by Scott Hoezee
In a lecture delivered in the late 1980s, novelist Tom Wolfe noted that the surreal and outrageous nature of ever yday events in the modern world are often so unlikely, no novelist would get away with it if he/she concocted them in a stor yline. The writer’s imagination, Wolfe said, can no longer compete with reality’s bracing litany of odd coincidences.
Just such a perplexing series of events rounded out the year 2006. Any one of these events would be noteworthy in and of itself. Taken together, they represent an arresting confluence. Within the span of about three days’ time in late-December, President Gerald R. Ford died as did the 3,000th soldier in Iraq and the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. For the most part, it was news of Ford’s death that dominated the media as 2006 turned into 2007. Most particularly, Ford’s pardon of his shamed predecessor, Richard Nixon, was perhaps the most common subject discussed in the wake of the 38th President’s death.
Most pundits and historians agreed that although the pardon created a white-hot political firestorm at the time in September of 1974–and although Ford paid a politically fatal price for this action–it was the right thing to do to spare the nation a trauma that would likely have dribbled out for months, perhaps even years.Ford later claimed that he took the action because the Nixon matter was consuming at least a quarter of his presidential energies. Here he was the president of hundreds of millions of people in a nation that was bogged down in a hopeless war and battling a bevy of economic and social woes. One man was not worth all that trouble, Ford concluded, and so he put the matter aside once and for all.
At the same time that this historical moment in the Ford presidency was being revisited, the one man who once upon a time was a Bush administration obsession was hanged ignominiously in a raucous execution so tawdry, even President Bush told 60 Minutes in early January that he found it distressing to see how poorly the Iraqis handled it. But by the time Saddam was put to death–and who can deny that the man was sufficiently barbaric as to deser ve the extremes of justice–there was a palpable sense that it didn’t matter. The old dictator could still be in his spider hole and it would not change the carnage on the ground in Iraq–a carnage that made the year 2006 run red with the blood of tens of thousands of Iraqi men, women, and children (the U.N. estimates 34,000 died in 2006). Thousands more American troops were left maimed for life even as 824 U.S. soldiers died, pushing the total to over 3,000.
History will parse the whys and wherefores that led to the invasion of Iraq four years ago. But already now it is clear that lurking just behind all the hype about WMD, ties to A l Qaeda, and shadowy links to 9/11 was fundamentally an obsession with one man: Saddam Hussein. True, left completely unchecked and unwatched, Hussein could have become a dangerous figure on the world stage. But because of sanctions and due diligence, Hussein was not dangerous. He was, if anything, a little loopy and filled with delusions of grandeur but he was in no position to plot a 9/11 or drop anything other than a wobbly old scud on anyone’s head.
But he represented unfinished business to some in the administration. He was “the guy who tried to kill my Dad,” the president said in a speech. And so despite his complete lack of connection to 9/11, less than a year after our American tragedy on that Tuesday in September, all the focus was on Saddam Hussein. But as Gerald Ford once knew, when one person (however malicious) comes to dominate the attention of an entire government, bad things are likely to follow. How differently the history of the past four years would have been had a more level-headed approach been taken to Hussein that bore at least some resemblance to Ford’s approach to Nixon.
As it stands, Mr. Ford died at almost precisely the same time as our 3,000th soldier and Saddam Hussein himself. A day after the president announced a “surge” of 21,000 additional troops into Iraq, 60 Minutes reporter Scott Pelley asked Mr. Bush if he felt he owed the Iraqi people an apology. The president flatly said no. “We liberated them,” he said. But in a nation that is seeing violence and death on a scale unprecedented in its history and where electricity flows perhaps 6-8 hours a day and young children are blown up in the market while looking for a juicy kiwi to eat for lunch, from precisely what is it that we “liberated” them? From Saddam Hussein; from the one man whose removal has now cost the lives of twenty or thirty times the number of people who died on September 11, 2001.
Gerald Ford was hailed for many things upon his death, including integrity, decency, and a self-effacing humility. Reflecting back on his single most controversial act, we see Mr. Ford possessed something else sorely lacking in our leadership in recent years: wisdom.