Carter praises 'distinguished opponent' Ford at funeral

Thousands of mourners waved flags as a motorcade carried the body of former U.S. president Gerald R. Ford through his hometown, before Jimmy Carter gave an emotional tribute at the final funeral service.

Thousands of mourners waved flags as a motorcade carried the body of former U.S. president Gerald R. Ford through his hometown, before Jimmy Carter gave an emotional tribute at the final funeral service.

The service took place at the Grace Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids, Mich. — the same parish where the Fords wed in 1948. It ended six official days of mourning for the 38th president of the United States, who died last week in California at the age of 93.

An honour guard carried the late president's casket inside the church. Ford's widow, Betty, wiped away tears as she sat with their four children and more than 300 dignitaries and family friends.

Former president Jimmy Carter, who defeated Ford in the presidential election in 1976 but later became a close friend, sat in a front pew, flanked by Vice-President Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who resigned as defence secretary in November. Rumsfeld had also served as Ford's defence secretary and as his chief of staff.

In his emotional farewell, Carter spoke about the tightly contested race between the political rivals, referring to Ford as "my distinguished opponent" as he did back in 1976.

Carter told of the personal bond the two men shared and the times they swapped advice.

"He and I commented often that when we travelled together, we hated to reach our destination because we enjoyed our private times," he said.

Carter held back tears as he closed his eulogy, repeating the very words he used almost exactly 30 years earlier upon defeating Ford.

"For myself and for our nation," he said, his voice breaking, "I want to thank my predecessor for all he did to heal our land."

After the service, Ford was to be interred in a private ceremony on the grounds of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in downtown Grand Rapids, overlooking the Grand River.

Public waits hours to file past casket

Earlier in the day, tens of thousands of ordinary people — some dressed formally, others in sweatshirts from Gerald R. Ford's alma mater, the University of Michigan — said their final farewells as they filed by the casket at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids.

Braving temperatures near freezing, some waited for as long as six hours to pay their tributes to a family man who upheld his small-town virtues while guiding the nation through a time of political crisis in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.

One police officer estimated that 70,000 came to the viewing.