Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Another Man's Dog

[posted by Callimachus]

I heard some people complain at the beginning that the coverage of the Gerald Ford obituary was excessive. But I've heard less of that as it has unfolded. It has been, somehow, just what we needed.

Whatever the realities (and Christopher Hitchens, bless his heart, always is there to remind us), the soft-focus view of Ford presented in the coverage of his death shows how an amiable and honest everyman behaves in the corridors of power. There's an essential value in remembering that. In talking about his personality, not debating his policies, we rediscover what was lost and forgotten in the media coverage of his administration.

My favorite anecdote of the man that I've learned since he died is in a story told by his press spokesman, Ron Nessen:

He described a day when Ford's dog, Liberty, made a mess on the carpet in the Oval Office and a Navy steward had scrambled to clean it. The president stopped him.

"'I'll do that,"' Nessen recalled Ford saying. "'No man should have to clean up after another man's dog."'

Put that on the short list of timeless presidential quotations.

Perhaps all this matters more in one of those now-eternal seasons of America's perverse obsession with hating its leaders. Not for what happens while they are president, but for, somehow, who we perceive they are as human beings. The latest New York Times Sunday book review section reports that "one of this holiday’s most popular literary stocking stuffers was 'Bad President,' a book from the people who previously brought us 'Bad Cat' and 'Bad Dog.' "

The jokes here — gag captions that may put you in mind of your high school yearbook — are on the order of printing a photograph of Bush sitting next to a yawning child, over the observation: “I can bore anyone. It’s a gift.” Or a photograph of the president laughing, with the caption: “Can you believe it? I really am the president!” Once in a while the authors crystallize an idea into something that feels almost like wit: “Child informs president he was left behind,” one caption reads. “Bad President,” the authors write in their introduction, isn’t exactly a joke. “We don’t think that George Bush’s presidency is a laughing matter,” they write. “Our hope is that we might soon look back on this maddening time and laugh at jokes that aren’t on us.”

As Reader's apt citation the other day from one of Teddy Roosevelt's "muckraker" speeches notes, "One of the chief counts against those who make indiscriminate assault upon men in business or men in public life, is that they invite a reaction which is sure to tell powerfully in favor of the unscrupulous scoundrel who really ought to be attacked ...."

Which points fingers back at that same New York Times Sunday book review section. Does it report reality or shape it? Obviously, both. Just a week before, in a casual aside at the end of a review of a poet's work that has been deadened by lean and scrannel political bloviation, the writer excuses the poet by saying he has simply become just like the rest of us: "[N]ow he settles for the dreary, flummoxed middle zone of life where the rest of us are consigned to live: really loving our 'children, and their children,' really hating the president."