The deaths of two presidents—one esteemed, the other reviled—dominate the news today. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times lead with the aftermath of the execution of Saddam Hussein. The Washington Post off-leads Hussein’s demise, while giving more prominent placement—huge play, in fact—to the first of several days of Washington funeral ceremonies for former President Gerald Ford. Ford’s body arrived in D.C. by plane yesterday and was taken in a formal procession to the Capitol Rotunda, where it will lie in state.
Hussein’s body, on the other hand, received a far less dignified exit. At the end of a day during which Iraqis sat transfixed before their television screens, watching the ousted dictator’s final moments on the gallows and grainy images of his broken body afterward, Hussein’s remains were turned over to tribal leaders in his hometown of Tikrit, who buried him in a 3:30 a.m. ceremony, the NYT reports. The LAT says that Iraqi leaders initially wanted the site of Hussein’s grave kept secret, and considered turning his remains over to his daughter in Yemen, but eventually consented to the tribe’s request that he be buried next to his sons, who were killed by American forces in 2003. A legal adviser to the Iraqi prime minister tells the LAT: “We decided it was the humanitarian thing to do.”
Iraqi and American officials hailed Hussein’s conviction on charges of crimes against humanity, and execution as a victory for the rule of law. But the swiftness of the punishment, which came just five days after Hussein’s appeal was turned down, “took some officials in Washington by surprise and left some American legal officials … uncomfortable,” the NYT reports. The disorganized scene on the gallows, which the WP and NYT describe in greater detail today, appears likely to stoke the propaganda of those apologists who claim Hussein was the victim of a sectarian frame-up. As Hussein—wearing a “luxurious topcoat” and shoes “polished to a shine”—denounced “the traitors, the Americans, the spies and the Persians,” his hooded executioners chanted the name of Shiite cleric and alleged death-squad leader Moqtada al-Sadr. At that, the WP reports, one Iraqi official turned to another and asked, “Now how are we going to disband the militia when we have such things?”
Reactions varied. All the papers run separate stories on sentiments inside Iraq. One woman-on-the-street quote in the WP just about sums things up: “We’ve forgotten about him.” Insurgent reaction was relatively muted, for Iraq: 75 people were killed in bomb attacks. And in the NYT “Week in Review,” seasoned Iraq hand John Burns delivers a fine piece on his own emotions while covering Hussein’s trial, confessing that on occasion he “felt sorry for him, as a man in distress and perhaps, too, as a once almighty figure reduced to ignominy.”
The Post shunts the strongman aside for the weak president. Beneath a huge photograph of Ford’s flag-draped coffin and a headline reading “A Solemn Homecoming,” the paper’s lead story describes the scene in Washington as Ford’s body returned for “four days of services and tributes in the city he left three decades ago.” An accompanying piece by Dana Milbank undercuts the somber tone a bit, pointing out that President Bush, the incoming Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, and many other dignitaries were notably absent. Even Donald Rumsfeld, Ford’s former chief of staff and an honorary pallbearer, missed the ceremony. (Due to plane trouble, apparently.) In the “Outlook” section, the paper also publishes a transcript of a conversation Ford had with Bob Woodward about Vietnam. (Slate’s Timothy Noah reflected on Washington’s curious Ford fetish last week.)
The NYT’s coverage is somewhat more restrained. A “Week in Review,” piece reflects on Ford’s administration and concludes that his accomplishments were pretty modest, to use one of the late president’s favorite words. A front-page feature, meanwhile, makes a convincing case that outspoken Betty Ford was actually more culturally significant than her husband. The LAT relegates the Ford ceremonies to a front-page photograph and stuffs the story inside.
In other news today, the NYT fronts a fascinating investigation into the workings of the military review boards set up to evaluate the status of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. The boards are the closest thing to a courtroom most detainees ever see, but they are secretive, sloppy, and hopelessly biased against the accused, the story suggests.
The WP fronts a profile of a once-and-very-likely future convict by the name of Anthony James. The story shows James, shot 10 times and accused of several murders, back on the streets and trying to make it—if not necessarily making good—after a stint in jail. The intricately reported piece is by turns scary, hilarious, and oddly heartwarming, and you should read it.
The LAT fronts a great yarn about a death-defying seven-day car trip around the “Ring Road” that encircles Afghanistan. “On the way,” reporter Paul Watson writes, “we managed to avoid a Taliban ambush, a potential kidnapper or highway robber, a suicide bomber and a gunman who fired close enough to take off one of our heads.” He also managed to see Afghanistan as it is rarely shown in daily news reports.
Inside, the papers report on the continuing fighting in Somalia, where Ethiopian troops are pushing southward toward the Islamist stronghold of Kismayo.
Since he has been in office, President Bush has quietly increased humanitarian aid to Africa by three times, the WP reports inside.
A front-page LAT piece investigates the plight of those denied health insurance because of pre-existing conditions. Insurers, seeking to limit risk, are refusing to cover some people on the basis of extremely minor incidents such as a short stint in therapy, a history of asthma, or—in the case of one healthy college graduate—a bout of jock itch.
Shock and Awe … Returning to the big story of the day, TP couldn’t help but pick up on the distinct strain of grudging admiration that ran through the NYT’s coverage of Hussein’s trip to the gallows. An early edition of the paper’s lead story said that although the witnesses it interviewed were enemies of the dictator, “their accounts of the execution were redolent of respect for the way in which their former tormentor died.” The final edition version of the story omits the prior passage but says the widely broadcast videotape of the event suggested that he “lived his final moments with unflinching dignity and courage, reinforcing the legend of himself as the Arab world’s strongman.” An accompanying front-page piece about the dictator’s final moments relates that he “looked strong, confident and calm.” A fitting final performance, I suppose, for a master propagandist.