While following the news, I could not miss the contrasts. Within a week, we have witnessed the deaths of two leaders with two completely different legacies. These men, Gerald Ford and Saddam Hussein, forever connected by death, were as different as the languages they spoke and the nations they ruled.
Saddam Hussein, characterized by most observers as evil and ruthless, was hanged at age 69 in a Baghdad execution chamber surrounded by judges and government officials. Gerald Ford, considered by many Americans to be humble and gracious, died in his California home at the age of 93 surrounded by his loving wife, Betty, and other family members.
Saddam Hussein ruled a country with military might, having no regard for the value of human life, while living an extravagant lifestyle and believing he was above the law. Gerald Ford ruled a country with humility because his country called on him to help restore the dignity of the law and the office he occupied.
Ford humbly gained power in 1974 through an orderly, constitutional transition when his predecessor resigned in disgrace. Hussein brazenly gained power in 1979, years after participating in multiple coup attempts, and refused ever to relinquish that power.
Hussein was hanged because he broke the law, having been found guilty of crimes against humanity for ordering the killing of 148 innocent Shiite people in the city of Dujail, Iraq. Ford, who studied, loved and followed the law, died of old age with the enduring legacy of having graciously pardoned his predecessor, Richard Nixon, for breaking the law.
Ford spent 29 months as the president of the United States, Hussein spent 24 years as the president of Iraq. In Ford’s short time in office, he demonstrated forgiveness, determination and grace. In Hussein’s decades in office, he demonstrated hatred, paranoia and complete disregard for human life.
The character of these two leaders can be contrasted by reading what other prominent American political leaders said about them. President Jimmy Carter called Ford, his onetime opponent, “one of the most admirable public servants and human beings I have ever known.” President George W. Bush described Ford as a man of “complete integrity.”
Concerning Saddam Hussein’s execution, Bush said Hussein received “the kind of justice he denied the victims of his brutal regime.” Senator Edward Kennedy, not exactly a political ally of Bush, called Hussein a “brutal tyrant.”
The obituary of Ford contains comments about pardons and negotiations and athletic prowess and a 58 year marriage to his beloved wife. The obituary of Hussein contains comments about mass murders and death squads and profligate living while his people suffered terrible poverty.
The former Iraqi leader was buried in a plain grave in a rural location with a glaring absence of glory, befitting a common criminal. The former American leader was buried with honor at his presidential library in Michigan following a memorial service filled with pomp and circumstance.
How will Saddam Hussein be remembered? In short, most of his countrymen are happy that he is dead. Our world is a safer place because this diabolical tyrant received his proper punishment.
How will Gerald Ford be remembered? In short, most of his countrymen are sad that he is dead. Our world is a better place because this humble, unassuming statesman has left a legacy of grace and dignity behind.
What about you and me? Have our lives been used for personal gain or community blessing? Have we forgiven our enemies or lined our pockets? At our deaths, will our neighbors remember our sacrificial service or our arrogant extravagances? I could not ignore the interesting connections and disparities between the lives and deaths of Gerald Ford and Saddam Hussein. Now, I wonder what they will say when you and I die.
Trey Graham is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Melissa, Texas.