Christopher Hitchens has begun to build a reputation as an anti-eulogist, the kind of pundit who gets contrarian whenever a significant political figure passes away. In the midst of the mourning over Ronald Reagan, Hitchens released a scathing attack on the deceased President, dredging up the tired memes of his purported idiocy, although he managed to find a few stinging examples of his rhetorical mistakes. Now Hitchens remembers Gerald Ford in much the same manner:
One expects a certain amount of piety and hypocrisy when retired statesmen give up the ghost, but this doesn’t excuse the astonishing number of omissions and misstatements that have characterized the sickly national farewell to Gerald Ford. One could graze for hours on the great slopes of the massive obituaries and never guess that during his mercifully brief occupation of the White House, this president had:
1. Disgraced the United States in Iraq and inaugurated a long period of calamitous misjudgment of that country.
2. Colluded with the Indonesian dictatorship in a gross violation of international law that led to a near-genocide in East Timor.
3. Delivered a resounding snub to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn at the time when the Soviet dissident movement was in the greatest need of solidarity.
Instead, there was endless talk about “healing,” and of the “courage” that it had taken for Ford to excuse his former boss from the consequences of his law-breaking. You may choose, if you wish, to parrot the line that Watergate was a “long national nightmare,” but some of us found it rather exhilarating to see a criminal president successfully investigated and exposed and discredited. And we do not think it in the least bit nightmarish that the Constitution says that such a man is not above the law. Ford’s ignominious pardon of this felonious thug meant, first, that only the lesser fry had to go to jail. It meant, second, that we still do not even know why the burglars were originally sent into the offices of the Democratic National Committee. In this respect, the famous pardon is not unlike the Warren Commission: another establishment exercise in damage control and pseudo-reassurance (of which Ford was also a member) that actually raised more questions than it answered. The fact is that serious trials and fearless investigations often are the cause of great division, and rightly so. But by the standards of “healing” celebrated this week, one could argue that O.J. Simpson should have been spared indictment lest the vexing questions of race be unleashed to trouble us again, or that the Tower Commission did us all a favor by trying to bury the implications of the Iran-Contra scandal. Fine, if you don’t mind living in a banana republic.
One might expect a certain amount of piety and hypcorisy from everyone except Hitchens. He scores more points in this screed than in his earlier essay about Reagan, but that is because of way Ford’s presidency really faded into nothingness after the end of his term. By comparison, people remember Reagan’s terms in office because Reagan made them so consequential; love him or hate him, everyone remembers him. Ford’s tenure has largely been forgotten by most people as a brief hiatus between the embarrassments of the two presidencies surrounding his.
Hitchens brings us back to the actual business of governing, and reminds us that Ford made some large unforced errors. Perhaps people cannot recall how we saw freedom activists in the Soviet Union before Reagan, but the Solzhenitsyn snub recalls that more than one administration considered them something of a hot potato, especially when detente was so popular among the Western congescenti. The appeasement of the Indonesians as they conducted their attempt at genocide against East Timor has a more relevant tone, considering the issues of appeasing aggressive Muslim societies these days.
However well or badly Ford managed his presidency, however, it seems more than a little churlish to attack him with the vigor Hitchens demonstrates in this column. During the mourning period, which is short enough even for former Presidents, a little acknowledgment of the challenges of the position should balance the criticism of the mistakes made by each. Afterwards, Hitchens would have plenty of time to set the record straight.