WASHINGTON – Flags throughout the country were flying at half mast Wednesday in tribute to Gerald R. Ford, the 38th president of the United States, who died Tuesday at the age of 93.
Tributes poured forward for Ford, who led America out of the tumultuous post-Watergate period with dignity and respect.
President Ford's casket will begin public repose at 4:20 p.m. at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, Calif., on Friday after special services for family and friends. Ford's body will leave St. Margaret's for Washington, D.C., on Saturday morning and will be escorted via motorcade to the Capitol.
A state funeral will be held in the Capitol Rotunda at 7 a.m. ET on Saturday. Ford's body will lie in state in the Rotunda until Tuesday morning when it will be moved to the door of the Senate at 8:30 a.m. After a funeral service at Washington National Cathedral, the casket will be transported to the Ford Presidential Library and Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., where the body will lie in public repose overnight.
Following a 2 p.m. funeral services Wednesday at Grace Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids, Ford will be interred on a hillside north of the museum.
All events related to Ford's funeral in Washington would be finished before Jan. 4, which is the opening day of the 110th Congress.
Ford's collegial character and unassuming style in the White House are expected to be reflected in his presidential funeral arrangements.
Saying the United States will be grateful forever, President Bush on Wednesday bade farewell to Ford, who died at 6:45 p.m. EST at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
"President Ford lived 93 years and his life was a blessing to America," Bush said from his ranch in Crawford, Texas. "President Ford was a great man who devoted the best years of his life in serving the United States. He was a true gentleman who reflected the best in America's character."
Bush, who will attend Ford's funeral, said the man who took over the top job after the resignation of President Richard Nixon led with honorable conduct and a sense of duty in a time of post-Watergate turmoil.
"On Aug. 9, 1974, he stepped into the presidency without ever having sought the office. He assumed power in a period of great division and turmoil. For a nation that needed healing and for an office that needed a calm and steady hand, Gerald Ford came along when we needed him most," Bush said.
"Gerald Ford brought Americans together during a difficult chapter in our history with strength, integrity, and humility," President Bill Clinton said in a statement. "All Americans should be grateful for his life of service; he served our nation well. To his great credit, he was the same hard-working, down-to-earth person the day he left the White House as he was when he first entered Congress almost 30 years earlier."
The Ford Museum lobby will be open 24 hours a day until further notice, and the museum's other areas, including all exhibit galleries and the gift store, will be closed during this period. Ford likely will finally be laid to rest on the presidential grounds at the museum.
On the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan, the Ford Library lobby will be open for visitors for approximately seven days beginning Thursday. The library's research room will be closed during this period.
The New York Stock Exchange will close in observance of Ford’s death, which has long been tradition, most likely on the day of his funeral.
Although Ford had moved to California after leaving the White House, his ties to his native Michigan remained strong, and in his boyhood home of Grand Rapids a steady stream of people lit candles, draped flags and placed flowers Wednesday at a makeshift shrine outside the Gerald R. Ford Museum. The museum opened condolence books for visitors to sign in the vestibule.
"The country was in scandal and war and he used the opportunity to heal the country and become one of the most important people in history," Joseph B. Niewiek, 31, a used car lot owner from Grand Rapids, said as he lit a candle at the museum.
Ford's lying in state at the Capitol Rotunda will take an act of Congress. Republican leaders could come to Washington to seek unanimous consent from empty chambers if the family wants Ford to lie in state.
Ford's chief of staff called Bush Chief of Staff Josh Bolten at 10:25 p.m. EST. The president called Ford's widow, Betty Ford, to express his condolences just after midnight.
Other notables also expressed condolences for the death of the president who served in the aftermath of Watergate and was known as a healer for a nation suffering after the Vietnam War and political scandal that forced Nixon's resignation.
