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Former President Ford Returns Home to Michigan for Final Farewell

January 3, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: A steady flow of about 3,000 visitors an hour paid their final respects to the 38th president, while his body lay in repose at his museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan, over 17 hours, beginning yesterday. Overnight and into today, some 57,000 well-wishers each spent a moment saying goodbye to President Gerald Ford.

This afternoon, President Ford’s body was taken to Grace Episcopal Church, where he and former First Lady Betty Ford were married 58 years ago. Ford’s funeral today marks the last official day of mourning, more than a week after his death at age 93.

RELIGIOUS LEADER: Oh, God, whose mercies cannot be numbered, accept our prayers on behalf of thy servant, Gerald Ford.

'A skillful legislator'

RAY SUAREZ: Donald Rumsfeld was Mr. Ford's defense secretary, an association that dated back to their service in the House of Representatives. He remembered his friend this way.

DONALD RUMSFELD, Former U.S. Secretary of Defense: When I joined Gerald Ford as a member of Congress in 1962, I found a skillful legislator who had earned the respect of his colleagues. He was energetic in his desire to serve and to contribute, but he did not wake up every morning wondering how he could get ahead.

In fact, in 1964, Betty will remember that a small group of us had to work very, very hard to persuade Jerry Ford to run for minority leader of the United States House of Representatives. And I was able to see him work skillfully to achieve passage of the historic civil rights legislation during the 1960s.

Later, as White House chief of staff, I was standing next to President Ford during two assassination attempts that stunned an already traumatized country, which he handled with courage, with poise, and, I should add, with good humor.

He was a patriot who knew that freedom is precious and that it comes at a cost. I'm grateful that I was serving last year when the Navy considered naming a new aircraft carrier class the USS Gerald R. Ford. How fitting it will be that the name, Gerald R. Ford, will patrol the high seas for decades to come in the defense of the nation he loved so much.

An 'intense personal friendship'

RAY SUAREZ: Former President Jimmy Carter, who defeated Gerald Ford in the 1976 election, said he and Ford later grew to become close friends.

JIMMY CARTER, Former President of the United States: "For myself and for our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land." Those were the first words I spoke as president, and I still hate to admit that they received more applause than any other words in my inaugural address.

You learn a lot about a man when you run against him for president and when you stand in his shoes and assume the responsibilities that he has borne so well.

Jerry and I frequently agreed that one of the greatest blessings that we had, after we left the White House, during the last quarter-century, was the intense personal friendship that bound us together.

During our closely contested political campaign, as Don just reminded me, we habitually referred to each other as "my distinguished opponent." And for my own benefit, while I was president, I kept him fully informed about everything that I did in the domestic or international arena.

In fact, he was given a thorough briefing, almost every month, from the head of my White House staff or my national security adviser. And Jerry never came to the Washington area without being invited to have lunch with me at the White House.

We always cherished those memories of now, perhaps, a long-lost bipartisan inter-relationship.

'A patriot before a partisan'

RAY SUAREZ: The historian and former Ford Museum and Library Director Richard Norton Smith said President Ford lived his belief in modesty and decency.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: To most of us, advancing age means a narrowing of sympathies. Our attitudes harden along with our arteries. But not Gerald Ford.

His friendship with President Carter, unlikely as it may seem in this era of scorched-earth partisanship, reveals much about a leader who never confused moderation with weakness, nor compromise with surrender, and who, in his own estimation, had adversaries, but not enemies.

For 60 years, he was a patriot before he was a partisan. If he never mastered the art of the sound bite, it is equally true that he never turned to a focus group to locate his convictions. He was better at statesmanship than salesmanship.

To be sure, Dorothy Ford's son put his faith in God before government, but precisely because he revered the individual as a creature of God, he respected individual choices.

RAY SUAREZ: After the service, the president's casket was returned to the museum grounds for burial. Betty Ford, her four children, and their family bid farewell to Gerald Ford.