/ 4 January 2007

The shifting sands of history

There was something curiously cuddly about the man Churchill called ”Uncle Joe”. He may have been a blood-drenched tyrant — obliterating his own people by the million — but he also had a jovial way with a vodka bottle.

He was a joker, a shrewd practical thinker, and a politician other politicians held in awe. Without his charisma and grit, indeed, World War II would have turned out very differently. Which brings us to Saddam Hussein.

Saddam has not got much joy from the obituary writers. He is hanged by the neck, and his death brings no mourning. Wrap the corpse in a flimsy sheet and bury it deep. But there’s a problem to confront openly here: what the obituaries say today is almost certainly not what they’ll say tomorrow.

Just look at the chaos of Iraq as 2007 begins. Does anyone for a second believe that the execution of Saddam will bring calm to the land he ruled?

Forget it. The genies of religious and racial hatred are out of the bottle now in a fashion that Saddam never allowed. His followers killed hundreds of thousands who moved against them. They gassed and they bombed and burnt alive. But they kept their benighted land together, united in glum acquiescence.

Look back on that Iraq in, say, 30 years, and you may have to ask the question that some brave historians ask today about Stalin. Where did the greater evil lie: in suppression or chaos? Nothing can wipe away the memory of what he did. Without him, though, we can also glimpse why he did it. And there, of course, is the shifting context of history — not the instant verdict delivered as a noose jerks tight.

Consider, by contrast, the other big death of the past few days: that of president Gerald Ford. No close comparisons possible, of course. But you can reflect with mild derision on the obituary gush that signalled his passing. Payers of tribute (from White House to leader writing rooms) spoke eloquently of his ”wisdom” and ”benignity”, hailing a ”healer” who helped ”bind the wounds of a nation”.

That’s a point of view, to be sure: but surely it also wraps the 38th president in too much panoply. Gerald Ford was an accident that happened when Spiro Agnew fell down a pit of his own digging and Richard Nixon toppled after him. Ford progressed by chance and party decree: a nice, slightly stolid chap who was no threat to anyone, a country club golfer set down in the Oval Office. And, even with every inherited advantage in town, he couldn’t survive two years later when a peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia, came to Washington.

Why garland him in such adulation, then? The reality of his abbreviated term didn’t deserve it. But in the US the office makes the man. Ford’s modest achievement was keeping that myth of the office alive — which is why, 30 years hence, he’ll still have his niche, and see the others who came after him bathed in a similarly roseate glow.

What, for instance, will the obituarists make of the 43rd president, George Walker Bush? Will he be a ”valiant fighter for democracy and Rumsfeld prize winner” in the New York Times? A ”humble, much undervalued friend of freedom” in the London-based Telegraph? A ”favourite son who found God and charted a new course for the 21st century” (the New York Post, or maybe the Sun)?

You wouldn’t bet against any of that. Nor, alas, would you bet against the eventual rehabilitation of Saddam. What goes down in the prison yard has an odd way of coming up again years later. — Â