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What a contrast between the quiet passing of a former president here and the embittered execution of one in Iraq. The hanging of Saddam Hussein, hardly undeserved, degenerated into something like a sectarian lynching, aggravating anger at the invaders rather than giving the satisfaction of condign justice. It made one grateful to live under some semblance, however imperfect, of the rule of law.

The obsequies for Gerald Ford have finally ended, and I must say I found them more moving than I expected to, especially the sight of his poor widow, looking so much more frail than I remembered her. Such a terrible loss to endure so late in life! But that is the price of such an enduring love at its inevitable end. One aches to console her, if there were any way.

Ford was not a “great” president, but presidents aren’t supposed to be “great.” Their constitutional duty is modest: to see that the laws are faithfully executed. This Ford tried to do without heroics or hubris or the grandiloquent rhetoric now attached to the office.

C.S. Lewis remarked that politicians are now called “leaders” rather than “rulers,” and that this verbal change reflects a modern change in political philosophy. A “ruler,” in the old days, was expected to be wise and just; a “leader” is expected to be dynamic, magnetic, exciting. Ford never saw it as his role to agitate or inspire; and that, in a way, is why we remember his brief presidency so fondly. What seemed a deficiency at the time — his dullness — now seems a relief from the turmoil of the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon years.

The eulogies spoke of Ford as healing and reconciling. They may have exaggerated his virtues, but you can hardly doubt that they expressed a yearning for surcease from the excesses of the incumbent. It came as no surprise to learn that he had been skeptical of George W. Bush’s chiliastic enthusiasm for democratizing the world through warfare. You can’t even imagine Jerry Ford getting us into the current mess in the Middle East.

During his presidency his conservative critics complained that Ford lacked principle, that he was too ready to compromise; and they had a point. He was, in fact, suspicious of principle, which he tended to see as “extreme.” In 1980 he was warning his fellow Republicans that Ronald Reagan “can’t win” against Jimmy Carter. That was Ford, always playing it safe. But we have now seen what a more adventurous spirit can lead to.

It’s easy to forget how turbulent the Ford years actually were. The Vietnam war was coming to an ignominious end, and racial and abortion politics were starting (or intensifying) party realignment. The turmoil of the Sixties, a distant memory now, hadn’t really ended yet. But we remember Ford as an almost apolitical figure, as Eisenhower once seemed to be — though Ike had come to politics late in life, and Ford had made a career of it.

The current rage for Barack Obama — I think it will be brief — is, like earlier frenzies for Ross Perot and Colin Powell, due to the same yearning for a wise ruler who is above politics. Maybe what people really want is not democracy, but royalty — a symbolic monarch. It may be part of Ford’s appeal that he was never elected to the presidency and never appeared to aspire to it.

Curiously, or ironically, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who served under both Ford and Bush, have emerged as apostles of executive power, feeling that the presidency was crippled by post-Watergate reforms. Ford himself never chafed at the limits of the office. In that respect he was a throwback to an older, truer conservatism, suspicious of concentrating power in the executive branch and in favor of dispersing it. He was old enough to recall Franklin Roosevelt’s Caesarism, which conservatives adopted when it began to suit them — that is, when Republicans found it easier to win the White House than Capitol Hill.

One word we seldom heard during Ford’s presidency was 历史性。 He was blessedly free from hype, sticking to precedent and routine. In retrospect, even his ordinariness seems almost a rare and precious quality, especially when you compare him with the current crop of Republican presidential hopefuls.

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