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.