WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Jan. 2, 2007) - Former President Gerald R. Ford was a man of strength and integrity who led America through the aftermath of Watergate and the end of the Vietnam War, President Bush said at Ford's state funeral services here today.
Thousands of military members helped pay tribute to those traits during a solemn state funeral today that began this morning when Ford's casket was transported from the U.S. Capitol to Washington National Cathedral.
The presence of Soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen was everywhere, with troops paying tribute to their former commander in chief. They served as ceremonial guards and honorary pallbearers, provided music and rendered a 21-gun salute to the former president on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., before his casket was flown to Grand Rapids, Mich., for burial tomorrow.
During his eulogy today at Washington National Cathedral, Bush said Ford's name already was a symbol of integrity when he became the 38th U. S. president on Aug. 9, 1974, after President Richard M. Nixon resigned. He served until 1977.
"President Ford assumed office at a terrible time in our nation's history," Bush recalled. America was politically divided by the Vietnam War, he said, and the U.S. economy was hamstrung by inflation. The South Vietnamese government fell to the communists just nine months into Ford's presidency, he said.
Yet, "amid all the turmoil, Gerald Ford was a rock of stability," Bush said. "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."
President Bush praised the affable Ford, who he said proved his presidential mettle as he made difficult decisions that, though not always popular, put the interests of the country first.
The president noted Ford's firm resolve when the American merchant ship SS Mayaguez was seized by Khmer Rouge operatives in international waters off Cambodia May 12, 1975. Cambodia had fallen to the Khmer Rouge communists in mid-April.
After diplomatic measures failed, Ford sent in U.S. forces to rescue the Mayaguez's 39-member crew. While the rescue operation was under way, the ship's crew was unexpectedly released by their captors. The U.S. military rescue force lost an estimated 41 servicemembers, mostly Marines, during the operation, while killing 30 Khmer Rouge members as they engaged a 300-member air- and sea-based enemy force.
Ford also oversaw America's participation in the Helsinki Accords, Bush said. That agreement was signed in Helsinki, Finland on August 1975 by 35 nations, including the United States, Canada, the Soviet Union and many European countries. Language contained in the accords guaranteed the Eastern European territorial gains the Soviets had made at the end of World War II. But, the document also reduced Cold War tensions, and its inclusion of basic human rights for citizens covered in the agreement proved to be a harbinger for the fall of the Soviet Bloc.
Ford was initially lambasted for endorsing the Helsinki Accords, Bush said. "Yet, history has shown that document helped bring down the Soviet Union, as courageous men and women behind the Iron Curtain used it to demand their God-given liberties," he said.
Ford was the target of two assassination attempts during his presidency, but refused to cut back on his public schedule, Bush said.
And, when the country was suffering the political fallout of the Watergate scandal, Ford likely sacrificed his chances to be elected president in 1976 by pardoning Nixon, Bush said.
Nixon had nominated Ford to replace the scandal-tainted Spiro Agnew as vice president Oct. 12, 1973. At that time, Ford was a Republican member of Congress who had represented Michigan for 24 years in the House of Representatives. He grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich., and will be buried on the grounds of his presidential museum and library there tomorrow.
Bush declared today a national day of mourning for Ford, who died Dec. 26 at age 93 at his residence in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
"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," Bush said during his eulogy. "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."
Bush's eulogy was preceded by comments from his father, former President George H.W. Bush, who remembered Ford as a selfless man who lived a life of noble purpose.
"As Americans, we generally eschew notions of the 'indispensable man,' and yet, during those traumatic times, few if any of our public leaders could have stepped into the breach and rekindled our national faith as did President Gerald R. Ford," the elder Bush said.
Ford served the country in momentous and trying times, the elder Bush said, just as Abraham Lincoln did during the Civil War and Franklin Delano Roosevelt did during the Depression and World War II.
Ford's honesty and straightforward manner restored the public's faith in the Oval Office and led the country forward in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, the former President Bush said.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who served as the country's senior statesman in the Ford administration, and former NBC newsman Tom Brokaw, also provided eulogies at the funeral service.
Ford was an unassuming chief executive whose unpredictable ascent to the presidency could be construed as to have come from providence, Kissinger said. Ford, he said, "undertook to restore the confidence of Americans in their political institutions and purposes."
Former first lady Betty Ford, members of the Ford family and many senior government officials attended the state funeral here today. Vice President Richard B. Cheney, who served as chief of staff during the Ford administration, and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who served his first stint as defense secretary under Ford, were among the officials in attendance.
Today's state funeral here concluded Washington's portion of the national farewell to Ford that began in Palm Desert, Calif.. The funeral activities will conclude tomorrow with a private service and interment at Ford's presidential museum and library in Grand Rapids, Mich.