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The Situation Room
Special: President Gerald R. Ford's Funeral
Aired December 30, 2006 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GERALD R. FORD, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I, Gerald R. Ford, do solemnly swear...
WOLF BLITZER, HOST: He was thrust into the presidency, a job he never sought, in a nation weary from scandal.
FORD: My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.
I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your president by your ballots. So I ask you to confirm me as your president with your prayers.
I expect to follow my instincts of openness and candor, with full confidence that honesty is always the best policy.
BLITZER: Gerald R. Ford wrote his legacy in those early days in office -- a man of honor, a quest for healing and a decision that tore into the wounds of Watergate, a decision he stood by until the end.
FORD: I, Gerald R. Ford, president of the United States, do grant a full, free and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon.
When you look back at the alternatives that I had, it was the right decision.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: You're looking at a live picture of Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington, D.C.
The plane carrying Gerald Ford's body is due to land there very soon. The nation's capital preparing to pay a final official tribute to the 38th president of the United States.
Welcome to our live coverage of the funeral of Gerald R. Ford.
I'm Wolf Blitzer, together with CNN's senior analyst, Jeff Greenfield.
We'll be here in THE SITUATION ROOM over the next four hours to follow all the ceremony of the late president's final return to Washington.
Our correspondents and guests are standing by to capture this dramatic and emotional day and they'll help us better understand and remember the man at the center of it all and his place in history.
Let's go back to Andrews Air Force Base right now. Only minutes away from the arrival of the plane carrying the president's body.
CNN's Jeanne Meserve is standing by -- Jeanne, walk us through what we expect to happen once that presidential aircraft touches down at Andrews.
JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, as you know, as president, President Ford flew into Andrews Air Force Base many times and this is where his final trip to Washington begins.
On the tarmac behind me, you may be able to make out the hearse which is here to carry his body and the many limousines and other vehicles that have been assembled for the motorcade.
The plane is expected to put down at almost any time. And at precisely 5:20, it will come into position here on the tarmac. When it does, a loader will come and take the casket off the plane. As it does that, Mrs. Ford, the rest of the family and special friends who are on this aircraft will come off the back of the plane. You will not be able to see them.
Mrs. Ford will be put in a limousine and brought around to the front. And when she is in position near the hearse, that is when this ceremony will begin.
First, the Air Force band, which will be positioned near the plane, will strike up "Ruffles and Flourishes." And as it plays, a 21-gun-salute will take place. Only when it is done will the band strike up "My Country 'Tis of Thee." And then the casket will be moved, carried by military pallbearers.
It will be brought through an honor cordon of military members and also the honorary pallbearers, who include Vice President Dick Cheney, who, of course, was a member of the Ford administration; another member of that administration, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; also, two former secretaries of state, James Baker and Henry Kissinger; also, Alan Greenspan, the former head of the Federal Reserve.
When the casket has been put into the hearse, that is when the ceremony here is essentially over. Mrs. Ford will be put in a limousine, as will the other family and friends. Then this motorcade will begin.
It will go through Alexandria, Virginia, where the Fords lived for many years while he was in Congress and then on into the city of Washington.
The whole ceremony here expected to last only about 15 minutes. But there are many moving parts. We're told about 500 ceremonial members of the military involved, another 500 to 1,000 people working here behind the scenes to make sure that this part of the ceremony goes off smoothly -- Wolf, back to you. BLITZER: And the special honor guard, Jeanne, will include not only the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, but all of the chiefs themselves. They will be there representing all the divisions, all the parts of the U.S. military.
MESERVE: That's absolutely correct. And there will be one other person participating here. That is the Navy chaplain. That is a note, to note, rather, President Ford's service in the U.S. Navy during World War II, something, of course, who will be marked in other ways tonight.
BLITZER: All right, we're going to get back to you momentarily.
We're standing by for the arrival of that presidential aircraft bringing the body of the late president back to the nation's capital.
President Ford was a veteran of the Second World War and in his honor, in his honor of that service, the hearse carrying his casket to the Capitol will pause in front of the WWII Memorial right on the Washington Mall.
That's where our senior national correspondent, John Roberts, is stand by with more on this important symbolic part of this event -- John, tell our viewers what we can expect where you are.
JOHN ROBERTS, SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good evening to you, Wolf.
Yes, this is going to be the only stop on the motorcade route from Andrews Air Force Base to the Capitol Building, the WWII Memorial, which is the newest of the major memorials and monuments here in Washington. It was dedicated in 2004.
Significant for President Ford for a couple of reasons. First of all, he was one of the honorary co-chairman of the WWII Memorial campaign, along with Former Presidents Reagan, Clinton and the first President Bush. And, also, he served in World War II for four years, April 1942 to February of 1946. He served in the Navy, both as a trainer at some of the pre-flight academies, and, as well, served aboard the USS Monterey for a couple of years in the Pacific campaign.
Here's the way that this is going to unfold, Wolf. It's going to be very brief, probably a couple of minutes in length or so. The limousine carrying the former First Lady, Betty Ford, is going to pull up just to my right here. The hearse carrying the 38th president will pull up on my left.
In the back here, behind this monument that has the inscription on it, there will be a number of World War II veterans, flanked on either side by six Eagle Scouts for a total of 12. President Ford, of course, the only president who was an Eagle Scout.
