The body of former President Gerald R. Ford was taken from a church where thousands of mourners had paid their final respects to a nearby airport Saturday for the flight to Washington and ceremonies at the nation's Capitol.
Following 13 hours of public viewing that ended just as the sun rose in this desert community where Ford and his wife, Betty, settled nearly 30 years ago, the casket was removed from St. Margaret's Episcopal Church during an elegant departure ceremony.
After a military band played "Hail to the Chief," the casket was loaded into a hearse and 88-year-old Betty Ford, wearing black, and the couple's four children left in a motorcade for Palm Springs International Airport. A Boeing 747 from the presidential fleet was to take them to Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, and then the Capitol.
Two services were planned in Washington, and Ford was to be buried on Jan. 3 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he spent most of his boyhood and practiced law.
During the night, thousands of people had filed solemnly past the casket, paying silent tribute to the leader whose understated manner was a salve for a nation racked by the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal.
In his weekly radio address Saturday, President George W. Bush eulogized Ford as a "courageous leader, a true gentleman and a loving father and husband."
"Gerald Ford never lost the spirit that Americans grew to admire so much," Bush said, recalling his last visit with Ford last April in Rancho Mirage.
"At age 92, and battling health problems, he was still telling jokes and displaying the optimism that helped guide our nation through some of its darkest hours," Bush said.
Continuing into the wee hours of Saturday morning, buses had taken people to the church from a gathering point five miles (eight kilometers) away. Mourners ranging from children to the elderly walked through quickly and then reboarded their buses _ a process taking less than two minutes.
"It's so moving, especially with someone like Ford, who had such an important place in history," said Michelle Dhami, who came with her two young children.
Ford died Tuesday at age 93. He became president when Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 amid the Watergate scandal, but was defeated by Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election.
He was a Republican congressman from Michigan when Nixon named him vice president after Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973.
Ford's pardon of Nixon not long after taking office sparked intense criticism, but with time many Americans have come to see Ford's decision as courageous and one that helped heal a nation fatigued from the Vietnam War and Watergate. Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment after an investigation uncovered evidence of a White House coverup of a burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate apartment complex.
Six days of national mourning for Ford began Friday with military honors and a simple family prayer service at St. Margaret's, where the Ford family has worshipped for 30 years.
The private family service was followed by a visitation for invited friends, including former Secretary of State George Shultz, former New York Congressman Jack Kemp and former California Gov. Pete Wilson.
No official count was kept of the mourners taken to the church, but buses carrying about 50 people per trip came and went steadily. The trip took about three hours by late Friday.
"It's such a historical event, especially to see this in your own town," said Jeanine Lee, 60. "This is really the end of an era. Nixon is gone. Sinatra is gone. Bob Hope. And now Ford."
Associated Press Writers Allison Hoffman and Brooke Donald in Palm Desert and Laurie Kellman in Washington, D.C. contributed to this report.
On the Net: