WASHINGTON -- The nation's capital prepared yesterday to honor former President Gerald R. Ford with the pomp and solemnity of a state funeral as tributes poured in for a self- effacing leader who tried to steer the country through a troubled period.
Memorials for the 38th president, who died Tuesday at 93, will begin tomorrow with observances in Palm Desert, Calif., near where he lived; continue in Washington on Saturday; and conclude Wednesday in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he will be buried in a hillside tomb near his presidential museum.
"My family and I are touched beyond words by the outpouring of affection and the many wonderful tributes we have received following the death of my husband," Betty Ford said in a statement released yesterday. "The nation's appreciation for the contributions that President Ford made throughout his long and well-lived life are more than we could ever have anticipated. These kindnesses have made this difficult time more bearable."
Gregory D. Willard, a family friend who served as staff assistant during the Ford administration, said, "The president's passing was peaceful. He was with Mrs. Ford and her children at the residence in Rancho Mirage."
Willard also released details of the planned services.
The casket containing Ford's body will lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda this weekend, on a simple wooden bier, draped in black, that was built for Abraham Lincoln's coffin.
Ford's remains will be flown to Washington on Saturday afternoon, and his hearse will pause at the World War II Memorial on its way to the Capitol. Ford served on a Navy carrier in the South Pacific, earning 10 battle stars and attaining the rank of lieutenant commander.
That evening, a state funeral will be conducted in the Rotunda, after which the public will be able to pay their respects.
In commemoration of Ford's more than two decades of service in Congress, the casket will lie in repose outside the main door of the House and later outside the Senate. On Tuesday, services will be held at Washington's National Cathedral.
Flags will fly at half-staff in observance of a 30-day mourning period ordered by President Bush.
A presidential funeral is an occasion for national reflection, said Donald A. Ritchie, associate Senate historian.
"It's comparable in a sense to an inauguration, since it's a moment of focusing on a person and a career of service to the nation," Ritchie said. "Where an inaugural is a period of promise, a funeral represents the conclusion, the finality of it all. But it brings out many of the same people and the same kinds of considerations."
Ford took office in 1974 after President Richard M. Nixon was forced to resign to avoid impeachment in the Watergate scandal and when the Vietnam War was winding down to what many saw as a humiliating defeat. At home, unemployment and inflation were high.
He assumed the nation's highest office without ever having been elected vice president, because Nixon appointed him to replace Spiro T. Agnew, who resigned after pleading no contest to income tax evasion charges.
"It was not the best of times for anybody to be president of the United States," said former Sen. Bob Dole, a Republican from Kansas. "President Ford was able to make the best of it and will be remembered for leaving a legacy of honor and integrity."
Dole was Ford's running mate in the 1976 presidential race, in which the Republican ticket closed a wide deficit but lost narrowly to Democrat Jimmy Carter. Only about 30 percent of today's population would have been old enough to vote in that election.
Ford's most controversial act was his pre-emptive pardon of Nixon shortly after taking office, which scuttled any potential prosecution of his predecessor for alleged misdeeds related to the 1972 break-in at Democratic headquarters in the Watergate complex and the subsequent cover-up. Ford said he made the decision on his own because he was convinced the nation needed to move on.
"It was a tough call either way, and I think he made the toughest call," Dole said. But some critics suspected a hidden political deal - the promise of a pardon in exchange for the Oval Office.
A journalist who covered the White House at the time said Ford believed he was on a mission to unite a fractured nation. "His legacy can be summarized in the title of his memoir: A Time to Heal," said Tom DeFrank, Washington bureau chief for the New York Daily News. "At a moment of grave constitutional crisis, he began the arduous process of removing the poison from a damaged nation."
"He saw himself as a minister of reconciliation," said the Rev. Dan Rondeau, associate rector at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, where the Fords worshiped and where a private prayer service and public visitation will be held tomorrow.
Messages of praise from Republicans and Democrats continued yesterday.
"He assumed power in a period of great division and turmoil. For a nation that needed healing and for an office that needed a calm and steady hand, Gerald Ford came along when we needed him most," Bush said yesterday morning in Crawford, Texas.
"An outstanding statesman," said Carter.
"One of the kindest, most sincere elected officials whom I have known," said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat.
"When he left office, he had restored public trust in the presidency," said Vice President Dick Cheney, who served as Ford's White House chief of staff.
Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Johanna Neuman write for the Los Angeles Times.