Hail and Farewell to the Chief

Watching the TV coverage of the state funeral of President Ford Tuesday from the Washington National Cathedral brought back many memories, of President Reagan's funeral, of the memorial service for the 9/11 dead, and even my own Baccalaureate service in high school.

It is a place both grand and intimate.

One thing TV does very well, I think, is cover solemn occasions, generally dropping its normal tendency to overdramatize or overdescribe events in that breathless, 24-hour news cycle, way.

Some did better than others, of course, but as I watched the pooled, roadblocked, coverage, I was impressed that the weight of the occasion came through soft and clear on most. CBS under Couric tended to talk over the procession too much for my liking.

The weather accommodated, with flags snapping to attention underneath a bright blue sky.

"We receive the body of our brother Gerald for burial," said the priest as the casket was perched on the steps outside the cathedral. "Raise him to perfection in the company of saints."

I understand that the process of planning a state funeral begins when a President first assumes the office. I wondered what the former president pictures were thinking in the candid shots of them as the casket was being brought into the church. The silence–on Fox News Channel at the time–helped me contemplate that moment, punctuated only by the coughs that always seem to be magnified into cannon shot in the silence of a church full of mourners, echoing the canons for the 21-gun salute at the Capitol as the body was taken from its Rotunda bier to the cathedral.

The squeak of shoes, the tinkle of metal–buckles, medals on the honor guard?–and the intermittent tapping of what sounded like a cane reminded me of those wonderful fade-outs on CBS' Sunday Morning, when you are reminded of the power of silence.

There were also some striking visuals, including a shot from roof line across the flags and arches.

The play of light through the stained glass windows as the casket was being brought in was particularly affecting.

The first President Bush lightened the tone, pointing to President Ford's challenging golf game. "I know I am playing better golf," Ford told Bush, "because I am hitting fewer spectators."

Saturday Night Live got a plug for its send-ups of Ford, with President Bush referencing the lampoon, then his own send-up by Dana Carvey, even delivering the now iconic "not gonna do it" line.

Tom Brokaw, former NBC anchor and member of the White House press corp, was among a handful tapped to speake and he, too, added a lighter tone. He first conceded that nobody looked good for what passed for style in the 1970's–white belts, wide lapels–then said that some of Ford's jackets deserved their own presidential pardon.

But Brokaw was there primarily to convey journalists' respect and affection for a president without demons, hidden agendas, or an enemies list, and apparently without enemies as well. We challenged his policies, said Brokaw, but we were adversaries, never enemies.

Brokaw talked of Ford's modesty and decency, common themes over the days since Ford died at age 93 some 30 years after leaving office. "He never believed he was wiser or infallible because he drank coffee form a cup with a presidential seal," said Brokaw.

Brokaw also said Ford had the affection of the press corp for his trips to Vail–at Christmas–and Palm Springs at Easter, when the journalists would get to tag along with their own families in tow..

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger put his finger on Ford's contribution to when he said that Ford was "not consumed by driving ambition," a comment, the unstated point was, that could not have been made about his predecessor and Kissinger's previous boss, Richard Nixon.

The current President Bush called Ford someone "born in a generation that measured men by their honesty and courage." By that measure, Ford, former soldier in the Greatest Generation celebrated by Brokaw in his book, and whose pardon of Nixon was seen by many as a political sacrifice to heal the nation,  stood tall.

"Farewell Mr. President," said Brokaw, turning affectionately to address the flag-draped casket. "Thank you, citizen Ford."

By John Eggerton