It was nearly noon on an over-cast August day in Beaver Creek, Colo., in 1998, and former president Gerald R. Ford, wearing a pressed golf shirt and seated on a flowered sofa, was revisiting the past. He had kindly granted NEWSWEEK an interview for an oral-history project, and we had covered a lot of ground, from his service in the Pacific during World War II to his brief (eight-month) vice presidency. Then, just before lunch, I asked, inevitably, how he felt about the criticism of his pardon of Richard Nixon.
Without hesitating, Ford scooted forward on the sofa, pulled his wallet from his pocket and took out a small card that read: Burdick v. the United States, a 1915 decision that held there was "a confession of guilt implicit in the acceptance of a pardon." "The Supreme Court ruled that," Ford said, and left the matter there, his gaze steady. His face projected sure and certain confidence in his decision; the fact that he carried a card around to justify it revealed a lingering anxiety about how history would view the Nixon pardon.
He was right to worry, but, as Michael Beschloss writes for us this week, the world ultimately came to see things his way. Our late editor Maynard Parker asked Michael to conduct an interview with President Ford on the condition that his remarks would not be published until after his death. The former president had some tough words for his party and for other presidents--remarks that affirm Evan Thomas 's thesis that Ford was a much more complicated figure than his "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" image suggests. Politicians are like that: their virtues and vices are often outsize, and even the most straightforward of public figures have hidden emotional depths. Ford was no exception. The product of a turbulent family, he learned to keep secrets and mastered the great game of Washington survival. His was a long life in the arena, and George H.W. Bush, Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney and Nancy Reagan shared their recollections of him with us.
On Thursday night Baghdad time, our Michael Hastings took a call from a source inside the U.S. military in Iraq. The message: Mike "should keep his cell phone on" Saturday morning. It was good counsel, for that indeed turned out to be the time of Saddam Hussein's death by hanging. In our package on the tyrant's execution, Chris Dickey draws on his decades of covering the region to sum up Saddam--and to look beyond the gallows.
Even before news came of Saddam's execution, there was debate at the magazine about whether Ford's death merited a cover story; some dismissed him as a "transitional" president. I felt differently. There is much to learn from Ford's legacy--one that we explain and explore in detail--and his brief, 29-month presidency shapes us still. This is not to say that Saddam is an unimportant historical figure: we have twice gone to war against him, and many American soldiers have died fighting him and his regime. But his death in 2006 matters less than his removal in 2003 does. America faces a terrible predicament in Iraq, and that predicament is the same today as it was on the day before Saddam was hanged.
There could be no greater contrast than that between Gerald Ford and Saddam Hussein, and word of Saddam's death illuminated Ford's grace and generosity even more. In a conversation with Ford at his house in Rancho Mirage, Calif., a few years ago, I asked him what he made of the growing popular sense that Ronald Reagan deserved credit for the fall of the Soviet Union. Leaning forward intently, Ford replied: "The American people won the cold war--no one president, no one party. It was the work of many years and many administrations. The credit belongs to the people." Gracious words from a gracious man.