And I talked to these Scouts earlier today and they're quick to remind you and very proud to remind you of that fact.
And then there's a going to be about 100 female members of the military, both present and former, a lot of people who went through military academies. The significance of that? In 1976, President Ford signed legislation which, for the first time, allowed women into these military academies.
So when the hearse pulls up, there will be an honor guard here behind me, as well as Chief Boatman's Mate Carlos Rebot (ph), who is going to pipe Gerald Ford aboard. This, of course, follows in the great Naval tradition of dignitaries being piped on board any kind of ship. It goes all the way back to the days of the wooden sailing schooners when they were actually hoisted on board the ship.
After that brief ceremony, the casket will remain inside the hearse and the motorcade will continue on to the Capitol, probably just about a couple of minutes, but a very poignant and significant part of the ceremony -- Wolf.
BLITZER: He didn't speak often about his service during World War II, John, but he was heroic in one specific incident. There were several near misses, if you will, that he and his fellow sailors had.
But talk a little bit about what happened aboard that relatively small aircraft carrier, the USS Monterey.
ROBERTS: Yes, the USS Monterey is what's called a light aircraft carrier. It holds a number of planes, but not like the big aircraft carriers of the day, certainly nothing like we see these days plying the waters.
It was December of 1944. They were in the South Pacific. They were caught -- the entire battle group was caught in the middle of a raging typhoon. The waves were crashing over the deck. Gerald Ford, who was then a lieutenant -- eventually rose to the rank of lieutenant commander, but he was a lieutenant back then -- was up on the deck when suddenly a huge wave hit the Monterey, pitched the deck to 25 degrees. Gerald Ford suddenly found himself crashing down the deck toward the open railing and the open ocean. He hit the edge of the rail and then perhaps it was his athleticism that saved him, but he managed to sort of roll over and catch onto a catwalk, narrowly saving himself from going in the water.
He climbed back on board the deck. The skipper of the ship was in the middle of a raging inferno on the deck because the waves and the pitching of the deck had crashed a lot of aircraft that were on the deck together, setting off a huge fire, which would actually have gone inside the aircraft carrier.
The skipper apparently was about to call abandon ship when Gerald Ford said, I think we can take care of this sir, led a fire team to the inside of the ship. And with that fire team, managed to put out some of the fires, save many of the sailors who were in danger of perishing and literally save the USS Monterey.
BLITZER: What a story.
Thanks very much, John. We're going to get back to you shortly for this part of this funeral. The impending arrival of Gerald Ford's body here in Washington comes after a solemn send-off from the southern California desert.
(AUDIOTAPE OF CEREMONY)
BLITZER: A military band played "Hail To The Chief" as the former president's casket was removed from Saint Margaret's Episcopal Church in Palm Desert. Hundreds of people came to pay their respects during 13 hours of public viewing that lasted overnight.
(AUDIOTAPE OF CEREMONY)
BLITZER: President Ford received a 21-gun-salute at the Palm Springs airport, where the casket was placed on a 747 from the presidential fleet.
(AUDIOTAPE OF CEREMONY)
BLITZER: Mrs. Ford and other members of the Ford family accompanied the body on the flight, which was given the code name Special Air Mission 29,000.
Joining us for our special live coverage, our senior analyst, Jeff Greenfield and Tom DeFrank, the Washington bureau chief of the "New York Daily News" -- Jeff, give us a little sense of perspective. A state funeral like this here in the nation's capital.
What should we be looking for?
JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, there's a certain amount of certainty about it even though President Ford has declined to participate in some of the most traditional things -- you won't see a riderless horse in this funeral, you won't see a horse-drawn caisson. What you should be looking for are things that will remind you of these kinds of times in the past. This is what the United States does to say farewell to its leaders. It's a military funeral because, among other reasons, presidents are commanders-in-chief.
You're going to see gathered friends and foes. This is one of those things, since we're all mortal, this is one of those events in which the political storms of days past tend to fade and be reminded by the fact that, you know, this is a commonality for all of us.
So it's a moment -- and one more quick thing. Because he was 93, it's more a celebration than it is a tragic event. He led a full and good life.
BLITZER: The -- and as we look at these live pictures from Andrews Air Force Base, we see a military band coming in. They'll be -- they'll be participating in this arrival ceremony, probably within the next eight minutes or so.
Tom DeFrank, you covered President Ford. You covered his administration. You got to know him rather well, not only then, but in the years that followed. This is a moment where almost all of Washington comes together.
BLITZER: All right, I'm having a little bit of trouble with Tom DeFrank. We're going to come back to him.
But let me pose the same question to Jeff Greenfield.
This is a moment where Washington comes together right now.
GREENFIELD: It does. And I think even more so on Tuesday. President Ford's passing, in the week between Christmas and New Year's caught a lot of people, I think, off guard. You'll see a lot of people who have already come back for this with a state funeral at the Capitol and then Tuesday at the National Cathedral, I think the entire panoply of Washington will be here. You know, foreign leaders will be coming in.
