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Newsweek’s Jon Meacham on the faith of Ford’s pardon decision.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007
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HH: Joined now by Jon Meacham. He’s the managing editor of Newsweek Magazine. He’s the author as well, you may remember this, Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship, a wonderful book, and of a relatively recent book, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and Making of a Nation. Mr. Meacham, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show. Good to have you.

JM: Thank you, sir.

HH: You’re also now running this deal over at the Washington Post that my friend, Al Mohler is involved in. That’s really quite amazing, the number of people who are attracted to that.

JM: It is, isn’t it? It’s called On Faith. It’s at Washingtonpost.com. and Newsweek.com. And we got…Sally Quinn and I are doing it. It was her idea. I’m sort of around to carry her coat, in a way. But we have from Desmond Tutu to Mohler to Franklin Graham, some really amazing folks, who we pose a question once a week, and whoever can answer, has time to answer, answers it. And it starts a debate, and I have really enjoyed it, and I hope folks will check it out.

HH: We’re talking today because of a very provocative, interesting piece you wrote yesterday for the Washington Post called The Quality of His Mercy: The Public Faith That Shaped Ford’s Pardon Decision. It really struck me as an unknown aspect of Jerry Ford’s pardon. We’d been debating that a lot over the two weeks that we’ve been remembering former President Ford. And would you do the description part? The first four graphs are really descriptive, and I’ll let you put them in your own words, how Ford approached the pardon.

JM: Certainly, there were clearly political and civic reasons to do it, but if you actually read the text of both the speech on August 9th, when he took office, and the pardon speech from that Sunday morning, September 8th, there’s an intense amount of theological language. On August 9th, right after the ‘our long national nightmare’ sentence, he talked about how there’s a higher power to which we are accountable, who is also interested in mercy and righteousness, as well as justice. And then the pardon decision itself says the Constitution is the supreme law of he land, superseded only by the laws of God. And then remarkably, he says as a president and as a man, I feel I have to exercise the dictates of my conscience, because if I do not act with mercy, I may not be treated mercifully, which puts Ford right in the center, I think, of what I think of as America’s public religion, which is a phrase of Benjamin Franklin’s, and the idea that there is a Creator God, who is interested in the United States, and who will reward or punish individuals or nations for their behavior, either in this world, or the next. It’s all of that theology, which you know well, behind, say, national days of fast and thanksgiving that we had from the Revolution forward, and that Lincoln was so articulate about, that we are, collectively, as a nation, and our leaders, are accountable to an order beyond time and space for what we do here.

HH: Now Jon Meacham, do you think the reason that’s been forgotten is that it was little noticed at the time, so unexceptional was the language, or that simply it was obscured by the brouhaha? I think it’s the former, really, that only in recent times has the nerve ending begun to tingle, collectively, when presidents use God talk. I think it was very common up through Ford’s presidency. Your thinking on that?

JM: I agree with you mostly, I think. I think it’s been from…I think Carter did it, I think Reagan did it, George Herbert Walker Bush opened his inaugural address in 1989 with a prayer. Didn’t close it, didn’t just say God Bless America, he said let us bow our heads in prayer. And because he was an Episcopalian, and I sometimes joke, perhaps badly, that George H.W. Bush thinks of being born again as a mulligan on a golf course. You know, he’s not intensely interested in these matters. And Clinton…you know, the best speech Bill Clinton ever gave was that extemporaneous talk in Memphis in 1993, when he talked about what would Martin Luther King say about black America today if he came back, did it in a Church to a group…I think it was a gathering of AME bishops. So I think President Bush the second, I think the 43rd president, is completely within the mainstream of presidential religious expression, and I think people who attack him, and say he’s overly religious, or too much God talk, I think are wrong.

HH: Now you do have the line in here, which I agree with, it’s a very sound observation, that such an understanding, such as Ford had, naturally has hardly been unanimous, and many Americans are reasonably uncomfortable with the idea that our leaders think they are either communing with the Divine, or carrying out God’s mission. Do you think Bush has given off more indications of that? Or is that simply being layered on to him by political opponents?

