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Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

Death Takes No Holiday

(Reprinted from the issue of January 11, 2007)

Capitol Bldg, Washington Watch logo for Death Takes No HolidayEveryone 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 following.

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 them.

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?

Read Joe Sobran's columns the day he writes them!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 year?

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Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2007 by The Wanderer,
the National Catholic Weekly founded in 1867
Reprinted with permission

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