I'm just struck by, in this ceremony, one of the events -- you'll see it later -- are the -- how many people are gathered who served with him in the House. He served 25 years in the House, longer than any other president. This was the place from where he came. And we're going to see a lot of people from his era -- Democrats and Republicans -- come back to say good-bye.
BLITZER: And this looks like that presidential aircraft, the 747 from the president's fleet, bringing the casket, bringing the body of the former president, Gerald Ford, and his family, and others back to the nation's capital.
It should be touching down momentarily at Andrews Air Force Base, which is in Maryland, right outside of Washington.
Tom DeFrank, I was saying, you got to know this president quite well over these many years, spent some quality time with him in recent years, as well.
What's going through your mind right now as you see this presidential plane get ready to land at Andrews?
TOM DEFRANK, "NEW YORK DAILY NEWS": You know, Wolf, I'm looking at this beautiful, big silver and blue Air Force jet and my mind just flashes back to the very first time I was on Air Force Two with Gerald Ford. It was also silver and blue and it also had a flag on the tail, just like this one. But there was no resemblance.
That was a twin engine Convair prop jet. It was so slow that it took nine hours to fly from this very same Andrews Air Force Base to Los Angeles. That's when you didn't have to stop somewhere to refuel.
It was a little tiny airplane. There were four reporters, one photographer. And it was a very cozy, intimate setting on a little tiny airplane where we saw him every time he went out on a flight. And that's what I'm thinking. I'm thinking about the old Convair prop jet, Air Force Two, not the big beautiful Air Force One... BLITZER: A sitting president always flies in Air Force One, no matter what kind of plane it is. And a sitting vice president always flies in Air Force Two, once again, no matter what kind of plane it is.
And there we see the dignitaries, led by the vice president, Dick Cheney, standing by to receive the casket, to receive the body of the former president, the 38th president of the United States.
Coming after this flight from California, Jeff Greenfield here in Washington, these honorary pallbearers that have been assembled, quite a list.
Talk a little bit about that as we await for this plane to stop at Andrews Air Force Base.
GREENFIELD: Well, one of the most remarkable things is how many of these people are still having an enormous impact in our public life 30 years after Ford left office.
James Baker. We know him as the former secretary of State and Treasury. He ran Gerry Ford's campaign in '76 against Reagan, but most recently chaired the Iraq Study Group, which posed a real challenge to the current President Bush.
You've got Alan Greenspan, who -- I think he was Council of Economic Advisers, chairman under Ford, later became the Federal Reserve chairman, so powerful that when he -- no matter what he said, no matter how cryptic or Delphic, the stock markets moved. He's probably one of the most important economic voices.
Henry Kissinger, obviously, national security adviser, then secretary of state. After Vietnam, he was probably the one person in Ford's whole administration that had some clout on Capitol Hill.
Donald Rumsfeld just finished six years as one of the most controversial secretaries of Defense in history, who was secretary of Defense under Gerald Ford and chief of staff before that.
And Dick Cheney -- he was Rumsfeld's protege, deputy chief of staff under Ford, became chief of staff, I think, at age 34, when Rumsfeld moved to the Pentagon. And now, as vice president, again, one of the more controversial figures in the whole Bush administration.
Startling to me how these people are playing such an active role decades after President Ford left.
BLITZER: Jeanne Meserve is our correspondent at Andrews Air Force Base.
Right now it looks like this huge 747 is about to stop.
From your vantage point, give us a little flavor of what you're seeing -- Jeanne. MESERVE: Well, we're a considerable distance from the plane. We can see it taxiing into position there. We are closer to some of the backup for this, the limousines that have been pulled together for the motorcade. There are also probably 20 or 30 motorcycles to accompany that.
We're at such a distance from the actual ceremony that it's hard for us to make out any of the faces of the people who might be over there. I'm sure on the pool cameras, you're able to see considerably more.
This ceremony will be very familiar to me and to you all. This is something that's set in stone, for the most part. It is almost exactly what you saw when President Reagan was returned to Washington for his funeral. The one difference would be that you saw Mrs. Reagan walk off the plane. You will not see Mrs. Ford, in part, we presume, because of her age and condition. She will be taken off out of camera range, off the back of the plane in front in a limousine around in her position by the hearse.
The plane now is swinging around. There is -- there's great precision to this. We were out on the tarmac earlier. You could see where there were markers in place where this plane will stop. They had set it up so the cordon will line the -- the honor cordon will line up precisely with the cameras, so you will be able to see that casket moving right down through them toward the cameras.
Everything occurs to a T. In fact, we're told twice a year the military goes through this, even though these events are staged with great infrequency, simply to make sure that they know how to do it and that they will do it perfectly when an occasion like this arises.
BLITZER: All right, Jeanne, stand by.
We're going to come back to you as we see this huge 747 about to stop in front of the dignitaries who have gathered there, including the honorary pall bearers, led by the vice president of the United States, Dick Cheney. They are there.
Tom DeFrank, as you look at these pall bearers who have been assembled, it's quite a list. And as Jeff Greenfield points out, 30 years later after the presidency of Gerald Ford, many of them still major players here in Washington.
DEFRANK: That's exactly right. The list goes on and on, as Jeff was saying. You've got James Baker. You've got two secretaries of state. You've got two secretaries of defense. You've got a vice president of the United States. You've got a former Fed chairman. The list is endless.
