Thursday, December 28, 2006

Dead Presidents

Upon learning of the death of Gerald Ford, my first thought was to recall the immortal words of Dorothy Parker when she heard that Calvin Coolidge had died: "How could they tell?" The reason for this of course -- as much as I'm loathe to admit it -- is that like so many in this country, I've willingly allowed myself to fall victim to what's become the accepted political paradigm these days, namely that our elected officials must, first and foremost, possess the kind of instantly identifiable charisma that would convince myself and millions of others to walk across hot coals should they deem it necessary. If there are any lingering doubts as to the truth of this statement, it would take nothing more than a quick scan of the cable news networks or a brief flip through any magazine from People to U.S. News and World Report -- both enablers of the somewhat manufactured phenomenon known as "Obamamania" -- to put them soundly to rest. Like most of my generation, I was vaguely aware of Ford acting as the final punctuation -- certainly a period more than an exclamation point -- to a tumultuous time I barely remember; aside from that he represented little more to me than the man who unwittingly kick-started the tragic and unnecessary career of Chevy Chase, and who ruined my childhood one hour at a time by consistently scheduling his tedious news conferences during Space:1999.

Even two attempts on Ford's life seemed to fall strangely under the radar when juxtaposed against both the chaotic and bitterly divisive era which preceded his short presidency, and the economic tempest and overwhelming crisis of American morale which followed it.

Gerald Ford, as far as many of my generation were concerned, amounted to little more than a footnote in the history books.

And yet I've never been more heartbroken at the death of a former president.

There's an undeniably wretched irony to the fact that a man of such quiet dignity, a man for whom politics was more about the unassuming valor of public service than it was about the swaggering bluster of personal ascendancy, has left us during this particular time in our nation's history. To lose Gerald Ford now seems less like the death of one man than it does the sad and unfortunate end of an era in American politics -- a time when not all leaders felt as if they also had to be celebrities. Ford never asked for the presidency, but he accepted it and made a series of difficult decisions which he knew at the time would more than likely cost him a full term in office. His goal was to heal a nation divided by war, political corruption, and overwhelming distrust of those in power.

Yesterday, from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, President Bush touted Ford's "honorable conduct" and integrity, as well as his role in restoring confidence in the presidency, saying, "For a nation that needed healing and an office that needed a calm and steady hand, (he) came along when we needed him most."

Once again, there is enough irony in that simple statement -- particularly in the fact that it's being issued by a man like George W. Bush -- to sink a fleet of battleships. You don't have to be politically astute to understand that in a perfect world, Bush would be applying that same description to his own successor. America's next president will be saddled with the gargantuan task of healing the wounds, bridging the divisions, and cleaning up the messes created by this administration -- one, which may be about to get infinitely worse with the death of another president.

Half-a-world away from Rancho Mirage, California -- where Gerald Ford took his last breath -- deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein awaits execution, which could quite literally come at any moment. Less than twenty-four hours before President Bush expressed condolences at the death of Gerald Ford, he expressed smug satisfaction at word that Saddam Hussein would be going to the gallows. The reaction was somewhat expected when you consider the seemingly bottomless reservoir of will that Bush possessed to put people to death during his tenure as Texas governor; it is thoroughly expected when you consider the depth of self-delusion he possesses when it comes to his understanding of cause and effect on the streets of Iraq. The fact that the trial of Saddam Hussein was looked upon by Iraq's constantly-evolving insurgency as nothing more than the underhanded work of an American proxy is unfortunate; the fact that his execution will almost certainly fuel further violence against U.S. servicemen and women -- turning them into moving targets wherever they stand, sit or sleep -- is deplorable. If one soldier dies as a direct result of Saddam's execution, simply as a matter of numbers, it will not have been worth it.

