Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Death of Two Presidents

As this is written, President Gerald Ford has returned to Grand Rapids, Michigan, after lying in state in Washington, proceeding in state to the National Cathedral, and flying with full honors back to his childhood home. Yesterday, the nation observed a Day of Mourning, closing all government offices and the nation's financial markets. Today, he will be interred in state in the library and museum dedicated to his honor. Dozens of dignitaries and hundreds of mourners will pay tribute to him today, and untold thousands will pay tribute in the years to come, as they visit to learn of this 38th president of the United States.

Two days ago, as President Ford lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda, and the thousands streamed past to pay final respects, another president was also laid to rest. "President" Saddam Hussein was buried, also in his home town, before a small crowd of a few hundred. Two very different lives leading to two very different endings. One, succeeding beyond his greatest aspirations and honored with honors exceeding his expectations and even his desires. The other, amassing power beyond all reasonable limits and then watching it slip away as a direct result of his use and misuse of it, and denied all the honors he would have expected and demanded. One, leading his nation out of scandal and dishonor, and restoring faith in his office by his personal character and dedication. The other, leading his nation into chaos and horror, and destroying faith in his office by his personal character and obsession.

Part of the disparity of endings, of course, had to do with recent events. Had Hussein not provoked the wrath of the United States through folly and arrogance, he might well have remained President of Iraq until his death. Then, depending upon the whims of his successor (quite probably one of his equally criminal sons) he might have received all the honors of a state funeral, procession, and grand state tomb. Or possibly not.

For the greatest reason for the different endings of these men has less to do with their own personal character than with the character of the regimes they led. No matter how successful Hussein might have been in life, after death the regime would be in the hands of a successor as unencumbered by legal or moral limits as he was. That successor might have honored the past president, even if he profited from his death—much as Stalin eulogized Lenin. Or, that successor might have denounced his predecessor and stripped him of his honored place—just as Stalin, in his turn, was denounced by Khrushchev. In a state where all power and authority are personal, they end with the death of the person. No matter how powerful, intelligent, or successful Saddam Hussein might have been, he would always have been an illegitimate leader whose authority rested solely upon his personal power to terrorize or reward.

Gerald Ford, on the other hand, served and led a state in which power flowed not from the will and strength of one man but from the consent of the governed in accord with the rule of law. Where Saddam Hussein's authority and prestige rested upon his power, Gerald Ford's authority, prestige, and power all flowed from a source beyond himself. He was vested with authority and power by the people in accord with the laws of the land and the Constitution behind those laws. With Saddam, the office was the man, and was tainted by the depravity of the man. With Ford, the office ennobled the man. In Hussein's case the office was created and defined by the man: a creature of Saddam Hussein which existed to ensure his power and dominion. In Ford's case, the man was changed and redefined by the office: a servant of an office which existed before him and which would outlast both his service and his life.

When we honor President Gerald Ford, we honor both the man and the office. We pay respects to the man, and to his accomplishments and life. But we also pay respects to the office and to its history and purpose. It is Gerald Ford who is eulogized, honored, and buried. But it is President Ford who lies in state, merits a national Day of Mourning, warrants a memorial service at the National Cathedral, and flies across the nation aboard an Air Force transport. In the case of Gerald Ford, the man deserves respect and honor for his personal achievements and character. But it is the office which deserves to command the nation's resources and attention. Thus former President Nixon was honored in much the same way. For while we may debate the difference in personal merit between the two men, the office commands the same respect, for the office transcends the man inhabiting it and remains the same.

This is the greatest gift given by the rule of law. It is given to the people, who remain free to distinguish between the man and the office, and dislike or even despise the one without despising the other. And, even more, it is given to the man himself, who remains free of the crippling need to ceaselessly grasp at power in order to prevent the office from slipping away. The rule of law frees the nation from the reign of terror of illegitimate regimes like Saddam Hussein's, but it also frees the man who leads the nation from the corrupting taint and crippling paranoia of illegitimate power.

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