He really had a very capable White House staff, one of the best that I can remember. And it really was a training ground, a breeding ground for a generation of public servants. I mean even a guy that not a lot of people know outside of the government, but who is a very talented guy, Bob Camet (ph), the deputy secretary of the Treasury, was a young National Security Council staffer in the Ford years. So in addition to these honorary pallbearers we're looking at here, there are dozens, probably hundreds of senior government officials these days who cut their teeth in public service under the Ford administration.
BLITZER: The family will come out, with the exception of Betty Ford, the widow, will come out of the front of the plane. The casket will be lowered from the rear of the plane. And we'll be seeing that. The plane has now come to a halt on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base.
Bob Greene is joining us from Chicago, as well, the well known writer.
Bob, this relationship between the former president and Betty Ford was an incredible love affair. And I know you got to see that. I know you spoke with the former president on several occasions and learned how deeply in love this couple really was.
BOB GREENE, AUTHOR: If you walked into the room, it was as if they had met two days before and they had a crush on each other. You wouldn't have thought that they had all these years behind them. Mrs. Ford told me, and Mr. Ford told me, they would sit down for lunch every day, they would put that day's mail on the table and they would go over the letters that had come in together. She would kid with him as, in his retirement, Mrs. Ford said that a lot of men in retirement putter around the kitchen and fancy themselves as cooks.
She said I won't even leave him soup to heat up when I go out of town because he would burn it. And he would laugh. It was -- they were each other's best friends. And seeing Mrs. Ford in these coverage of these last few days, you can understand the depth of the grief because this was the most important person -- you know, husbands and wives are by definition close. This was a -- you could see it with your eyes. They lit up in each other's presence.
BLITZER: It was an amazing love affair. And this is an emotional moment for a lot of people, including for Helen Thomas, the veteran Washington journalist, who's joining us in our live coverage, as well.
Helen, you covered the Ford presidency. You've covered a lot of presidencies going back these years.
What's going through your mind as you take a look at this?
HELEN THOMAS, UPI: Well, I think this is a great loss for the country. I think he was a wonderful president who understood what was happening. He brought great security and a new sense of confidence in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. So I think he made a tremendous contribution on that score.
And I'm, you know, it's really true that all of the pallbearers were part of his administration. But something happened along the way to the forum. They changed.
BLITZER: Something happened to those former aides of his.
BLITZER: You're referring, I assume, to Rumsfeld, Cheney, among others.
BLITZER: Is that what you're referring to, Helen?
THOMAS: They became very hawkish.
DEFRANK: Well, let me tell you...
BLITZER: Go ahead, Tom.
Why don't you weigh in, as well.
DEFRANK: A very quick Betty Ford story while we're still talking about Mrs. Ford.
I saw President Ford about five weeks ago in Palm Springs at his home in Rancho Mirage. And I suppose later on we'll probably be talking more about that.
But midway through this very brief conversation I had with President Ford, Mrs. Ford unexpectedly popped in. And it was a difficult time for him, a difficult time for me. But when Betty Ford showed up in the study of the president's -- of their house, a very sick President Ford just lit up. And you could see the change in his demeanor when he saw Betty show up. It was a very touching thing to see and I feel very lucky that I was able to be there to see it happen.
THOMAS: She was the healer. Betty truly was.
BLITZER: Betty Ford, you're talking about.
BLITZER: She was quite a woman. She is still quite a woman. She's 88 years old right now and she has flown from California back to Andrews Air Force Base with the body of her husband inside that casket. It will be lowered momentarily. There will be this brief ceremony at this military base before the limousines, the motorcade, the hearse bring the casket and the entourage to the nation's capital.
Jeff Greenfield, you're watching all of this, as well, a very solemn moment rich with history.
GREENFIELD: And to pick up one thing on Betty Ford, this is a woman of extraordinary courage. For a wife of a president to acknowledge her struggle with substance abuse, to then make a recovery and then make it possible for it to be respectable, for people to acknowledge the difficulties and to try to battle it instead of tucking it away, but, you know, particularly for the wife of a public figure, I think -- I think history is going to treat that with extraordinary kindness and gratitude.
BLITZER: Barbara Starr is our Pentagon correspondent -- and, Barbara, there's military aspects. This is a former commander-in- chief whose life is being celebrated, if you will, here in the nation's capital right now, with a special honor guard. It includes General Peter Pace, the chairman of the joint chiefs, and all of the other members of the joint chiefs, as well.
Walk us through a little bit of the military aspect of what we are about to see.
BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we are about to see the beginning of very precise, very disciplined, very well rehearsed military tradition and military ceremonies. There are a number of ceremonial units that practice this sort of thing all the time.
But I think underscoring all of this, this is not just a farewell to their commander-in-chief. And let's know that many of these young military people, of course, were not even born during President Ford's term.
It is not just a farewell to a commander-in-chief, but it is a farewell to a military family, to a military widow, of course, with President Ford having served as a lieutenant commander in World War II.
But there is something even more than that, Wolf.
With, you know, with the war in Iraq going on in the war in Afghanistan, it is much, believe it or not, of the same ceremonies, on a smaller scale, albeit, that the military does almost every day here in Arlington National Cemetery and the cemeteries around the country.