Make no mistake, few sane people would mourn the death of Saddam Hussein; I count myself among them. There are almost none more deserving of being dragged kicking and screaming to the gallows, then having their bodies dumped in the street. However, in a region where a shockingly primitive level of barabarism is not only accepted but encouraged -- one that has at times left the civilized world awe-struck by its staggering brutality (think Daniel Pearl and Nick Berg) -- is it really wise for our president to not only voice his approval for such bloodlust, but to do it at the potential cost of American lives?

As it turns out, Gerald Ford would've said no. That's because as it turns out, Gerald Ford was against Bush's folly in Iraq from the very beginning. The man who once made it his responsibility to heal the nation, understood that the simplest way to do that was to never break it apart in the first place.

Very soon, former President Ford will be laid to rest, and America will mourn and remember him with great ceremony and fanfare.

Very soon, former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein will be laid to rest, and how Iraq will mourn and remember him is anyone's guess -- but with American kids in the line of fire, that's exactly the problem.


TK said...

Wonderfully astute comments. And you are correct - I can think of no other president who has succeeded in dividing the country as much as Bush 2.0 has. It is both terrifying and depressing. There has always been a rift between conservatives and liberals, but now more than ever, those sides have gone from adversarial and combative to seething with hatred for each other. And that is thanks to our President.

Ford, for all his apparent dullness, appears to have condemned Bush and this madness. It's a sad time when we look to a dead man from our past for guidance, instead of having a leader in the present who can take us to a peaceful future.

On a more serious note - I will not stand for your ripping of Chevy Chase. The man is guilty of some heinous film and television, but he also brought us Caddyshack, Vacation, The Three Amigos, and Fletch. For those things alone I am willing to forgive him. Look deep into your heart, Chez, and forgive his faults and be grateful for his few gifts. ;-)

Chez said...

You're absolutely right about both Caddyshack, and Fletch in particular. I'm not sure I can come up with anything else he's been in that's forgiveable however -- Funny Farm or Modern Problems anyone?

Chez said...

Side note: a couple of people posted comments which for some reason known only to blogger disappeared when I attempted to publish them. Sorry. Feel free to write again.

Schwa Love said...

In some ways, I'm an old-fashioned traditionalist. While driving yesterday, I got pissed off that I passed no USAian flags at half-mast.

I mentioned this to my wife and she said she saw one. It was at Carl's Jr., but you do what you can I suppose.

slouchmonkey said...

As Votar said, "James Brown must be pissed!"

I too don't remember much about Ford except for what you stated. In addition, I read he was a helluva football player.

Sad thing is, once a president dies, everyone hops on his presidential hearse bandwagon. I really hope Bush doesn't receive the same reception. But, I'm sure he will. Cue Rage Against the Machine, "WAKE UP!"

TK said...

Well, instead of pulling out of the war or working to unify the country, we're getting a national day of mourning on Tuesday. Somehow I get the feeling that GF would rather have the government go to work that day, and make some strides towards repairing this travesty that has become our national political system. But hey, leave it to Bush 2.0 to come up with an excuse to take a day off.

Incidentally, I work for the government. And I don't get Tuesday off. Balls.

Nancy, Near Philadelphia said...

Geez, Chez, you've nailed it. I tried to blog about this juxtaposition earlier today, but -- as usual -- you've articulated it far better than my efforts. Bravo.

Peter L. Winkler said...

It is, I believe, H. L. Mencken who said "How do they know" upon hearing that Coolidge died.

Mencken also wrote "He had no ideas, but was not a nuisance."

Ford was inconsequential, a place marker between Nixon and Carter. His inaction comes off looking good now because we see in George W. Bush the results of an activist president whose terrible policies have been ratified by a compliant Congress and until recently, supported by about half the nation.

Considered on his own, I don't think Ford was a good president or, as Tim Russert said today, a noble man. For more on this, visit my blog and read the linked articles by Christopher Hitchens and RJ Eskow.

Chez said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chez said...

First of all, as much as I love and admire Mencken, that particular quote has always been attributed to Dorothy Parker, but as neither you nor I were actually there -- we'll never know for sure. That tends to happen quite a bit.

Secondly, Hitchens is a goddamned idiot.