The Reactionary Utopian
                     January 4, 2007

by Joe Sobran

     What a contrast between the quiet passing of a 
former president here and the embittered execution of one 
in Iraq. The hanging of Saddam Hussein, hardly 
undeserved, degenerated into something like a sectarian 
lynching, aggravating anger at the invaders rather than 
giving the satisfaction of condign justice. It made one 
grateful to live under some semblance, however imperfect, 
of the rule of law.

     The obsequies for Gerald Ford have finally ended, 
and I must say I found them more moving than I expected 
to, especially the sight of his poor widow, looking so 
much more frail than I remembered her. Such a terrible 
loss to endure so late in life! But that is the price of 
such an enduring love at its inevitable end. One aches to 
console her, if there were any way.

     Ford was not a "great" president, but presidents 
aren't supposed to be "great." Their constitutional duty 
is modest: to see that the laws are faithfully executed. 
This Ford tried to do without heroics or hubris or the 
grandiloquent rhetoric now attached to the office.

     C.S. Lewis remarked that politicians are now called 
"leaders" rather than "rulers," and that this verbal 
change reflects a modern change in political philosophy. 
A "ruler," in the old days, was expected to be wise and 
just; a "leader" is expected to be dynamic, magnetic, 
exciting. Ford never saw it as his role to agitate or 
inspire; and that, in a way, is why we remember his brief 
presidency so fondly. What seemed a deficiency at the 
time -- his dullness -- now seems a relief from the 
turmoil of the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon years.

     The eulogies spoke of Ford as healing and 
reconciling. They may have exaggerated his virtues, but 
you can hardly doubt that they expressed a yearning for 
surcease from the excesses of the incumbent. It came as 
no surprise to learn that he had been skeptical of 
George W. Bush's chiliastic enthusiasm for democratizing 
the world through warfare. You can't even imagine Jerry 
Ford getting us into the current mess in the Middle East.

     During his presidency his conservative critics 
complained that Ford lacked principle, that he was too 
ready to compromise; and they had a point. He was, in 
fact, suspicious of principle, which he tended to see as 
"extreme." In 1980 he was warning his fellow Republicans 
that Ronald Reagan "can't win" against Jimmy Carter. That 
was Ford, always playing it safe. But we have now seen 
what a more adventurous spirit can lead to.

     It's easy to forget how turbulent the Ford years 
actually were. The Vietnam war was coming to an 
ignominious end, and racial and abortion politics were 
starting (or intensifying) party realignment. The turmoil 
of the Sixties, a distant memory now, hadn't really ended 
yet. But we remember Ford as an almost apolitical figure, 
as Eisenhower once seemed to be -- though Ike had come to 
politics late in life, and Ford had made a career of it.

     The current rage for Barack Obama -- I think it will 
be brief -- is, like earlier frenzies for Ross Perot and 
Colin Powell, due to the same yearning for a wise ruler 
who is above politics. Maybe what people really want is 
not democracy, but royalty -- a symbolic monarch. It may 
be part of Ford's appeal that he was never elected to the 
presidency and never appeared to aspire to it.

     Curiously, or ironically, Dick Cheney and Donald 
Rumsfeld, who served under both Ford and Bush, have 
emerged as apostles of executive power, feeling that the 
presidency was crippled by post-Watergate reforms. Ford 
himself never chafed at the limits of the office. In that 
respect he was a throwback to an older, truer 
conservatism, suspicious of concentrating power in the 
executive branch and in favor of dispersing it. He was 
old enough to recall Franklin Roosevelt's Caesarism, 
which conservatives adopted when it began to suit them -- 
that is, when Republicans found it easier to win the 
White House than Capitol Hill.

     One word we seldom heard during Ford's presidency 
was "historic." He was blessedly free from hype, sticking 
to precedent and routine. In retrospect, even his 
ordinariness seems almost a rare and precious quality, 
especially when you compare him with the current crop of 
Republican presidential hopefuls.


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