Wednesday, January 03, 2007
A Time for Everything
FUNERALS. Let no one mistake me on this point. I never had the least doubt that Gerald R. Ford was a good man. I was moved by the Episcopal service at the National Cathedral, as well as the eulogies and the gorgeous music, including the Navy Hymn and Denyce Graves's extraordinary rendition of The Lord's prayer. President Ford deserved the public contrition he received regarding the Nixon pardon, and it was fitting that Nancy Reagan should be there, and Jimmy Carter, and Rosalynn, and Bob Woodward, and others who benefitted, directly or indirectly, from Ford's preference for statesmanship over politics. The press coverage was decent, the occasion suitably solemn, and the public response gratifying.
It's just that I was struck by all that was left unsaid, particularly about the ironic coincidence of a lavish Ford commemoration at this precise moment in time.
Why ironic? All the eulogies focused on Ford's brief presidency, largely ignoring the fact that he served as House Minority Leader for many years when the Republican Party was not just a minority in the U.S. Congress, but a woefully impotent minority almost invariably crushed by the ruthless, veto-proof majority enjoyed by the Great Society Democrats of Lyndon Johnson. In this context, Ford's renowned affability was a political necessity, an accident of history that perpetuated his career during the "long national nightmare" of post-FDR Democratic dominance in American politics. Nixon had momentarily threatened Democratic domination: LBJ knowingly fought a war he never believed he could win and spent the nation into a state of unprecedented deficits and inflation. Destroyed by his own failure, Johnson refused to run for the second term he was entitled to seek. In response, the Democrat Party imploded, nominating for the presidency first the vice-president who was obviously complicit in the twofold Vietnam/fiscal disaster and then an absurd candidate who ran on the notion that a world continuously threatened by Soviet domination would be better off with an American government committed to pacifism at all costs. McGovern was rejected by a landslide. Nixon was offered a renewed opportunity to run a gridlocked government capable of acting almost unilaterally in foreign policy matters while restricted to policy-making by veto on domestic matters.
Then Nixon was brought down by a combination of his own paranoia and mass media vindictiveness. (I'm not going to argue the case for media bias except to note that the press could have -- at virtually any time -- finished off JFK for sex and drug offenses and LBJ for manifold, blatant acts of financial and political corruption; they simply chose not to.)
Gerald Ford, the man compelled by his own life's history to become an expert at playing a losing hand, fell into the role of designated sacrifical lamb -- and in some ways the ideal figurehead -- to placate the brand-new overwhelming Democratic majority which took over the U.S. Congress in the wake of Watergate. His one real transgression in this respect was the Nixon pardon.
It takes some digging to uncover the congressional background which accounted for most of Ford's political life and which received so little attention in his funeral coverage, but here's a taste (courtesy of Dana Blankenhorn) recounted by Peggy Noonan back in May 2006:
What did the Republicans do all those days, from the 1930s through the '70s? They griped and wrung their hands and were alarmed. "This irresponsible spending and taxing will do us in," "You're taxing the genius and incentive right out of the economy!" Journalists heard it once a week every week Congress was in session in the 1950s and '60s, from Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen and House Minority Leader Gerald Ford. It was called the Ev and Jerry show. They banged away on high spending, high taxing, the unbalanced budget. "A million here, a million there and pretty soon you're talking real money," Dirksen famously said, and it was funny at the time because a million dollars was a lot of money.
This is what Gerald Ford's long career had trained him for. He vetoed 66 bills of the U.S. Congress, mostly for spending excesses, and was sustained in all but 12. But he was powerless to stop, or even articulate, the calamitous treachery of Congress's termination of funding for the South Vietnamese military defense against the Communist North Vietnamese. (You can't veto a refusal to pass a funding bill.) This was the instance in which his famous affability was a disastrous liability. The long ridiculed "domino argument" proved itself true during Ford's presidency, costing the lives of more than a million Cambodians and perhaps half as many of our Vietnamese allies.
That's real blood on American hands, and all of Gerald Ford's much lauded decency, fairness, and nonpartisanship couldn't -- or didn't -- prevent it.
I'm amazed at the silence during the past week about the striking parallels between the time of Ford's presidency and our own: the election of a fiercely vindictive Democratic Congress during a period of inflamed emotion over foreign policy, while a Republican president is rendered weak by charges of corruption and failure within the ranks of his own party. Was all the praise we heard for Gerald Ford a subliminal suggestion that his was truly the most virtuous course -- bending to the irrational tide of reaction and denial?
Even the current President Bush seemed to be swept up in the desire to worship the spotless nonpartisanship of Gerald Ford. Or was George W. Bush a captive in this circumstance of his own native decency? There were times during some of the eulogies offered at the National Cathedral when I thought I saw the old steel in his his eyes, perhaps because of something being intimated from the pulpit...
Perhaps Tom Brokaw, or some of the old "realists" in the Ford funeral congregation, are looking forward to another costly lapse in American principles about loyalty, but I'm not yet convinced that's true of the President of the United States.
