WASHINGTON -- President Bush yesterday bowed his head in silence before the flag-draped casket of Gerald R. Ford -- a man the president said used a calm, steady hand to guide the nation after the tumultuous Watergate years.
On a rainy afternoon, the president and Laura Bush joined thousands of other mourners in paying their respects to the 38th president lying in state at the Capitol.
Silence fell under the Capitol dome when the president walked toward the casket, illuminated by spotlights and guarded at each corner by members of a military honor guard. The Bushes lowered their heads for a few moments, as if in prayer, then turned and walked away across the Rotunda's polished stone floor, which reflected the flag's red and white stripes.
Bush, who said nothing during his one-minute stop in the Rotunda, is to eulogize Ford today at his funeral at the National Cathedral. After he died last Tuesday, Bush called him a "true gentleman" and recounted how Ford stepped into the Oval Office after President Nixon resigned in disgrace after the Watergate scandal.
"President Ford was a great American who gave many years of dedicated service to our country," Bush said in a statement . "On Aug. 9, 1974, after a long career in the House of Representatives and service as vice president, he assumed the presidency in an hour of national turmoil and division.
"With his quiet integrity, common sense, and kind instincts, President Ford helped heal our land and restore public confidence in the presidency."
Bush visited the casket, his first public event of the new year, after returning from a weeklong stay at his Texas ranch. Afterward, the Bushes drove to Blair House, across the street from the White House, to visit with Ford's widow, Betty . The Bushes then walked down Pennsylvania Avenue back to the Executive Mansion.
Bush visited the Capitol, where a changing military guard kept a watchful vigil throughout the night, on the third day of mourning there for Ford, who died at 93.
Shortly before the three-day public viewing ended, Mrs. Ford returned to the Capitol and sat in the Rotunda for about 20 minutes with her three sons and daughter and their spouses. She clutched the hand of her son Michael. Her son Steven helped her up when she walked over to the casket, touching it one last time.
Among the other dignitaries to pay their respects yesterday were Bush's father, former President George H.W. Bush, and his wife, Barbara; former President Bill Clinton and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York; Representative Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, who this week becomes the first female speaker of the House; Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts; Donald H. Rumsfeld, former defense secretary; and former Vice President Dan Quayle.
Members of Ford's family greeted mourners who came to the Capitol on New Year's Day wearing parkas, packing umbrellas, and clutching snack sacks.
Karen Olson, 53, of Herndon, Va., said the rain couldn't dampen her determination to see Ford 's casket . Her mother, who's now deceased, was on his staff, she said.
" 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."
"The few times that I met him, he was just really nice," she said.
Both of Olson's parents have passed away.
"I kind of felt like I wanted to be there for them," she said. "There's just an emotional connection there."
Kirk Scofield, 44, and his wife, Mary , 50, of Sterling, Va., lined up early too. Mary, who said she had "six hours of food" in her backpack, expected a long wait, though they had been in line less than an hour. "She looks like she's ready to go camping," Kirk joked.
Inside the Rotunda, Ford's daughter and son handed remembrance cards to some of the visitors. The blue cards had the presidential, vice presidential, and House of Representatives seals and a biography of Ford on one side. On the other was a photograph of the former president in the Oval Office, his head bowed.
The message on the card: "The family of Gerald R. Ford deeply appreciates your prayers and many kindnesses as together we celebrate and honor the life of a devoted husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather , and the 38th president of the United States."
Michael Gerald Ford, the former president's son, shook 8-year-old Christopher Witkowski's hand and gave him a blue remembrance card. "My father would have wanted you to have this," he told Christopher, from Alexandria, Va. Ford's sister, Susan Ford Bales, stood nearby, greeting others who had come to pay their respects.
Two of the former president's grandchildren, Heather Vance and Tyne Vance Berlanga, embraced after they were overcome with emotion at the casket.
Ford was appointed vice president by Nixon to replace Spiro Agnew, who resigned in a bribery scandal stemming from his days as Maryland governor. After Nixon resigned , Ford assumed the presidency for 2 1/2 years.
"At a time that the nation was under a lot of pressure, a lot of fire, he stood up for the things that he thought were right at the time," Edna Reeves, 61, of Oxon Hill, Md., said as she walked to the Capitol in the rain. "Blessings to him for knowing compassion enough to pardon President Nixon. I think that was beautiful. You see he didn't think of himself, he thought about the nation."