James Brown picked a terrible time to die. Despite several costume changes in the casket, the Godfather of Soul missed his chance at long-term national mourning because of all the competition. Saddam Hussein was hanged a few days later, but even he was second fiddle to the earlier death of Gerald Ford, the godfather of civility.
Meanwhile, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was alive but not quite well, ruling the state from a hospital bed after surgery to repair a badly broken leg.
So much for slow news days over the holidays.
Entirely by coincidence, I was in Palm Desert on Saturday for a family gathering. I arrived a bit late for the former president's funeral but just in time for a traffic jam. I was crossing Gerald Ford Drive at roughly the time his body was being flown to Washington, D.C., and on my radio, Ford was being hailed as essentially the last decent man in American politics.
The advantage of death is that no one dwells on your bad days, such as the launching of Donald Rumsfeld's and Dick Cheney's careers in foreign affairs. Everyone except the University of Michigan football team seems to have been inspired by the former Wolverine the last few days, and even Ford's pardon of President Nixon was repackaged as a well-timed act of humanity and healing rather than as a free pass for a crook.
But as throngs of well-wishers left St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in the desert, and a nearby auto dealership flew a flag the size of Michigan at half-staff, the description of Ford as a symbol of civility rang true, making for a sad commentary on the political mud bath we've got today.
"He could disagree, but he disagreed agreeably, and he always had respect for both sides of the aisle," said Stu Spencer, a friend of Ford and a longtime political consultant to Ronald Reagan.
To prove Spencer's point, Bill Carrick, a veteran Democratic consultant in Los Angeles, was no less enthusiastic in his praise of Ford. Carrick said the polarization we've come to know and loathe was nonexistent in Ford's day, when the earnest Midwesterner eagerly listened to views from across the aisle and brought a chamber of commerce mentality to the White House rather than a social agenda.
"It was more of a Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce than a U.S. Chamber of Commerce running jihad against government programs and labor," Carrick said. The GOP "represented guys on Main Street or in local manufacturing, and they did not represent the current interest-group politics you see in Washington. Ford voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, and in many ways his politics were ... much more tolerant and open-minded than what we see now."
So who does this sound like?
It's someone whose name was at the top of this column.
Not James Brown.
Schwarzenegger isn't just in line with the chamber of commerce; he's been leading the parade from the day he took office. And like Ford, he's a more moderate Republican than any of the ideologues in the Bush White House.
Of course, the differences between Schwarzenegger and Ford are many. The late and always understated president once reminded people he was "a Ford, not a Lincoln," while the less bashful Big Boy can barely fit his movie star head into his Hummer.
He'll never be called dull, nor will he ever be called Mr. President, because foreign-born residents can only visit the White House. But having abandoned his ham-handed swing to the right in the fall of 2005, he's now in the place where he can do Californians the most good in the next four years:
"Generally speaking, 80 to 90% of the time, those who find the center are going to be successful in American politics," Spencer said. "A centrist position reflects the views of America."
Spencer and I have talked more than once about Schwarzenegger's missteps in his first term, and maybe the governor listened to what the granddaddy of California's GOP consultants was saying.
"He was brand-new at the job and I don't know who was advising him, but he got off on the wrong foot," Spencer said. But the move to the center got him reelected, Spencer said, and as Schwarzenegger maps out an ambitious, Pat Brown-inspired agenda of healthcare reform, environmental protection and infrastructure rebuilding, it will help him govern.
"He can say to the speaker, 'I don't agree with you,' but argue it out with him and then go out that night and have a beer with him. That's the way it was in Ford's era in the House of Representatives. Even Reagan had relationships with Tip O'Neill and Danny Rostenkowski," Spencer said.
"In fact, with bipartisanship I remember back to the early days of the Eisenhower presidency. Who carried his foreign affairs initiatives on the Hill? Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn."
At this stage of the game, Spencer has thrown away the rose-colored glasses, so he doesn't see a return to such bipartisanship anytime soon. But it goes in cycles, he said, so maybe the national conversation will get smarter at some point.