JM: I think the latter. I really do. I have asked people who have been in conversations where he might have said something like ‘I feel God put me here’, or ‘I feel ordained for this’, and no one’s ever said they’ve heard him say it. So I think there’s a kind of urban legend about Bush feeling…at least being explicit about being God’s agent. Now he did say to Bob Woodward that he would not appeal to his own father in terms of strength, but to a higher Father. I actually think that’s more about paging Dr. Phil about a very odd family dynamic within the Bush clan, than it is about George Bush wandering the Rose Garden, thinking God is telling them what to do. That’s my personal view.

HH: Whenever anyone tells President Bush that they’re praying for him, he always says thank you, I appreciate that. He refers to it a lot. I think he’s sincere when he says that.

JM: I’m not saying he’s not sincere. I’m saying that his opponents who think that he is some kind of religious nut, who’s on a holy mission, are wrong. I think President Bush is completely serious about his faith. I have no reason to doubt that whatever. And in fact, one of the most moving notes I ever got was I had asked President Bush 41 for an interview right after September 11th, about the coming crisis, and the crisis we were in. And he wrote me a very kind note saying that he wouldn’t do it. And the last line was please say a prayer for our beloved son, the President. And it was…I got it maybe on the Tuesday or Wednesday after the attacks, and it just grabbed my guts in a way, because you realized at once that these are human beings who are fathers and sons, who are believers, who do have moments of doubt and moments of great faith, and they have the destinies of nations in their hands. And I think that in the American experience, we have done very well at striking a balance between our sense that we are on a journey, in an Augustinian sense, a national journey, in Jefferson’s phrase, as Israel of old, heading toward something, you know, whereas Ford once said, and Reagan used to always say, we never become, we’re always in the act of becoming. Well, that’s a theological idea, and I think it’s effused the presidency from the very beginning.

HH: Jon Meacham is my guest. He’s the managing editor of Newsweek, author of a fine column in the Washington Post yesterday, and the new book, American Gospel. Mr. Meacham, you just mentioned Augustinian…are you Catholic? Are you Episcopalian? What tradition…

JM: I’m an Episcopalian.

HH: You’re Episcopalian, okay.

JM: There are six of us left.

HH: (laughing) Yeah, well, it might be five. You should check your box.

JM: Yeah, that’s a good point.

HH: I’m curious, given how much you’ve studied history, and especially, you studied the time of Franklin and Winston, you studied the founding, if you have the sense that the times in which we are living are as potentially apocalyptic in terms of the enemies we face and the decisions being taken, as those of the founding and of World War II?

JM: I think we’re living in a period, because of technology, that is similar to the Cold War. I think we do face weapons of mass destruction. Blessedly, it does not appear as though, with the exception of North Korea, that a state actor would launch anything at us in the way the Soviets might have done in the very bleak years of what President Kennedy called the long twilight struggle in an inaugural address, by the way, that quoted the New Testament twice, and concluded On Earth, God’s work must truly be our own, for Democrats who think that this is all a Republican invention. But I do think that…

HH: What about Ahmadinejad?

JM: Well, Iran…yes, Iran, North Korea, I should mention Iran. I have hopes about Iran, perhaps foolishly, that with…use the word apocalyptic. With Iran, you have to sometimes look at these leaders, and try to guess do they want to live out their rhetoric, or do these look like men or women who are enjoying their place in the long story of the world.

HH: And what do you think about Ahmadinejad?

JM: He looks to me as though he likes coming to New York, to the U.N., and rattling his saber.

HH: What if you’re wrong?

JM: Then you won’t be having me back on.

HH: (laughing)

JM: And it’s not Pascal’s wager. I’m not betting anything on this. I’m not saying this should dictate our behavior, or our diplomacy toward him, and I don’t mean to make light of what is a deadly serious situation. But I just have this sense, and it’s worth what you’re paying for it, that that’s going to turn out okay.

HH: Jon Meacham, we’re out of time. I look forward to having you back for a longer conversation, just not about Gerald Ford’s faith, but the faith of the country and the public religion. American Gospel is the book, Jon Meacham, managing editor of Newsweek, thanks for being here.

End of interview.

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