Public honors President Ford |

Public honors President Ford

Former President Gerald R. Ford lies in state in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2006, as mourners pay their respects. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON ” Ordinary Americans paid their respects to Gerald R. Ford on Sunday, walking slowly by his flag-covered casket in the Capitol and remembering how the 38th president likely sacrificed his career by granting the pardon he thought right for the nation.

Visitors said they thought about Ford’s pardon of predecessor Richard M. Nixon as they walked past the casket and military honor guard, in the center of the Rotunda that Ford so often traversed as a member of Congress.

Mourners also were greeted by one of the late president’s sons, Jack.

“Thank you for coming on behalf of the family,” he told people as they filed in. “Sorry for your loss,” some responded.

Several people said they recalled Ford’s toughest moment as president: the pardon, in September 1974 of Nixon for any Watergate crimes. It came only one month after Ford became the nation’s only unelected president, following Nixon’s resignation.

“I thought when he pardoned Nixon he stood up and did what the country needed, not what would further his political career,” said John Banks, 51, of Calhoun, Ga. “I don’t think we have presidents that do that any more.”

Banks, who said he was in the Air Force when Ford was president, drove more than 10 hours to Washington to pay his respects.

Jane Keliher, 61, from Wichita, Kan., said Ford “healed the nation and gave up his future as a politician to do it.” She described the experience of passing by Ford’s casket as “just beyond words.”

Ford ran for president in 1976 and lost to Democrat Jimmy Carter. Then and now, political analysts believe the pardon played a major ” if not the major ” role in Ford’s defeat.

According to the funeral schedule, Ford was to lie in state for public viewing through Monday. On Tuesday morning, his remains will rest outside the Senate chamber on their way before the funeral service at Washington National Cathedral.

While Saturday’s arrival ceremony in the Capitol was for dignitaries, Sunday’s viewing was for people such as Gerald Mitchell, 49, who walked around the casket with his hat over his heart.

Mitchell was visiting Washington with his wife, Susan, 43, from College Station, Texas.

“It’s our American duty,” Susan Mitchell said.

Her husband added, “With the soldiers standing there I felt humble. It was an honor … to have that privilege to be there. I think he was a good president.”

Dan Shirey of Herndon, Va., said he was moved, as a teenager, by Ford’s declaration that “our long national nightmare is over” as Ford replaced Nixon in 1974. Shirey and his family ” wife Juliet, and son Joshua, 6, and Nathan, 9 ” left home at 6:30 a.m. Sunday for the chance to view Ford’s casket.

“I think they have to recognize where they come from so when they grow up, they understand,” Shirey said, explaining he wanted his sons to witness history. Added his wife: “This is part of building up memories with our children.”

Jack and Mary Oslund, both 67 and from Springfield, Va., recalled Ford as a president who had the job thrust upon him in the last chapter of Nixon’s Watergate scandal.

“I think what he brought back to the White House was integrity, trust,” Jack Oslund said. “Honesty,” added Mary Oslund. “Watergate kind of tore the nation apart. It was a change of regime, completely,” she said.

Some visitors said it took about an hour to pass through security checks and make their way past the casket. Mourners lined up for a few blocks, starting near the U.S. Botanic Garden at the base of Capitol Hill. Some people wore blue jeans and sweat shirts; others had something like their Sunday best.

President Bush and his wife, Laura, planned to view the casket upon their return to Washington on Monday after spending the holiday at their Texas ranch. Bush will deliver a eulogy at the cathedral service.

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