Impromptus

A reminder from President Ford, &c.

President Gerald R. Ford in 1974 (Library of Congress)
On conservatism, Egypt, the March for Life, Wayne Gretzky, and more

I often say that I came of age during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, which is probably true. But I remember the Ford presidency, a bit. And I went to see him speak in my hometown of Ann Arbor during the presidential campaign of 1976.

Should I repeat a story? Probably not, but let me do it quickly, before making the point I’d really like to make. In fact, I will quote a post of mine from 2015:

Ford was president, and he was running against Jimmy Carter. I was twelve. Ford spoke in Crisler Arena, the University of Michigan basketball arena.

As he read his speech, a shot rang out. Or something that sounded like a shot. It was apparently a firecracker or something. A prank. Everyone in the arena was spooked — more than normally would have been the case — because Ford had been the target of two assassination attempts at that point.

Ford looked up quickly in the direction of the noise, but never broke his stride. Never stopped speaking. Never departed from his text. He was as cool as a cucumber. There was commotion in the area of the sound — probably the Secret Service, hustling the offender off. Ford was aware of it, but, again, continued on, perfectly calm.

This was one of the greatest instances of sangfroid I have ever witnessed.

Ford liked to say, “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.” He repeated it in speech after speech. It was something like a philosophy of government.

The statement is sometimes attributed to Jefferson, but its provenance is murky. Whatever the case, American conservatives used to quote it, and that includes Barry Goldwater.

I have thought of it in recent times as the Right has grown friendlier to big government. Jonah Goldberg devoted a column to this subject last week. Those who consider themselves conservatives have increasing faith in the government to cure social ills. They are looking to the power of government to perform all sorts of good.

Seldom is Jerry Ford considered a conservative, and, of course, he was pitted against our hero Reagan in the 1976 campaign for the GOP nomination. The Right today would probably dismiss Ford as an establishment moderate. Nevertheless, I think he could teach us a few things about conservatism — or remind us of them.

• A very grim subject, about which there is much to say, and about which I will say just a little, here and now. Be briefed by a Washington Post report:

As an American imprisoned in Egypt, Mustafa Kassem thought his government would rescue him from what he saw as his unjust incarceration. The 54-year-old auto parts dealer viewed his blue U.S. passport as a bulletproof vest that made him untouchable, especially in the hands of a government that receives billions in American aid, his relatives have said.

By the time he died Monday of apparent heart failure, after more than six years in prison with negligent medical care, Kassem’s faith in American power had broken down. Influential U.S. politicians called for his release but never applied any pressure, such as the threat of sanctions on Egypt’s autocratic leader, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, a key U.S. ally.

Finally, Kassem saw no choice but to go on a hunger strike in September 2018. In a letter smuggled out of Cairo’s maximum-security Tora prison at the time, he begged President Trump to help him, noting that they were fellow New Yorkers. “I am putting my life in your hands,” wrote the father of two small children.

Have a little more:

His fatal incarceration is the latest sign of the extent to which the Sissi government has been emboldened by the Trump administration’s policy of keeping silent, at least publicly, about Egypt’s human rights abuses, critics say. . . .

Even as the abuses have multiplied, Trump has continued to embrace Sissi, even declaring him to be his “favorite dictator.” He invited Sissi to the White House, an honor that Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, never extended, largely because of Egypt’s human rights record. In fact, previous U.S. administrations often used the $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid that Egypt receives annually as leverage to press for democratic changes and freedoms.

It was at the G-7 summit last summer in Biarritz, France, that Trump said, “Where’s my favorite dictator?” He was looking for Sissi, although, as I remarked at the time, his wording may have hurt the feelings of Putin, Erdogan, Mohammed bin Salman, and a few others.

There are good reasons for our billions in aid to Egypt — but these billions should not necessarily be sent with no strings attached. People are now very, very concerned — or affecting to be very, very concerned — about corruption in Ukraine. Congress appropriated to Ukraine $391 million in military aid (after the Pentagon certified that Ukraine had made sufficient progress against corruption to merit the aid). How about the $1.3 billion that Egypt receives every year? The Egyptian government is laughably corrupt. General Sissi has effectively abolished civil society. Not only does the government torture Egyptian citizens to death in dungeons, they do the same to Americans, too.

What the hell? You know?

• Switching subjects — perhaps jarringly — I want to give you a few tweets. A thread. Won’t take long.