They escort families. A casket, a widow are never left alone, whether it's a president of the United States or a 19-year-old widow of a young soldier who's just been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The military feels very strongly about the tradition of caring for families, of showing respect during funeral ceremonies. Many people may not realize it, but the Army, for example, sends a general -- a general officer -- to the funeral of every soldier who falls in battle.
And, of course, we're in a time frame when so many veterans of World War II, as President Ford was, are on in years, and are passing. The World War II generation, the Korean War, even the Vietnam War -- this country is in an era of seeing many, many military funerals, 30 a day, almost, at Arlington National Cemetery.
So I think what we're all going to see in the moments ahead and throughout the next couple of days is that type of care, training, the things that military really does for families. And, of course, for a president, for a state funeral, the 21-gun-salute is the very special farewell that the military performs for a president -- Wolf.
BLITZER: We're looking at some of the family members descending from that presidential aircraft. And there you see some of the honorary pallbearers. You saw Bob Dole just there, the former Transportation secretary, William Coleman, was in the middle of the screen right there, as well.
Suzanne Malveaux is our White House correspondent.
She is watching all of this together with us.
The president decided not to cut short his vacation at the Crawford ranch. He's only going to be back in town for Tuesday's ceremonies. He didn't come back for today.
What was the thinking at the White House -- Suzanne.
SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the president and the first lady are certainly going to return to Washington on Monday. That is when they're going to pay their respects to Ford. Of course, he will be laying in state in the Capitol. And then Tuesday is the main -- the speech, if you will, at Ford's funeral service that he will be giving at Washington National Cathedral.
The president did speak out today, as he has the last couple of days, offering his condolences, saying that Ford was a courageous leader and a true gentleman.
I thought it was very interesting, Wolf, one thing that he said in his radio address today. He said that: "In his two-and-a-half years as president, Gerald Ford distinguished himself as a man of integrity and selfless dedication. He always put the needs of his country before his own and did what he thought was right, even when those decisions were unpopular. Only years later would Americans come to fully appreciate the foresight and wisdom of this good man."
That really gives you some insight into President Bush, as well. That is certainly his hope, that history will also judge him fairly and kindly when it comes to the unpopular decision of going to war with Iraq -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And there you see in front of your screen over there family members of Gerald and Betty Ford. They've arrived aboard what's called Special Air Mission 29,000, this presidential aircraft bringing the family and friends from California back to Washington, D.C.
The official ceremonies about to begin here on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, just outside the nation's capital.
Jeanne, you're there. You're watching all of this. There we see Bob Dole standing together with others, including the vice president, honorary pallbearers, men -- and I see that Carla Hill is a former Housing and Urban Development secretary -- also among the former, the honorary pallbearers. They're getting ready for what will be a rather brief ceremony here at Andrews -- is that right?
MESERVE: That's right. Expected to last in total only about 15 minutes. You might have seen a big vehicle pull up to the side of this aircraft. That is called the presidential loader. It is what will move the casket down off the plane, if it hasn't already. This casket weighs something like 800 pounds.
While it is being brought down, Mrs. Ford will be taken off the plane. We've seen the limos pull up toward the front of the aircraft, on the opposite side. They will bring her around to where the hearse is, when she is in position, that is when the actual ceremony will begin, first with "Ruffles & Flourishes" as that is played, a cannon will fire a 21-salute at the end of this landing field.
When that is done the Air Force Band will strike up "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and then the casket will be moved. As Barbara was mentioning, the people acting as the military pallbearers are people who do this all the time. They do this on a weekly, if not daily basis, at Arlington National Cemetery, but they are at that point moving members of their own military force.
This, of course, will be a mixed group of pallbearers. And they will then, as the music is played, move the casket away from the plane, and down to the hearse through the military cordon, and through those honorary pallbearers that you've been talking about. As yet that limo that's waiting for Mrs. Ford has not budged, and until she is moved and brought around, you will not see things actually get under way here at Andrews Air Force Base, we're on hold, as it were.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR, THE STATE FUNERAL OF GERALD R. FORD: We're standing by for the events to begin there. We see everybody ready. The former first lady, Betty Ford, was aboard that plane. She was brought down through the side, in the back.
She is clearly someone we're going to be watching, and interestingly enough, throughout all of this, she'll be accompanied by a U.S. general, Major General Guy Swann, he's the commanding general of the Joint Task Force, National Capitol Region, he will be at her side throughout all of these events today, and including Tuesday as well. An honorary guard, an escort, if you will, for Betty Ford.
Bob Franken is our correspondent right now on Capitol Hill, where eventually this motorcade will bring the casket, will bring the entourage. Give us a little flavor of what we can expect there, Bob.
BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, THE STATE FUNERAL OF GERALD R. FORD: Well, he's certainly not the first president who lays in state at the capitol, but it is probably most fitting that Gerald Ford would be in repose, would be there for people to pay their respects in the Rotunda of the capitol.
He was such a creature of the House of Representatives, and that really shows from those who the honorary pallbearers, people from a different era of politics, even though it wasn't that long ago. People like Bob Michael and Guy VanderJagt, others who were called Main Street Republicans, who were moderates, who got along with their fellow Democrats, as evidenced by others who are going to be here, include the likes of Dan Rostenkowski, the former chairman of the Ways & Means Committee, and John Dingle, a Michigan Democrat.
