by Richard Stern
I think Americans are every bit as good as the English, French, and Italians at the public ceremonies that express and reinforce national loyalty. A former president's death, even more than a presidential inauguration, brings out the discipline finery and power, physical, musical and verbal, out of which a presidential family extracts the elements which leave personal signatures on official commemorations. Gerald Ford and his family eschewed the caisson and the riderless horse which the history-stamped young widow of John Kennedy, having read about them in accounts of Abraham Lincoln's funeral, had made two of the most famous elements of that most famous American funeral (the others being the salute her 2-year-old son gave his father's coffin, which, the day before, his 6-year-old sister had kissed and the irregular march of world leaders headed by the towering Charles de Gaulle). Ford's body was carted around in a more or less standard hearse. The carting, though, was done by the well-rehearsed sextet of soldier, sailor, marine, air and coast guardsmen, marching in slow, coordinated rhythms in and out of the cathedral, in and out of the planes from California and from Andrews Air Force base. There were the 21-gun salutes, the funeral procession of limousines on the route selected by the family through Alexandria, Virginia, where he'd lived while a congressman, a pause at the WWII memorial and another at the House of Representatives
chamber, the waiting line of honorary pall bearers, many of them
sept-and-octogenarians, sustaining each other's endurance and proud in each other's famous company. No figure was more moving than the 88-year-old widow, Elizabeth Bloomer Warren Ford, the ex-Powers model and Martha Graham dancer, whose father had killed himself when she was 16 and whose five-year marriage to a furniture salesman ended months before she married Jerry Ford
weeks away from his first election to Congress. Tiny, stoic, bent and beautiful, she walked down the long aisle of the National Cathedral on the arm of President Bush, then stood among her children, grand and great-grand children as episcopal prayers were recited and hymns were played and sung. The eulogies clearly pleased her, particularly when the details were personal. So her husband's refusing to play football against Georgia Tech until Will Ward, the black teammate who'd been dropped for the game after pusillanimous Michigan officials yielded to a Georgia Tech protest, insisted that he play drew a smile from her as did the memory of her husband's keeping his word to speak to local farmers despite a storm and saying to their surprise, "The cows get milked every day. And I gave my word." She was absorbed by Henry Kissinger's detailed account of Ford's varied, underrated and largely forgotten foreign policy achievements (they were also Kissinger's), and she relished the humor, affection, and sincere respect in all the talks. In a way, the most emotional moment came
in the soprano Denyse Graves's fabulously pure and powerful rendition of the Lord's Prayer, but it was the entire ceremony with the cathedral full of the most famous faces in American politics of the last 40 years which made one feel as well as understand the profundity of patriotic ritual, a fortress facing the necessary as well as the contingent, perhaps unnecessary, tragedies of the national and the human condition.
January 2, 2007
by Richard Stern