorted out of the U.S. Capitol.

President Ford died last Tuesday at 93. His body had lain in repose at the Capitol since Saturday.

The nine-member honor guard carrying the casket paused at the top of the steps, as blasts from a 21-gun salute rang from cannons on the grounds below.

The president’s 88-year-old widow, Betty, and his four children watched as the casket descended the steps. The coffin was loaded into a hearse for a slow cross-town procession to the state funeral at Washington National Cathedral.

The motorcade of more than a dozen sport utility vehicles and limousines inched along Pennsylvania Avenue, the streets lined with white-gloved police officers and onlookers.

The procession passed the White House on a section of the avenue closed to vehicular traffic for a decade. The hearse slowed further.

Meanwhile, more than 3,000 guests already were seated inside the cathedral. In addition to President Bush and his wife, three living former presidents and their wives attended, as did former First Lady Nancy Reagan.

Members of the current Bush administration, present and past, also were on hand, as were several foreign dignitaries. Supreme Court justices and congressional leaders also filled the crowd.

BISHOP JOHN BRYSON CHANE, Washington: With faith in Jesus Christ, we receive the body of our brother, Gerald, for burial. Let us pray with confidence to God, the giver of life, that he will raise him to perfection in the company of saints.

Deliver your servant, Gerald, O Sovereign Lord Christ, from all evil. Set him free from every bond, that he may rest with all your saints in the eternal habitations where, with the father and the Holy Spirit, you live and reign, one God forever and ever, amen.

RAY SUAREZ: A military guard, drawn from all the branches of the service, carried the casket inside and down the long, center aisle, which measures more than 200 yards.

Throughout the eulogies at today’s service, Gerald Ford was lauded for his role as the nation’s healer following the Watergate scandal. The veteran Michigan congressman, of course, assumed the presidency after Richard Nixon resigned in August of 1974.

Decency as remedy

First to speak was former President George H. W. Bush, who served in the House of Representatives with Mr. Ford from 1967 to '71.

GEORGE H. W. BUSH, Former President of the United States: History has a way of matching man and moment. And just as President Lincoln's stubborn devotion to our Constitution kept the union together during the Civil War, and just as FDR's optimism was the perfect antidote to the despair of a Great Depression, so, too, can we say that Jerry Ford's decency was the ideal remedy for the deception of Watergate.

For this and for so much more, his presidency will be remembered as a time of healing in our land. In fact, when President Ford was choosing a title for his memoirs, he chose words from the book of Ecclesiastes.

Here was the verse: "To everything, there is a season and a time, to every purpose under the heaven, a time to be born, a time to die, a time to kill, and a time to heal, a time to weep, and a time to laugh, a time to mourn, and a time to dance."

He acknowledged that he was no saint. To know Jerry was to know a Norman Rockwell painting come to life, an avuncular figure quick to smile, frequently with his pipe in his mouth.

He could be tough; he could be tough as nails when the situation warranted. But he also had a heart as big and as open as the Midwest Plains on which he was born. And he imbued every life he touched with his understated gentility.

On the lighter side, Jerry and I shared a common love of golf and also a reputation for suspect play before large crowds. "I know I'm playing better golf," President Ford once reported to friends, "because I'm hitting fewer spectators."

He had a wonderful sense of humor, and even he took it in stride when Chevy Chase had to make the entire world think that this terrific, beautifully coordinated athlete was actually a stumbler. Ford says it was funny. He wrote that in his memoir.

I remember that lesson well, since being able to laugh at yourself is essential in public life. I'd tell you more about that, but as Dana Carvey would say, "Not going to do it. Wouldn't be prudent."

In the end, we are all God's children. And on this bittersweet day, we can take solace that the Lord has come and taken this good man by the hand and led him home to heaven.

RAY SUAREZ: Next came former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who served as an honorary pallbearer, along with several other veterans of the Ford administration, including former council of economic advisors chairman and later Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and Donald Rumsfeld, who served as President Ford's chief of staff.

HENRY KISSINGER, Former Secretary of State to Presidents Nixon and Ford: Gerald Ford left the presidency with no regrets, no second-guessing, no obsessive pursuit of his place in history.