They were political adversaries, not the enemies we see today. And they would oftentimes hang out in the different hideaway offices that just over there not far from where his casket is going to arrive. And they'd sometimes go down to the basement. I remember sitting there one time with Sonny Montgomery, who was a Mississippi Democrat, and he would tell stories how Gerald Ford and Tip O'Neil and Bob Michael and Sonny Montgomery, and people like, that would tell jokes before they'd go out and effect duke it out on the House floor.
It was almost like, I know we get tired of sports analogies, but like watching a football game. The two sides battle each other, then at the end of the game, you see them embracing, asking them how their families, and all that kind of thing. After they'd get through, duking it out, as I said, on the House floor, they would go up the street and maybe have a drink together or get together with their families for dinner. It is, frankly, a bygone era.
We'll see many of the remnants of that, many of the people who are still around, who I just described, who will be participating in the service this evening.
BLITZER: And the honorary pallbearers, you saw some of them including the only woman, Carla Hill. Hill is President Ford's secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and a lot of men who worked for the former president during his administration. As we wait, Jeff Greenfield, for this ceremony to begin, contrast what we're seeing here with earlier, similar funeral arrangements for other presidents.
JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST, THE STATE FUNERAL OF GERALD R. FORD: Well, the one that I can't help but think about is a contrast between this, it's a celebration of a man who, as I said, lived 93 years, died in the fullness of his years, with a November evening, 43 years ago in black and white, where a nation utterly stunned watched then Air Force One back from Dallas, with the body of President John Kennedy. That's an occasion when the state funeral was a desperately needed balm for a country that had not experienced anything like that in decades.
This is a completely different experience, because you were honoring, as I said before, a man who served unexpectedly as president, went on to a very full life for three decades after. And, while you could always regret the passing of anyone, particularly close to or affectionate with, a man who lived 93 years, married 58 years to the love of his life, I think most of us would say, you know, that's a hand I'd like to play.
The contrast between the wretched November 22nd, 43 years ago is just something unavoidable, if you lived through that and were sitting rooted in front of your television set. It' as different an experience, in that sense, as you could possibly imagine. BLITZER: And even different, Tom DeFrank, from what we saw only a few years ago with the state funeral of Ronald Reagan, when his body was brought back to the nation's capitol, as well. These arrangements were personally authorized and approved by President Ford and he made some specific differences, from what Reagan, for example, wanted.
TOM DEFRANK, "NEW YORK DAILY NEWS": That's right, Wolf. But it's a measure of the man. There are fewer ruffles, fewer flourishes, less pomp and circumstance, here, but that's who Gerry Ford was. Many times, I've told one of my favorite stories about Gerald Ford walking into the fanciest French restaurant in Vail, Colorado, where he lived, and ordering liver and onions, breaking the heart of the chef. But that was Gerry Ford. He liked liverwurst sandwiches for lunch.
And so it doesn't surprise me that his take on how he would like his funeral to be conducted would be with fewer flourishes. That's just the way he is, and of course, Ronald Reagan was -- well he came from a theatrical back background, he was more of a showman, he had a real flair for those things.
And if anything -- if anything, Ford's wishes on his last grand time on the stage, he ought to be doing exactly what he wanted to have done, not what any other president might have preferred.
BLITZER: It's certainly a personal preference. We see now the limousines begin to get in place. Helen Thomas, I want to bring you into this conversation.
We believe that Betty Ford is inside one of those limousines right now. She was escorted off this presidential aircraft, and brought into one of these limousines. We see the hearse there to the left of the screen, where the casket will be brought in. We're going to continue to watch this.
At the time, Helen Thomas, when former President Ford granted that pardon to Richard Nixon, you were a White House correspondent. What was going through your mind then, and how do you feel about it 30 years later?
HELEN THOMAS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the first place, I think he gave too early. It left too much suspicion. He could have let some grass grow under his feet for awhile, I think, instead of that, in retrospect --
BLITZER: Let me interrupt for a second. There we see Betty Ford being escorted now -- well were seeing her. She's moving in and out of the area that is lighted there. We see her, together with the honorary pallbearers and family members of the Fords. We're going to watch this ceremony.
But go ahead, sorry to interrupt.
THOMAS: No, that's all right.
In retrospect, I would say that all is forgiven. Time is a great healer. And maybe he was right, but I did think it was too soon at the time. Wasn't exactly one month to the day, and it was a big, big shock. And I think he suffered for it in terms of running for the presidency on his own.
BLITZER: Tom, you want to weigh in on that point before this ceremony starts?
DEFRANK: I will, Wolf, because I was there, obviously with Helen, that Sunday morning when President Ford came out and issued the pardon September 8th, 1974. And I could remember seeing one of President Ford's military aides, a commander, Howard Kerr, who is going to be at the funeral, with a lot of his former friends and associates, and I just shook my head.
And the next day, Howard called me on the phone and he said, Why were you shaking your head? I said, "He just lost the election." I thought it then, I think it today. I think that's -- I don't think he ever recovered from pardoning Richard Nixon. But I absolutely agree with Helen, that the pardon as seen in retrospect as a healing mechanism for which Ford has gotten appropriate credit.
