WASHINGTON -- President Bush, joining thousands of Americans who started the new year by saying goodbye to a former president, stopped yesterday at the U.S. Capitol after returning from his Texas ranch to pay his respects to Gerald R. Ford.
Wearing a dark suit and gray tie, Bush was joined by first lady Laura Bush and a small contingent of White House aides that included Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove. Shortly after 3 p.m., Bush and his wife walked into the rotunda, where Ford's body lay in state. They paused for about 10 seconds at the flag-draped casket, hands clasped and heads bowed, before walking out.
Most mourners - a mix of young and old, in their Sunday best or simply sweat shirts and blue jeans - spent a minute or two slowly circling the casket and its military honor guard.
Karen Olson, 53, of Herndon, Va., said the rain couldn't dampen her determination to see Ford. Her mother, who's now deceased, was on his staff, she said.
"I wanted to come pay my respects. He was a big part of my life," said Olson, who was among the people lined up before 9 a.m. to enter the Capitol building. "I have a lot of ties to his family."
Yesterday was the second and final day of public viewing for Ford, 93, who died last week at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He had lived longer than any former president and was the 32nd person to lay in honor under the Capitol dome.
Bush declared today a national day of mourning as a funeral service will be held for Ford at Washington National Cathedral. Most federal offices, including the courts and postal offices, will be closed.
Ford's body will be flown to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich., for a final service and public viewing before burial at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum tomorrow.
Bush will deliver the eulogy at today's service.
After paying his respects at the Capitol yesterday, Bush visited with former first lady Betty Ford and her family for about 30 minutes at Blair House, across from the White House. Bush's father, former President George H.W. Bush, his wife, Barbara, and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III also joined them.
Betty Ford returned to the Capitol about 5:30 p.m., shortly before the scheduled end of public viewing, along with her four children and their spouses. They sat in chairs in front of the casket for about eight minutes, with Betty Ford holding hands with sons Michael and Steven.
Then she walked to the casket, placed her hand on the U.S. flag that covered the coffin, and bowed her head for about two minutes as her family gathered around her.
Michael and his sister, Susan Ford Bales, greeted mourners in the rotunda yesterday morning. Five of his grand-daughters performed the same service briefly later in the afternoon.
Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California accompanied by her husband, Paul, crossed herself in front of the casket earlier yesterday afternoon. Former President Bill Clinton and his wife, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, arrived in the late afternoon.
At the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., flags flew at half-staff in honor of Ford and the crowd paused for a moment of silence before the game. Ford played on two national championship football teams in 1932 and 1933 at the University of Michigan, which faced the University of Southern California yesterday.
Ford was appointed vice president by President Richard M. Nixon to replace Spiro Agnew, who resigned in a bribery scandal stemming from his days as Maryland governor. After Nixon resigned in disgrace, Ford assumed the presidency for 2 1/2 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.
Jim Puzzanghera writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.