"I was proud to know President Ford and to have served in the White House as his chief of staff," Vice President Dick Cheney said. "He was a dear friend and mentor to me until this very day. I feel a great sense of loss at his passing, and Lynne and our daughters join me in offering heartfelt sympathy to Betty Ford and her entire family."
Ford was "one of the most admirable public servants and human beings I have ever known," said former President Jimmy Carter, who defeated Ford in 1976.
"An outstanding statesman, he wisely chose the path of healing during a deeply divisive time in our nation's history," Carter said. "He frequently rose above politics by emphasizing the need for bipartisanship and seeking common ground on issues critical to our nation. I will always cherish the personal friendship we shared."
"Ronnie and I always considered him a dear friend and close political ally," said former first lady Nancy Reagan.
"His accomplishments and devotion to our country are vast, and even long after he left the presidency he made it a point to speak out on issues important to us all. ... I know the days ahead will be very difficult for Betty and my love and deepest sympathy go out to her and the entire Ford family."
"Gerald Ford was a man of modesty, decency and national healing. Although he never aspired to America's highest office, once there he renewed our faith in our nation's system of government. He also earned our affection and respect," added Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the incoming Senate minority leader.
"Gerald Ford and I came from different sides of the aisle," said Sen. John Dingell, D-Mich., "but we forged a wonderful friendship as we served Michigan together in the House of Representatives.
"When his nation called on him to serve this country in the most difficult of times, he rose up and held the country together. It will certainly be his legacy," said Dingell, who will lead the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the 110th Congress.
"President Ford made Michigan proud as he led our nation through one of the most challenging times in our history. Our prayers go out to his family," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.
Incoming House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Ford provided "the steady leadership and optimism that was his signature" and said he dispayed "fair and reliable leadership" during his service in the House.
"He recognized that however much we may disagree on political questions, we serve all of the people of the nation in a great institution: the House of Representatives," she said.
Though often remembered as clumsy, especially after the famous trip down the staircase out of Air Force One, Ford was one of the most athletic presidents. He was a star on the University of Michigan football team and rejected an offer to join the National Football League in order to attend law school.
"He was the best athlete that has ever been in the White House, at least in modern times," said former ABC news director Hal Bruno, who added that Ford got a "bum rap" as a klutz.
Several people said Ford will be known as a very honest and good man who did what he thought was right and didn't bow to political pressure despite his decision to pardon Nixon for crimes related to the Watergate scandal.
"There are just some people who are what they appear to be," said Doug Bailey, one of Ford's political media consultants, who added that Ford's earthy demeanor disarmed people suspicious of him after Nixon had let down so many.
"He demonstrated a completely different kind of presidency" than Nixon, Bailey said. "He was a very, very down-to-Earth guy."
Ford himself said he was frequently misunderstood regarding his decision to pardon Nixon, who was the only president to resign from the post.
"If I had not granted a pardon, Mr. Nixon would have been indicted and convicted and there would have been at appeal and there would have been a three- or four-year period ... that issue would be the headline," Ford said in an interview with FOX News a few years ago.
"We had to get that off the front page. The only way to do it was to make a decisive mood, grant pardons, and get on with the business of the country," he continued. "At the time, the public did not generally understand the reasons for the pardon. Time has convinced most people, well over a majority."
Ed Nixon, the former president's brother, told FOX News on Wednesday that it took courage for Ford to do what he did, although that may not have been the only thing that cost him the presidency.
"He's a great man and we really, really miss his honorable life — a wonderful person," Nixon said of Ford.
Calling Ford "a man of wisdom," former Rep. Bill Archer, D-Texas, who served as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said Ford would have won the 1976 presidential election against Jimmy Carter had Ford not pardoned Nixon in September 1974.
"He took us out of Watergate, he brought us out of Watergate, and those were perilous times. The pardon itself was inevitable. It had to be that way and probably most people knew it and agreed with it," said Bruno, who added that the "clumsy" way the pardon was handled was more Ford's downfall than the pardon itself.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.