BLITZER: Barbara Starr, our Pentagon correspondent, walk us through a little bit what the military aspects of this now, we see the casket having been removed from the aircraft, and will shortly be put inside that hearse.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT, THE STATE FUNERAL OF GERALD R. FORD: Wolf, what you are seeing is one of the most solemn moments for the United States military, representatives of all the military services, these young people, carrying the casket of a former president, past the honorary pallbearers, in front of his family, carrying the late president in front of his widow, Mrs. Ford. This is something behind the scenes that is practiced. This is something that is done --
BLITZER: Hold on a second, Barbara. Hold On.
(MILITARY BAND, "HAIL TO THE CHIEF", DRUM ROLL, CANNON FIRE)
(MILITARY BAND, "MY COUNTRY, 'TIS OF THEE")
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Order, march! Ready, right, forward, march.
Mark time, left, halt! About face!
BLITZER: There we see the honorary pallbearers getting ready to get into their respective limousines, to be part of this motorcade, that will bring the casket carrying the former president's body to the nation's capitol from Andrews Air Force Base, outside of Washington.
You saw the vice president of the United States there as well. He's one of the honorary pallbearers, together with former secretaries of State, former secretaries of Defense.
You also saw the children and the grandchildren of Gerald Ford and Betty Ford, walking into their respective limousines as well. All of them will be coming to, eventually making their way to the nation's capitol.
You see in the middle of your screen, Betty Ford, in that limousine, she's accompanied by Major General Guy Swan, he's the commanding general of the Joint Task Force, National Capitol Region. He'll be escorting her throughout this state funeral here in Washington.
This is a very important aspect of this, Barbara Starr, to have a major general with the first lady, virtually every step of the way.
STARR: It is very important, Wolf. Mrs. Ford, like every other presidential widow, of course, having spent so many years in the public eye, moving through so many ceremonies, perhaps so many times hearing "Hail To The Chief", as she just did once again, the signs this is an occasion of state.
"Hail To The Chief", the 21-gun salute, the Military Reserves, for a late president, for a presidential funeral. Major General Guy Swan will remain with Mrs. Ford, and the Ford family, until all the ceremonies are concluded and the final burial in Michigan.
There is always in these matters, as there was with President Reagan's funeral, great concern, great care that the former first lady, we see her signs of grief here, obviously, that she is looked after, that she does not have to worry for one second about where she stands, where she goes, all those cares and concerns of the White House years about ceremony are taken care of for her here.
We know that Mrs. Ford also, of course, accompanied by her children, her grandchildren and her great grandchildren. I believe that was Susan Ford on Mrs. Ford's other side, but General Swan will be keeping an eye on Mrs. Ford continuously, making sure that she is looked after. That she is OK. If she has any questions, someone will assist her instantly with whatever she needs. Arrangements will be made so she gets the rest that she needs.
All too often now, presidential widows or ladies that are on in years, and perhaps in fragile health, themselves, in these very, very difficult circumstances for them when once again, after so many years the world's eyes will be upon them and upon Mrs. Ford. So, one of the tasks for the military is to make sure, first and foremost, that she is OK, that all of the honors are rendered to the late president. This is something that we will continue to talk about, that they practiced.
You know, a presidential funeral, starts being planned when the president is in office. They begin to make the arrangements for their own funerals. But, of course, President Ford, out of office for so many years now, the military had the plans on the shelf, and when he passed away, they started immediately to implement them. And take care of these tasks, to make sure the family is looked after, the president is honored, and that everything is taken care of appropriately.
BLITZER: Barbara, stand by. Jeanne Meserve is out there, as we see, Betty Ford inside that limousine, getting ready for that motorcade, to leave Andrews Air Force base and drive into the nation's capitol, not very far away. Usually it's about a 15-minute, or so drive, could be 20 minutes, but this is a long motorcade. I don't know if you're in a position to tell us how many cars are in this motorcade, Jeanne, but give us a little sense of what's going on.
MESERVE: There are probably 20 limousines here and then a number of larger vehicles providing security, and then, of course, the whole phalanx of motorcycles, which will accompany them as they make this trip on through Alexandria, Virginia, and into the capitol.
We are just a stone's throw away from these limousines. You could see the honorary pallbearers being assigned their respective vehicles. One of those we could easily make out, was David Hugh Kennerly (ph), who is the official White House photographer during the Ford years. And I will tell you, he had his cameras out. So, he has been shooting, apparently, while this ceremony has been taken place.
We hear the motorcycles revving. They will take off shortly.
As I mentioned earlier, this ceremony very much like the ceremony for President Reagan, when his body was returned to Washington, the exception being the fact that Mrs. Ford was taken in the limo over to the hearse. But from here on out, there will be departures.
This is a lot less grand than the Reagan's funeral was. I remember standing in front of the Ellipse and watching the transfer of President Reagan's casket from a hearse to a caisson. I remember the horse with the boots placed backwards in the stirrups, that accompanied that caisson, as it went up to Capitol Hill; the Fords choosing to forego all of that.
