In many ways the last weekend of 2006 became the tale of two funerals. Funerals for two men of backgrounds that appear similar on the surface. One a child of adoption, the other the son of a poor farmer. In truth there were no such similarities…except that they were both leaders of large and powerful nations, and neither was ever elected by the populace. Their stories highlight what is perhaps the most telling difference between the world of liberal democracies and the world of tyrants.
Saddam Hussein, the iron-fisted ruler of Iraq for twenty some years, came to power during an uprising that firmly placed a minority religious sect in control over the majority. The Baath party was not a party in the way we think of political parties—it was a mafia whose detractors often wound up missing, their families never knowing their true fate. In a particularly disturbing video of a meeting of important members of the party and with Hussein presiding, several members, visibly terrified at what was surely to come, were escorted out of the room by armed guards. There was no doubt these men were already dead. It tempers the human sympathy following press reports of the taunts thrown at him by Shiites at his execution. In the end it would be his repression of an uprising and threat on his life that would finally lead him to his ultimate fate. He systematically murdered over one hundred Shiite men to send the message that tangling with Saddam meant death. While certainly a crime that made him more accomplished, though no greater, than any other serial killer, his transgressions were in fact an order of magnitude larger.
An Arab, he began a war against the Persians of Iran in 1980 only a year after seizing power from the man he served as vice president. The war of attrition lasted 8 years and cost hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides. Some estimates put Iranian casualties alone at over a million. During this brutal war Saddam used chemical and biological weapons against Iranian troops and civilians. Years later after invading Kuwait amidst claims the Kuwaitis were tapping Iraqi oil reserves, he would accuse the U.S. of indiscriminately killing Iraqi civilians while CNN played video of precision weapons hitting exactly where they were aimed. Then when Kurds in northern Iraq followed Bush administration urgings (without the will or means to back them up) and sought to overthrow Hussein following the cessation of hostilities, Saddam used the same weapons he used on Iran to gas civilian populations in the loosely controlled Kurdish territory. He was given a trial, sentenced to death, and hung in the early hours as Sunnis prepared to celebrate Eid and much of the world geared up for the new year.
His funeral was done within twenty-four hours of his death in his home town and was attended by family and loyal followers. His wooden casket was draped with an Iraqi flag, and even before widespread word leaked out about the taunts he faced on the gallows from those who condemned him, funeral goers were threatening revenge against their countrymen of a differing faith. Though Biblical, it is fitting to recall that those who live by the sword will surely perish by it. And unfortunately it is simply a fact of the human condition in the darker parts of the world that those who grow accustomed to the rattle of the saber and the clash of armor can seem to find no way to doff the implements of war and step onto a brighter path.
On the other side of the world and in a nation whose own press relishes in reporting about its divisiveness, a man who stitched together one of the greatest Constitutional wounds in U.S. history was at long last passing into the pages of history. Gerald R. Ford was the longest living president, but he also served one of the shortest terms—just over 29 months. Only four presidents served less time. All of them died in office, two at the hands of assassins. One of five presidents never elected to the office, he was the only one who received no votes for either of the top two offices of the executive branch. And though there were two attempts on his life, he died quietly at his home surrounded by family.
It is possibly too early to say what his true legacy will be. Presidential legacies are contrived too soon while building libraries and museums in time to cut their own opening ribbons. Their legacies are sometimes built too late by historians with more pressing matters while certain policies continue to be played out. President Ford will certainly be remembered for his decision to pardon his predecessor, too early some thought. That is probably about as divisive as American politics ever really gets…but such mole hills can be made into mountains by partisans and the media they feed and feed from. Ford pardoned a man who did the most vile things any sitting president had ever done or been accused of—he had his minions break into a hotel and steal information on political opponents. Then he covered it up. Saddam’s opponents should have been so lucky. Still he had broken laws and abused executive power, and the electorate would and could not stand for it. Nixon resigned in disgrace claiming not to be a crook, and though he then wrote extensively on foreign affairs from the position of having seen it from the pinnacle, he will never escape history’s remembrance of him for that thing he claimed not to be.
Gerald Ford, the man many in the highest seats of power called “Jerry,” came in off the bench with a war going south, inflation on the rise, and a Constitutional succession to claim in order to reaffirm the fine and lasting legacy of that great document. By most counts he calmed a nation, handled the crushing loss of a reasonably free ally due to congressional refusal to keep a promise, and with a Midwestern practicality, attempted to guide the enormous ship of state that is the U.S. government. His fateful pardon decision, one that will likely be judged as a decision that rightly placed the good of the nation before personal or political gain, probably cost him re-election and gave him his unitary standing among U.S. presidents.
In solemn celebration of a duty well and faithfully executed, a grateful nation paid its respects to a departed leader in venues that spanned a continent and touched two placid oceans. In the nation’s capitol, crowds of all faiths peacefully queued to view a flag-draped casket, perhaps pausing to offer prayers to a number of deities or approach the same one from several different viewpoints. At a funeral in a magnificent cathedral attended by family, friends and political adversaries alike, a former secretary of state, a sitting and former president, and perhaps the most respected member of a free press eulogized a husband, father, grandfather, former member of Congress, and President of the United States of America. He is being laid to final rest as I write this having been further honored by a former defense secretary and the man who defeated him in his only run at the nation’s highest office. A former president, one-time adversary, and lasting friend could only haltingly finish his eulogy with the first words of his inaugural address thirty years ago—a quiet thank you that somehow seemed far more heartfelt on this day than the last. A band played “Hail to the Chief,” and military jets performed a time-honored “missing-man” formation as a bugler slowly measured out the truly haunting notes of “Taps.”
There is a stark difference between last ceremonies for deposed dictators and even un-elected leaders of democracies. If the passing and final respects for chiefs of state could ever be any relevant measure of the legitimacy of a theory of governance, students need look no further than the events that ended the year two thousand six. We are certainly subscribers to, as Sir Winston Churchill said, the worst form of government…except all the others. Rest in peace, Mr. President. Your nation thanks you.
3 Jan 2007