Sunday, December 31, 2006

Witnessing a Bit of History

President Ford's family arrived in Washington yesterday for the lying in state in the Capitol rotunda, followed by the funeral service at Washington National Cathedral on Tuesday morning. Being someone who greatly appreciates the importance of historic events, I wanted my family to be a small part of the functions taking place over the next several days. In fact, this marked another unique opportunity for my daughter; she's not yet three years old and has already had the opportunity to witness the processions for two American presidents (Reagan in 2004, and Ford last evening).

My wife and daughter and I drove into Old Town Alexandria last night (where Ford lived for several years, including the time he was serving as Vice President) to watch the procession as it moved from Andrews Air Force Base into Washington, D.C. The crowd along the street in Alexandria -- while small -- was very respectful and very appreciative of his service and his place in history, and there was applause for President Ford and his family as the procession moved past. (The photo at right -- while of poor quality -- is one I took as the hearse passed where we were standing.)

I then went home, changed into a suit, and drove back into Washington to go through the Capitol viewing line (the first photo in this post is one of several that I took -- via camera phone -- while standing in line). I was amazed at how quickly we moved through -- I was actually through the line and back out in about two hours, which was a far cry from the 12 and 13 hours that many folks had to wait back in 2004. (I was much more fortunate during the Reagan visitation; since I was on staff in the House of Representatives at that time, I had access to a different entrance and only had about a 10-minute wait.) I enjoyed chatting with some folks from Iowa and Maryland who were standing in line with me, and it certainly made the wait go by much more quickly.

There's no way to adequately express what I was feeling as I moved through the rotunda -- the only sounds I could hear were the clicking of the camera shutters being manned by the bank of photographers back along one wall, and the subdued sounds of footsteps as people moved past the catafalque. Even though we were really only in the room for about a minute, it was more than enough time for me to soak in the history I was witnessing, something that has happened less than two-dozen times 1865. During my ten year career in the House, I was in the rotunda many times, but I haven't ever really noticed how beautiful and peaceful the place can truly be except during those rare occasions such as this where there are no tours and no chaos -- those times where you can really think and really reflect on the place, the history, and (in this case) the person. We then moved downstairs into the crypt, where we received memorial cards and had the opportunity to sign the guest books that had been placed there for the public. By the time I left the Capitol shortly before 11:00, I had been in line less than two hours -- and had already received a voice mail from my father telling me that he had seen me walk through as he was watching C-Span (these things are always special for Dad; he had driven up to Washington in 1963 from his home in Southwest Virginia and went through the viewing line during President Kennedy's lying in state).

I was dismayed to get up this morning and read in the Washington Post just how many officials didn't bother -- and that's my phrasing -- to come up for the funeral services last night. According to their story on VIP absentees, "President Bush sent his regrets; he was cutting cedar and riding his bike on his ranch in Texas. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his deputy, Richard Durbin, couldn't make it, either; they were on a trip to visit Incan ruins. Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took a pass, too -- as did nearly 500 of the 535 members of Congress. A 6-to-3 majority of the Supreme Court, including Ford's appointee, John Paul Stevens, ruled against attending. All the nation's governors were invited; few, if any, came. Apparently only two Cabinet members -- Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez -- accepted the invite." Bike riding? Inca ruins? I think it's absurd -- and I don't care if it's Republicans or Democrats. Gerald Ford was equally effective with folks from both sides of the aisle during his career, and it's sad to think that any show of gratitude or thanks for his life can be superceded by cutting down trees or scaling pyramids.

Aside from my frustration with the actions (or inaction, in this case) of so many high profile officials, it was nonetheless a memorable evening, one that I'm very proud my family took the time to observe. II hope that many, many more Americans take the opportunity during the next several days to express their thanks for President Ford's life and service, and to extend their prayers to Betty Ford and her family for strength and healing in the days ahead.


Kansas Bob said...

What a great experience for you and your family Matt.

Happy 2007!

ipanema said...

I'm equally appalled by the absence of these officials. If they're worried about New Year celebration and bike riding, they can always be whisked away in a jiffy right after the ceremony.

Moments like this is something worthwhile to think about.


trace said...

Matt - good for you for participating - a little bit of history that you got to be a part of and an experience that will stay with you forever.

happy new year.

Karen said...

Wish I could have been there. I saw Ford when I was at Iowa State University. In his usual style, he told us that he was happy to be at "Ohio State." :-) That was okay..I was honored to see him.
I agree, it's sad that certain people didn't take the time to honor a former president.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I hadn't read that yet, that W didn't show. That makes me really sad. Along with everyone else who didn't show up, but I guess I would think that Ford would care more about the common man, the American man, showing up.

And I think that is just what I have read in this post. Thansk for sharing.

Patry Francis said...

Interesting post. I really admired Ford's humility and his sincere manner. We definitely could use more of those qualities in both the public and the private arena.

Happy New Year to you and your family, Matt!

Margaret said...

Thank you so much for sharing this with us. I've been sad this week thinking about President Ford's passing, and it was so meaningful to read about your experience, complete with pictures.

It is so very sad to read about so many people making the choice not to attend the funeral service. I think it seems very disrespectful, and adds to the sadness of the moment.

Dave said...

Matt, I expect to visit the Ford Museum tonight, and I'll be bringing my camera along. Blog report to follow, either late tonight or tomorrow morning. Thanks for offering this summary of your experience. I'll have the report from Grand Rapids soon!

Dad said...

Thanks for the personal note for me! In 1963, we had a bit of a wait, and there I was in late November in very cold temperatures dressed in a summer weight suit - sooo cold. We may not always agree with the way politics and politicians go, but there is always something special about that office - regardless of the person serving as Commander-in-Chief - and I still get a little teary when I hear "Hail to the Chief", the Navy hymn, the Star Spangled Banner - hey I even get teary just watching West Wing!