I was speaking yesterday with James Cannon, who is a biographer of President Ford, also was a member of the Ford administration. And he said he talked to President Ford not long after the Reagan funeral and that Ford had said to him, that he was going to choose something much less grand than that.
Cannon felt this was very much a reflection of the man, this was a person of humble origins, a man of the people, not someone like President Reagan, who was from Hollywood, and the theatrical tradition. The way he put it was President Reagan was a show horse and President Ford was a workhorse. And he feels this ceremony will reflect that fact, as it moves forward from here.
And now we see the limousines all pulling away from Andrews Air Force Base. The hearse is still in position on the tarmac. We expect that it will move shortly. And a lot of police accompanying this motorcade, at the front, we see all sorts of lights flashing in the darkness. The motorcycles revving and prepared to accompany these special guests, the family, Mrs. Ford, and the casket, as it moves from here on to the capitol, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Jeanne, thank you.
Tom DeFrank, this moment where the hearse will drive on the George Washington Parkway, in Alexandria, Virginia, this is where the Fords lived for a few decades, when he was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. This is symbolic of the attachment that he has here, to the roots he has, in the nation's capitol.
DEFRANK: Well, Wolf, he was born in Omaha, Nebraska. And he grew up in Grand Rapids. He always called Grand Rapids home. That's where he was a congressman from the Sixth Congressional District of Michigan. But he did love Washington. He was a creature of Washington and he was a suburbanite. He lived in a modest home in Alexandria, Virginia.
And as a matter of fact he lived in that house for awhile, after becoming president. He didn't want it to look unseemly, given the trauma, and the suddenness of Richard Nixon's departure from office. So he commuted to work with the help of the Secret Service, for a period of time. As I recall, it was a couple of weeks before he and Mrs. Ford took up residence at the White House.
BLITZER: Helen Thomas, we saw Betty Ford inside that limousine. Stoically, obviously, a very, very emotional moment for her. All of these moments, all of these days now, very emotional. And it's going to get a lot more emotional in the next few hours, the next few days, certainly a very difficult period for her. A source of strength, though, that she is here with her children, and grandchildren, and so many people that love her, and loved her husband.
Talk a little bit, Helen, about Betty Ford, and we see her, as we see the motorcade leaving, led by that hearse with the casket of Gerald Ford.
THOMAS: She's a great lady. And she has always risen to every occasion, and some of them have been very, very difficult. In fact, she read the concession speech for President Ford when he lost the election. I mean, she has never hesitated to move in, tell the truth. She was the most honest first lady that I ever covered.
And I think that she realized that, if you tell the truth, that's it. And I think she's always been accepted for her candor, her bluntness, sometimes very surprising. But wonderful copy for the reporters. We never expected a woman to really say what the things really were like in the White House.
BLITZER: It's widely noted that when he married her back in Grand Rapids, after World War II, she was widely seen as the most beautiful woman there of that age. What were you saying, Helen?
THOMAS: She was a great dancer.
BLITZER: Yeah. And she was, she still is a very beautiful woman. Was she open to the press when you covered here?
THOMAS: Very much so. And as I say, she had studied with Martha Graham, but she was very -- you put a question to her, she would answer it, and much to our surprise, oftentimes. Because a lot of other first ladies are much more cagey. They feel necessary to hide the truth. BLITZER: Let me bring Jeff Greenfield into this conversation, as well. The motorcade now just to set the stage for our viewers, Jeff, the motorcade now leaving, driving slowly, leaving Andrews Air Force base, going to be winding, and making its way to the nation's capitol and that should be about 15-20 minutes or so.
But go ahead, Jeff, and pick up the point.
GREENFIELD: What Helen was saying reminded me of something, after Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a very controversial, outspoken first lady, very much involved in public policy, we had a succession of very different first ladies, Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, Jacqueline Kennedy was remarkably younger and more glamorous than others, but was not a public policy advocate. And Pat Nixon, Ladybird Johnson involved in highway beautification, not a controversial issue.
Betty Ford came in, not very well known, because her husband was not a national political figure. He hadn't run for president or vice president. And remarkably was saying some very striking things for a first lady.
The thing I most remember was when she told in an interviewer, they've asked me, the press asked me everything except how often I sleep with my husband. And the interviewer, may have been Barbara Walters -- I'm not sure -- said, well what would you have said? Betty Ford said I'd have said as often as possible.
Now, it was the '70s, and women were beginning to make a very different movement here, you know, than they had in the past and she would in some ways exemplify that, Wolf.
BLITZER: Stand by for a moment. Because we have a lot more to cover, much more of our special coverage coming up. We're live at the World War II Memorial here in Washington, where the hearse carrying the former president's casket, will pause on the way to the capitol. And we'll show you a unique view of that route. Stay with us. You're watching our special coverage as the nation mourns the death of the 38th president of the United States. We'll be right back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GERALD FORD, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We were there 28 and a half years, and we enjoyed it. It was a great honor. And I urge other young people to get into politics. It's an honorable profession and we need good people, men and women, who will serve in public office.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Welcome back. More now of our special coverage of the funeral of Gerald R. Ford. I'm Wolf Blitzer. We're here in The Situation Room.
His body arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington, only moments ago and a motorcade is now making its way through the streets of Washington, on it's way to the U.S. Capitol. Let's get some more on ...
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