Tuesday, January 02, 2007

What's The Story, Morning Glory?

Gerald Ford died. While every man's death diminishes us, we have difficulty finding anything of merit to say about his presidency.

Many otherwise reasonable people claim that his absolute pardon of every crime Nixon committed allowed the nation to "begin healing." That's a metaphor. A nation is an abstract concept; it does not suffer actual wounds. "Freeing slaves" is an accomplishment. "Signing a treaty" is an accomplishment. "Starting a war" is an accomplishment (whether good or bad, it is at least something).

But "facilitating healing" makes sense only if you buy a certain paradigm of nationalism already, to which we do not subscribe. This leaves us with only the act to judge on its own merits - pardoning one of the most grievous abuses of presidential power since, well, recently. Strike that - not just one of the most grievous abuses. He ordered "a full, free, and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed or taken part in during the period from January 20, 1969 through August 9, 1974."

All metaphor about damage to the "national fabric" aside, the criminal trial of a former president would have done some exquisite damage to the papal sanctity in which the office is held. It would have set an excellent precedent and put future presidents on their toes. Instead, we hear a collective sigh of relief from the Old Boys' Club that parades through the Oval Office every four years. Don't worry, guys - no matter how badly you fuck up, the guy behind you can tidy up your spoor.

And for those of you who still buy into the "closing a dark chapter" metaphor, let us ask this: how crooked would Nixon have to be not to deserve a pardon? What if he'd ordered his ministers without portfolio to rob the psychiatrist of the man who released the Pentagon Papers, paid those ministers in campaign funds, ordered those same ministers to wiretap the offices of his political rivals, fired an independent prosecutor rather than cooperate with him in an investigation, and fixed some speeding tickets? Would that be enough? If the most profligate criminal to ever occupy the White House did not merit prosecution, what kind of criminal would?

Also this weekend: the government of Iraq executed a former ally of the United States. The U.S. does not intervene to stop his death, going only so far as to ferry his body some place that it won't be torn apart (Tikrit; apparently he's huge there).

As our man Ioz has noted, the New York Times obituary does not mention once Saddam Hussein's debt to the U.S. during his rise to power or during his struggles against Iran. Why not? Why wouldn't the New York Times remind the world that the U.S. backed this dark horse? Why didn't President Bush mention the long and jovial relationship that his father, President George H.W. Bush, or his former defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, had with the recently deceased?

Because that would mean admitting that the United States had made a mistake. That would be a hard case to make for war: "yes, our last military adventure in Baghdad was a grievous mistake that ended with the installation of a thug who gassed thousands of Kurds. But this time!" The only way to advance the argument for war is to don the mantle of all our past heroes (evoking comparisons to World War II and bombing Berlin) while ignoring all their past mistakes. No reasonable or moral argument can evolve from such evasion, however. Either you take responsibility for the mistakes of your predecessors or you part ways with them and take responsibility for your own decisions. Our current C-in-C wants the best of both worlds.

It's this Orwellian national varnish that makes the deaths of Gerald Ford and Saddam Hussein oddly symmetrical in our minds. Both of them stand as emblems of a nation that sees nothing wrong with "closing dark chapters." What a handy metaphor that evokes! This book troubles us; let us close it. This man wronged us; let us forgive him. This man no longer suits our purposes; let us sit on our hands while he dies.

Can anything good come of the events of this weekend? Perhaps. Pinochet (another U.S. mistake) died in bed, but Hussein was executed by the government of the country he thought he was saving. Maybe this will be a warning to would-be dictators in the Middle East, in Africa, in Asia and South America: the United States giveth; the United States taketh away. If you reach for that precious military aid from Uncle Sam when it comes to executing dissidents or installing your junta, reach with a chary hand.

Second, even among the United States' fighting men, the varnish is starting to peel:
"First it was weapons of mass destruction. Then when there were none, it was that we had to find Saddam. We did that, but then it was that we had to put him on trial," said Spc. Thomas Sheck, 25, of Philadelphia, who is on his second tour in Iraq. "So now, what will be the next story they tell us to keep us over here?"


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