Death Takes No Holiday

     Everyone died this week. That's how it seemed to me, 
anyway. No doubt my feeling was largely personal: Cancer 
had just taken my oldest friend, though not before he had 
become a Catholic. Despite this great consolation, I feel 
his loss very deeply, and was in a morbid state of mind 
when the deaths of three famous men dominated the news of 
the last week of 2006.

     First, on Christmas Day, came the news that soul 
singer James Brown had passed away. Though I have enjoyed 
a number of soul singers (who can resist Smokey Robinson, 
for one?), I must say that Brown's appeal was lost on me, 
and had been ever since I first heard of him 40 years 
ago. I was startled at the intensity and grief of his 

     Journalism, of course, thrives on celebrity deaths. 
They afford great opportunities for eulogies, nostalgia, 
and final judgment. We usually set aside the ugliness of 
death, except when (as in Lady Diana's case) it comes 
suddenly and violently, and indulge in warm remembrance. 
And one of the nicest things about human nature is that 
we really do love to praise. In that respect, at least, 
death can be an occasion of happiness.

     Last year also saw the deaths of two beautiful 
actresses, each best known for a single haunting 
performance in a classic film. Alida Valli will always be 
remembered as Orson Welles's enigmatic lover in THE THIRD 
MAN; Moira Shearer as the ballerina in the magical, 
tragic THE RED SHOES. My heart aches a little for both of 

A Ford, Not a Lincoln

     Overshadowing James Brown's demise were the 
expiration of Gerald Ford, which called forth generous 
eulogies, and the execution of Saddam Hussein, which 
didn't. The tributes to Ford, focusing on the Nixon 
pardon, all seemed to use the same words: "Midwestern," 
"decent," "healing," "integrity," and so forth. It got a 
little cloying.

     They also quoted his famously modest 
self-depreciation: "I'm a Ford, not a Lincoln." That was 
the best thing about him. As a loyal Republican, he took 
it for granted that the first Republican president set 
the standard for political greatness. Actually, this 
country would be much better off with more Fords and 
fewer Lincolns. Ford took a refreshingly unheroic 
approach to the presidency: his role was to be an 
executive, not a messiah. Everyone agreed that he was not 
a "great" president, for which we can only thank Heaven. 
Presidents aren't supposed to be "great." Those who earn 
that epithet do so by usurping power.

     To put it another way, Ford never tried to expand 
the powers of the office beyond their constitutional 
dimensions. It wasn't his fault that those powers had 
already become bloated by the time he supplanted Richard 
Nixon. He remained a congressman at heart, uneasy with 
monarchical pretensions and devoid of grand ambitions. If 
the presidency had been confined to its original 
limitations, he would have left it that way.

     At the same time, having no real grasp of the 
Constitution, Ford did nothing to correct the situation 
he inherited from his predecessors. He accepted the 
status quo uncritically; the moral and social horror of 
Roe v. Wade, for example, was lost on him. He accepted 
it as a legitimate and proper exercise of judicial 
authority, and seemed irritated by those who were 
outraged by it.

     This obtuseness put Ford out of touch with the 
legions, Republican and otherwise, whom the dynamic 
Ronald Reagan knew how to reach. Ford was never able to 
take command of his own party; he expected the old 
politics to continue as before just when everything was 
changing, and in 1980 he was saying he heard "voices" 
telling him that Reagan couldn't win the presidency. In 
his mind, Reagan was just too "extreme." At his worst, 
Ford was a piece of political driftwood, content to go 
along with things as they were. As far as he was 
concerned, there was nothing really wrong with what 
liberalism had done to the country; he was a 
"well-adjusted" Republican, the kind liberals like -- as 
witness all those eulogies this week.

     Ford was what might be called an unprincipled 
conservative, one who seldom thought any principle worth 
fighting for and was always willing to split differences 
with liberals, unaware that he might be conceding 
anything essential. He was too completely political to 
satisfy anyone.

     In a way, he was much more like Bush the Father than 
Bush the Son. It came as no surprise when, shortly after 
his death, it was revealed that in a 2004 interview with 
Bob Woodward he had criticized the invasion of Iraq and 
its doctrinaire rationale, even though he had originally 
supported it. If Ford were seeking his second term today, 
he'd probably be a shoo-in.

The End of Saddam

     What do you do with a tyrant as horrible as Saddam 
Hussein? I suppose it depends on who "you" are. Hanging 
may seem a mild punishment for his crimes; but was it the 
place of the United States to overthrow him and ensure 
his death?

     I wish I knew how to answer this. Iraqis have no 
consensus at all about it. Shi'ites and Kurds are glad he 
is dead; Sunnis, not only in Iraq but throughout the Arab 
world, see his execution as victors' justice. So the net 
result will be more discord and bitterness against the 
American invaders, rather than the hoped-for "closure" of 
final justice.

     The invasion has created problems without solutions, 
for us and for the Iraqis who were supposed to benefit 
from it. Even those Iraqis who hated Saddam must agree 
that life under democracy, if that's what it is, is not 
altogether an improvement. It must be dizzying to find 
the man who had kept them in awe and terror for a 
generation so abruptly removed from the scene. No wonder 
the new government has no purchase on their lives.

     Even the Bush administration has abandoned -- and 
all but forgotten -- its own claim that Saddam had 
weapons of mass destruction that threatened the world. 
Remember the mushroom cloud? Politics is like a 
nightmare, with little continuity or coherence.

     Meanwhile, as the American death toll tops 3,000 in 
Iraq, Bob Novak reports that only a dozen of the Senate's 
49 Republicans favor sending more American troops. Polls 
show public support for the war sinking to abysmal 
levels. Does John McCain really think his diehard 
hawkishness is going to help him win the presidency next 

                 +          +          +                  

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                                        --- Joseph Sobran


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