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Americans Honor Former President Ford

Americans are paying a final tribute to former President Gerald Ford, who died last Tuesday at the age of 93. VOA's Paula Wolfson reports his body is lying in state at the U.S. Capitol in advance of funeral services Tuesday in Washington.

On a normal Monday, the Capitol Rotunda would be filled with noise.

But this was no normal Monday. The only sound was an occasional whisper, and the echo of slow footsteps on the high-polished floor. One, by one, the American people paid their silent tribute to Gerald Ford.

On this day, presidents and first ladies - past and present - entered the room beneath the great white Capitol dome and paused by the flag-draped coffin. They were part of a seemingly endless march of mourners that ranged from parents with small children to those too old and frail to stand, who made the pilgrimage in wheelchairs.

President Bush and his wife Laura went to the Capitol less than an hour after their return to Washington from their Texas ranch. His parents - former President George Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush - arrived a short time later.

The dignitaries came and went. But for the most part, the day belonged to the public - to those who stood in line in a chilly rain outside the Capitol for the chance to honor the 38th President of the United States.

Historians sometimes refer to Gerald Ford as the "accidental president." He considered himself a man of the House of Representatives, and served there for decades before he was chosen as vice president by President Richard Nixon in 1973 to replace Spiro Agnew, who resigned in the midst of scandal.

The next year, the Watergate debacle prompted President Nixon to step down, and Vice-President Ford assumed the highest office in the land. He was welcomed as someone who could help unify the country and help it heal after a period of deep divisions. But his decision to pardon Richard Nixon created controversy and may have doomed his only attempt to win the presidency in the 1976 election.

As he waited outside the Capitol with his brother for an opportunity to pay his respects to Gerald Ford, Dan Merriman of Alexandria, Virginia reflected on those days.

"I think his legacy will be that he held this nation together at one of the most critical points in its history," said Dan Merriman. "There are many other nations where that kind of transition of power would have ended up in revolution, overthrow, coup d'etat, and not in this country due in large measure to Gerald Ford's calming influence and steady hand at the leadership of this country at that time."

Nearby, Elizabeth Foley also stood in line in the January rain. She was not even born when Gerald Ford was president, but attended high school in Winston-Salem, North Carolina with one of his granddaughters. She said when she thinks of the Ford presidency, she thinks of the Nixon pardon.

"I think it is a mixed feeling because he allowed the country to move past the conflict but at the same time, it could have been a real opportunity for the country to prosecute somebody who obviously made some mistakes in office," said Elizabeth Foley.

Washington's final farewell to Gerald Ford will come in the form of a funeral service Tuesday at the National Cathedral, just a few kilometers from the White House. Mr. Ford will be buried Wednesday on the grounds of the Gerald Ford Museum in his old congressional district in Grand Rapids, Michigan.