Ordinary Americans joined President George Bush and other dignitaries in Washington to pay final respects to Gerald Ford as the former US president’s flag-draped coffin rested under the Capitol dome, before a last round of funeral services and burial near his family home in Michigan.
The remains were to be removed from the Rotunda today, to lie in repose briefly outside the Senate before leaving the Capitol where Ford served as a congressman for 25 years.
A bell at the Washington National Cathedral was to toll 38 times for the 38th president as the cortege moved through Washington streets for the funeral service at the stone church that stretches nearly the length of two football fields.
The much-visited Washington religious landmark has soaring towers, 215 stained glass windows and a great organ with 10,650 pipes.
Funeral services were held in the cathedral for former presidents Dwight Eisenhower in 1969 and Ronald Reagan in 2004, and ex-President Woodrow Wilson is buried there.
At the service, Ford was to receive tributes from Bush, who designated today as a national day of mourning, along with those from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, President George HW Bush and NBC newsman Tom Brokaw.
Two of Ford’s children were to participate in the service, with Jack Ford reading from the Prophet Isaiah and Susan Ford Bales reading from the Book of James.
Yesterday under grey, rainy skies, the president and first lady Laura Bush, along with former presidents Clinton and Bush and former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, were among thousands of Americans who viewed the casket as it lay in state at the Capitol.
Former first lady Betty Ford sat with members of the Ford family, who held hands as they watched the military honour guard and the casket. Mrs Ford’s son Steven helped her up when she walked over to the casket, touching it one last time.
Bush bowed his head at the casket. He and his wife stayed at the Capitol only a few minutes in mid-afternoon, and then immediately went to Blair House, across the street from the White House, to visit Mrs. Ford before she went to the Rotunda.
After Ford died aged 93 last Tuesday at his home in Rancho Mirage, California, Bush called him a “true gentleman” and recounted how Ford stepped into the Oval Office after President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace after the Watergate scandal.
Following today’s funeral service in Washington, Ford’s remain were to be flown to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he grew up, for a brief private service at his presidential museum and public viewing overnight. A private funeral service was to take place at Grace Episcopal Church in East Grand Rapids tomorrow, followed by a private burial at the museum.
Inside the Rotunda yesterday, Ford’s daughter and son handed remembrance cards to some of the visitors.
The blue cards bore the presidential, vice presidential and House seals and had a biography of Ford on one side. On the other was a photograph of the former president in the Oval Office, his head bowed.
The message on the card read: “The family of Gerald R. Ford deeply appreciates your prayers and many kindnesses as together we celebrate and honour the life of a devoted husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather and the 38th president of the United States.”
Two of the former president’s grandchildren, Heather Vance and Tyne Vance Berlanga, embraced after they were overcome with emotion after they approached the casket.
Ford was appointed vice president by Nixon to replace Spiro Agnew, who resigned in a bribery scandal stemming from his days as Maryland governor. After Nixon resigned, Ford assumed the presidency for two and a half years.
A month after taking office, Ford pardoned Nixon for any Watergate crimes he might have committed, a move that political analysts say was perhaps the main reason he lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter.