A Nation of Laws.

Shortly after he declared our long national nightmare to be over, Gerald Ford asserted that his arrival in the Oval Office, unelected, on the heels of the worst political criminal this country had ever known, was proof that these United States are "a nation of laws, not of men". On its face, the remark seems at best ironic, and at worst downright deceptive. But it turned out to be true. For two years, Mr. Ford functioned, if not brilliantly, then competently, as our chief executive, and then peaceably handed the reins to someone else when he failed to convince the electorate to let him continue. Gerald Ford may not have been our greatest President, but he was an honest one.

As the remainder of the Bush presidency can now be measured in minutes -- 76 of them, as I write -- rather than days, weeks, months, or years, I am put in mind of that moment. The orderly transfer of power is something that we in America are used to; it is about to happen for either the 44th or 26th consecutive time, depending on one's reckoning: at any rate, for nearly 150 years, every time the electors have spoken, one man has given the titanic opportunities and duties of the Presidency to the next, without a shot fired in anger. This has happened when the parties disagreed vehemently, when, perhaps, they hated one another, when their ideologies were massively opposed; even, once, when it seemed that the man who was taking office had effectively stolen that office from the direct deputy of the man who was leaving it.

It's something of a miracle, don't you think? In most places on this Earth, to this very day it is the norm for one person or group of people to seize power and weild it until it is wrested forcibly from their fingers. It is so in the world's largest nation, it is so in some of its smallest, it is so in some of our closest neighbors, it was so for our own ancestors and perhaps some of our relatives. Even in parlimentary monarchies -- notably the British Commonwealth -- the head of state, however neutered his or her powers might have become in recent centuries, gives up power only in death.

And yet the most powerful person on Earth leaves office every four or eight years like clockwork, usually alive and well, and never -- even in the case of Mr Nixon -- in chains. That feels important to me. I've never been a big believer in America's role as beacon of hope to the world, but the fact that we do this surely must set an example; at the very least, it does not set a bad example. If even George W. Bush will ride into the sunset willingly, what might other peoples expect of their leaders some day?

With any luck, I will be thirty-six years old when Mr Obama exits stage left in favor of some person as yet unknown. That seems like a long time from now. I was twenty when Mr Bush began what I can only describe as his reign of terror. The world is a very different place now than it was eight years ago, and I'm a very different person. I'll not list the ways -- I'm not sure I could -- but in many respects, I feel like I don't even know the guy I was when the nightmare began. On inauguration day, 2016, will I look back on myself today and think the same thing?

I hope so. (Well, not the nightmare part of it, but the rest.) Not in that I believe that there's anything hugely wrong with the way I am now. But, just as the world must change in that time -- possibly enormously, for the better or for the worse -- so must I. So must we all. Forward! To the next adventure, and the next. One thing I learned over the last eight years is that it is fruitless to pretend that you know what will happen in the future.

In Hebrew, the words tikkun olam connote the moral imperative to perfect, or repair, the world. I believe that the man who steps into office in forty-six minutes will have this as his great project for as long as he remains President. Profound damage has been done, at home, abroad, both to our reputation as a nation, and to our collective national soul. The mountain he must scale is enormous. Can he do it? Can we all? It is easier to go downhill than up; one is as simple as tipping over and allowing gravity to pull you, while the other will test your sinews as you climb. It will test your mind. But if we do not climb, we cannot but fall again.

And then . . . and then. The one thing you know for sure is that the miracle that's about to happen, the one most of us take for granted, will happen again. In a world in which so little can be counted on, what greater comfort is there?

Tags: constitution, Gerald Ford, government, Inauguration, obama (all tags)

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