But I am concerned about his penchant for decency. Sometimes, it can lead you astray. I've written before about Gerald Ford's great senatorial counterpart in the Democrat-dominated Congress of the 1960s. I invoked him when the Democrats were threatening to filibuster Republican judicial candidates. I said:
[T]he U.S. Senate is staggering ever closer to a showdown between spineless Republicans and ruthless Democrats on the question of whether Senate rules should allow the use of f****u**ers in the 'advise and consent' process for judicial nominees. Because of this, InstaPunk has felt the call of his political conscience: he must, somehow, weigh in on a matter that is as crucial as it is potentially fatal to reader interest.
So here are my thoughts. WAKE UP! (Not trying to be rude, just to postpone the inevitable...) The Republicans act as if what they do now will affect what Democrats do when they regain the White House and/or control of the Congress. It won't. As soon as the Democrats regain the presidency and congressional control, they will do everything they can think of, bar nothing, to humiliate, castrate, and otherwise destroy the Republican minority, regardless of any temporizing the Republicans engage in now. Why? Because while the congressional Republicans were majoring in agriculture and religion at cow colleges in the Red states, the congressional Democrats were studying "The Prince" at Yale and Harvard.
Today we have President Bush's attempt at outreach to the newly Democrat-controlled Congress. His attempt at compromise is already being mocked by reports of what Speaker Pelosi intends to accomplish during the "First Hundred Hours." Recent reports suggest the Democrats are planning to run roughshod over any Republican attempts to modify legislation passed during those first hundred hours (i.e., three weeks in human time).
As they prepare to take control of Congress this week and face up to campaign pledges to restore bipartisanship and openness, Democrats are planning to largely sideline Republicans from the first burst of lawmaking.
House Democrats intend to pass a raft of popular measures as part of their well-publicized plan for the first 100 hours. They include tightening ethics rules for lawmakers, raising the minimum wage, allowing more research on stem cells and cutting interest rates on student loans.
But instead of allowing Republicans to fully participate in deliberations, as promised after the Democratic victory in the Nov. 7 midterm elections, Democrats now say they will use House rules to prevent the opposition from offering alternative measures, assuring speedy passage of the bills and allowing their party to trumpet early victories.
What are we to make, then, of all the recent praise of Gerald Ford's nonpartisanship? Is this simply a convenient opportunity to fool Republicans yet again by appealing to their civility? Is it a sly restatement of the fundamental Democrat principle that nonpartisanship is an obligation that attaches only to Republicans? Or is it instead a ringing affirmation of the liberal article of faith that the only good Republican is one who loses constantly and dies quietly and humbly?
Well, I can't think that Gerald R. Ford would consent in any of these perversions of his character. He was the great ally of Everett Dirksen. He was a champion athlete who knew a great deal about battling and winning, despite an adult experience to the contrary. What would he really think about the various attempts to use him and his funeral for political purposes?
Many of the media pundits were eager to cite the source of Gerald Ford's title for his autobiography, A Time to Heal. It comes from Ecclesiastes, of course. The entire quote reads:
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time of war and a time of peace.
I think Gerald Ford wouldn't much approve of the rhetoric and hypocrisy of Nancy Pelosi. He was an old-time Republican who defined himself in opposition to the excesses of New Deal liberalism. But he also knew immorality when he saw it. And is it sheer coincidence when we encounter multiple references to "time" in this account of Everett Dirksen's heroic fight for the Civil Rights bill of 1984?
The gallery was packed on June 10, 1964, as all one hundred senators were present for the climactic moment of the longest f****u**er in Senate history. Late in the morning Everett Dirksen rose from his seat to address the Senate. In poor health, drained from working fourteen-, fifteen-, and sixteen-hour days, his words came quietly. "There are many reasons why cloture should be invoked and a good civil rights measure enacted. It is said that on the night he died, Victor Hugo wrote in his diary substantially this sentiment, 'Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come.' The time has come for equality of opportunity in sharing of government, in education, and in employment. It must not be stayed or denied." After Dirksen spoke for fifteen minutes the motion for a roll call vote for cloture was heard. As each name was read, members of the press and spectators in the gallery kept tally. At 11:15 a.m., Senator John Williams of Delaware replied "aye" to the question. It was the sixty-seventh vote; cloture had passed, opening the way for the Civil Rights bill to be passed. After successfully defeating the eighty-three-day f****u**er, Dirksen, when asked how he had become a crusader in this cause, replied, "I am involved in mankind, and whatever the skin, we are all included in mankind."
President Ford would have been appalled at the high-handed tactics of such a scant majority as Nancy Pelosi commands. And he certainly would not have countenanced any subliminal attempt to use the occasion of his death to force "nonpartisanship" on his colleagues in the name of reestablishing the Democratic dictatorship which coerced him into accepting a genocide his Episcopalian soul unquestionably regretted for the 40 years he lived beyond his presidency. If he was willing to end his political career to heal the nation, he'd also have traded it -- if he'd known how -- to save two million Indochinese lives.
Wherever he is now, I suspect he's opposed to making Iraq into a Cambodian-Vietnamese genocide. He may even be holding an "Ev and Jerry" press conference in heaven to protest it.
God rest his soul, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Including Nancy. And Jimmy.