On January 23, I wrote,

“For 40 years, I have watched Republican presidents stay away from the March for Life, phoning it in — literally. And Trump is going to go stand with them. I say to my Left-oriented friends in particular: This is huge, for pro-lifers (who include me). A big, meaningful event.”

And then,

“I know, I know: In all likelihood, Trump has no objection to abortion. (On what basis would he?) He stumbled onto the American Right, milked it, and led it. But — the gratitude of pro-lifers is understandable.”

No. 3:

“Donald Trump doesn’t have the ability — or probably the willingness — to persuade anyone on the subject of abortion. I doubt he has thought about it. His social conservatism is obviously cynical and exploitative. But: The judges, the attendance at the march, etc., are real.”

And one more:

“I offer this little thread in the spirit of FWIW. How can this paragon of hedonism claim the hearts of the pro-life movement, which likes to consider itself moral? Well … (DSTM.) (Don’t shoot the messenger.)”

Well. The response was sizable and furious. Many tweeters said I had “sold out.” My support for Trump was bought by a quick, cheap visit to the pro-life march! Many, many people said, “How many abortions you think Trump has paid for personally?” One woman said she had “loved” me for 20 years and was now bitterly disappointed.

She and others thought I had capitulated to Trump. I don’t know how I communicated that.

I retweeted something that I thought was stirring and moving. A woman had written,

“Count me as one lifelong pro-life activist who thinks that tying the movement to Trump’s cruelty and disregard for human dignity will do much more long-term damage to our witness than a few speeches or judges might benefit us.”

I also circulated a piece by Jonathan V. Last, my old friend and comrade from The Weekly Standard, now with The Bulwark: “Trump and the March for Life: Will Trumpism corrupt the pro-life movement, too?” I said that Jonathan’s piece was “very thought-provoking, as usual.”

Then a prominent conservative jumped in and said, scornfully, “Good Lord, Trump can do nothing right.” Etc.

That’s the way it goes, sometimes: You tick off people on all sides. I will say once more what I said before: Trump went and stood with those pro-lifers. He did not phone it in. And, although all the other things are true, too, that cannot be gainsaid (to use a Buckley word).

• “Pentagon: 34 troops suffered brain injuries in Iran strike.” That is the headline of an Associated Press report, here. President Trump said, “I heard they had headaches and a couple of other things.” That was not very thoughtfully worded, but I cut him slack for it. I can tell you, however, that if a Democratic president had said the very same thing, in the very same circumstances — Republicans would have been all over him like ugly on ape (to borrow a phrase from the first President Bush).

• “Legacy admissions” are back in the news — mainly, I think, because Johns Hopkins University has abolished them. You may not believe this, but I have grown soft on legacy admissions. There is something nice, or at least defensible, about family continuity. A family tradition, generation after generation. School loyalty (both ways). There are a million colleges to go to in these United States. Everyone will find a place, presumably.

So, if an institution wants a few “legacies,” a few jocks, a few of these, a few of those — that doesn’t scandalize me, I must tell you. The older I get, the harder it is to scandalize me on small stuff. (Maybe I need to husband my outrage for the really big stuff.)

I don’t know . . . Just talkin’ . . . Happy to hear other arguments.

Here is a video from the Israel Defense Forces. A little cheesy, you might say, a little corny. But also meaningful. Zionism means many things, but one thing it means is this: You may kill me — as the world has been trying to do since it began, basically — but you’ll have to deal with this military first.

• Have another video, of a different character. A young NHL-er scores a goal. Gretzky says, “That was pretty nice. Wow.” And then, “That young lad’s a defenseman?”

Can you imagine a compliment like that from Gretzky? As if from Mozart.

• End with a little language? Okay. On Monday, I said that I had learned a new expression from Britain: “I haven’t a scooby.” I don’t have a clue. No idea.

Well, a reader writes,

Jay,

I’m in Melbourne for the Australian Open, staying in a rental. One request of our landlord is, “Please do not wash any of our Manchester.” We were clueless — we didn’t have a scooby — until we looked it up online.

In Australia and New Zealand, “Manchester,” or “manchester,” is a noun meaning “household linen or cotton goods, such as sheets and towels.”

Well, I’ll be darned. Maybe because such goods were once made in Manchester, England? Regardless, I thank you for joining me, ladies and gents — whether you are Aussies or Kiwis or not — and I’ll see you soon.

If you’d like to receive Impromptus by e-mail — links to new columns — write to jnordlinger@nationalreview.com.

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