For his friends, he leaves an aching void. Having known Jerry Ford and worked with him will be our badge of honor for the rest of our lives.

Early in his administration, Gerald Ford said to me, "I get mad as hell, but I don't show it when I don't do as well as I should. If you don't strive for the best, you will never make it."

We are here to bear witness that Jerry Ford always did his best and that his best proved essential to renew our society and restore hope to the world.

Covering Ford administration

RAY SUAREZ: Former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw followed Kissinger. Brokaw spoke at the invitation of President Bush, who wanted a representative from the White House press corps who covered Ford's administration.

TOM BROKAW, Former Host, "NBC Nightly News": Gerald Ford brought to the political arena no demons, no hidden agenda, no hit list or acts of vengeance. He knew who he was, and he didn't require consultants or gurus to change him.

Moreover, the country knew who he was. And despite occasional differences, large and small, it never lost its affection for this man from Michigan, the football player, the lawyer and the veteran, the congressman and suburban husband, the champion of Main Street values who brought all of those qualities to the White House.

In many ways, I believe football was a metaphor for his life in politics and after. He played in the middle of the line. He was a center, a position that seldom receives much praise, but he had his hands on the ball for every play, and no play could start without him.

And when the game was over and others received the credit, he didn't whine or whimper. But then, he came from a generation accustomed to difficult missions, shaped by the sacrifices and the deprivations of the Great Depression, a generation that gave up its innocence and youth to then win a great war and save the world.

And when Gerald Ford and that generation came home from war, they were mature beyond their years and eager to make the world they had saved a better place. They reenlisted as citizens and set out to serve their country in new ways, with political differences but always with the common goal of doing what's best for the nation and all the people.

When he entered the Oval Office -- by fate, not by design -- Citizen Ford knew that he was not perfect, just as he knew he was not perfect when he left. But what president ever was?

But he was prepared, because he had served his country every day of his adult life, and he left the Oval Office a much better place.

The personal rewards of his citizenship and his presidency were far richer than he had anticipated in every sense of the phrase. But the greatest rewards of Jerry Ford's time were reserved for his fellow Americans and a nation he loved.

Farewell, Mr. President. Thank you, Citizen Ford.

President Bush's remarks

RAY SUAREZ: President Bush was the final eulogist.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Gerald Ford showed his character in the uniform of our country. When Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941, Gerald Ford was an attorney fresh out of Yale Law School. But when his nation called, he did not hesitate.

In early 1942, he volunteered for the Navy and, after receiving his commission, worked hard to get assigned to a ship headed into combat. Eventually, his wish was granted, and Lieutenant Ford was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Monterey, which saw action in some of the biggest battles of the Pacific.

Gerald Ford showed his character in public office. As a young congressman, he earned a reputation for an ability to get along with others without compromising his principles. He was greatly admired by his colleagues, and they trusted him a lot.

And so, when President Nixon needed to replace a vice president who had resigned in scandal, he naturally turned to a man whose name was a synonym for integrity: Gerald R. Ford.

Eight months later, when he was elevated to the presidency, it was because America needed him, not because he needed the office.

President Ford assumed office at a terrible time in our nation's history. At home, America was divided by political turmoil and wracked by inflation. In Southeast Asia, Saigon fell just nine months into his presidency.

Amid all the turmoil, Gerald Ford was a rock of stability. And when he put his hand on his family Bible to take the presidential oath of office, he brought grace to a moment of great doubt.

And when he thought that the nation needed to put Watergate behind us, he made the tough and decent decision to pardon President Nixon, even though that decision probably cost him the presidential election.

Gerald Ford assumed the presidency when the nation needed a leader of character and humility, and we found it in the man from Grand Rapids.

President Ford's time in office was brief, but history will long remember the courage and common sense that helped restore trust in the workings of our democracy.

RAY SUAREZ: Following the service, Ford's casket moved on to Andrews Air Force Base, where it was loaded on to Air Force One, bound for Grand Rapids, Michigan, President Ford's home of over 60 years and the site of his presidential museum.

Following one final funeral service there tomorrow, the remains of the 38th president will be buried on a hillside near the museum.