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Thousands pay respect to ex-US President Ford

Thousands of Americans were expected to come to Capitol Hill on Sunday to pay their last respects to former president Gerald Ford.

india Updated: Dec 31, 2006 14:05 IST

Thousands of Americans were expected to come to Capitol Hill on Sunday to pay their last respects to former president Gerald Ford, who led the country through the traumatic aftermath of the Watergate scandal.

Ford, who died in California on December 26 at the age of 93, will lie in state in the US Capitol Rotunda until Tuesday.

The series of solemn tributes to Ford will conclude with a national day of mourning and a service at the National Cathedral.

On Saturday, a flag-draped casket bearing Ford's body was carried to the Rotunda, where Vice President Dick Cheney delivered a speech praising Ford for his most criticized decision — pardoning Richard Nixon.

Cheney's eulogy was briefly delayed by the collapse of former congressman William Broomfield, 84. Officials said later the man was fine.

Cheney, who served as a young man as Ford's chief of staff, said Ford "was almost alone in understanding that there can be no healing without pardon."

During a time of "great malice" following Nixon's resignation in 1974, Cheney said Ford's decision saved the country from division and disaster.

"It was this man, Gerald R Ford, who led our republic safely through a crisis that could have turned to catastrophe," Cheney said.

"We will never know what further unravelings, what greater malevolence might have come in that time of furies turned loose and hearts turned cold."

In September 1974, Ford delivered an unconditional pardon for any crimes Nixon may have committed, a move that Nixon's opponents viewed as unjust and led to speculation that a deal had been cut beforehand.

Ford was also remembered for his lack of pretension and his reputation for honesty. "Few have ever risen so high with so little guile or calculation," Cheney said.

The outgoing Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert, said Ford provided a steady hand at a difficult moment in history.

"We needed a healer. We needed a rock. We needed honesty, candor, and courage. We needed Gerald Ford," Hastert told mourners.

The 38th president's casket, accompanied by family members, arrived in the ealry evening at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington before a motorcade drove through the suburb of Alexandria where Ford had lived for years with his family.

The motorcade then proceeded to the World War II memorial to honor Ford's service with the Navy in the Pacific.

In keeping with his family's wishes, the funeral services scheduled for Washington will be more muted than those for former president Ronald Reagan two years ago, when a horse-drawn caisson carried Reagan's body through the streets of the capital.

On Wednesday, Ford's remains are to be laid to rest at the Gerald Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Ford served in Congress for 25 years before being appointed vice president by US president Richard Nixon in 1973.

Nixon resigned in 1974, under the cloud of the Watergate scandal, leaving Ford to assume the presidency from mid-1974 to early 1977.

US President George W. Bush paid tribute to Ford on Saturday, praising him for guiding the United States through a "crisis of confidence" spurred by political scandal and the end of the Vietnam War.

"He was there for the nation when we needed him most," Bush said in his weekly radio address from his Texas ranch, where he was to ring in the New Year with First Lady Laura Bush.

"On behalf of all Americans, Laura and I send our prayers and condolences to Mrs Ford and the entire Ford family," said Bush, who was to return to Washington on Monday to take part in formal memorial ceremonies.

"Providence gave us Gerald Ford's steady hand and calm leadership during a time of great division and turmoil. He guided America through a crisis of confidence, and helped our nation mend its wounds by restoring faith in our system of government."

Bush said Ford "always put the needs of his country before his own, and did what he thought was right, even when those decisions were unpopular. Only years later would Americans come to fully appreciate the foresight and wisdom of this good man."

Flags on federal buildings have been flying at half mast since Ford's death was announced, and Bush has declared January 2 as a national day of mourning in his honor.

On Wall Street, the major stock exchanges said they would close next Tuesday as a mark of respect.