The New York Times and the Los Angeles Timeslead with the death of Gerald R. Ford, the 38th president of the United States. His wife, Betty Ford, issued a statement late last night but did not include details of why, where, or what time the former president died. Ford was 93 and the longest-living former president.
USA Today and the Washington Post put the death of Gerald Ford on Page One, but in the traditional lead spot, the papers go with news out of Baghdad, where an Iraqi appeals court upheld the death sentence against Saddam Hussein. The former dictator must be hanged within 30 days. All the papers were planning to lead with Hussein's upcoming execution before the late-breaking news of Ford's death forced editors to make last-minute changes to their front pages. The Wall Street Journal includes the court's decision in the top spot of its world-wide newsbox but focuses on the upcoming "showdown" between Bush and Democrats over Iraq.
Ford became president in 1974, after President Richard Nixon resigned as a result of the Watergate scandal. He was the only person to ever lead the country without being elected as either president or vice president. Immediately after taking over the presidency, Ford made a point of trying to get the country past the Nixon scandal. "The long national nightmare is over," he said in his inaugural address. "The constitution works." But Ford also made the controversial decision to pardon Nixon. It is widely believed this decision cost him the presidency in 1976, when he lost to Jimmy Carter. At the time, Ford said the move was necessary in order to allow the country to move forward. "President Ford helped heal our land and restore public confidence in the presidency," Bush said in a statement.
Although Ford faced many tough challenges throughout his presidency, including Vietnam and a high inflation rate, to name just two, he is remembered mostly for being the one who pardoned Nixon. Highly criticized at the time, many now believe the pardon was the right thing to do. In 1999, President Clinton awarded Ford the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And in 2001, Ford was honored with a "Profile in Courage" Award at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. In an editorial, however, the LAT says, "[T]he pardon was a mistake, inconsistent with the fundamental principle that everyone, including the president, is equal before the law."
Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death on Nov. 5 for ordering the killings of 148 people in the northern town of Dujail in 1982. The papers notethat, according to the constitution, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and the two vice presidents must ratify Hussein's execution. Even though Talabani has said he is against the death penalty, he has allowed other Iraqis to be hanged. Besides, it is unclear whether Talabani would even have the authorityto stop the execution. The judge seemed to be hinting at this when he announced that "nobody is entitled, including the president, to exempt or commute the verdict issued by this court."
According to the Post, Iraqi officials have already begun to plan for the execution, but it is not known whether the hanging will be carried out at an announced time with public witnesses or whether it will take place in secret. Sources close to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki say he will move quickly to order the execution. Some groups, including Human Rights Watch, who repeated its concern that it was "a deeply flawed trial," criticized the verdict. Others said the quick turnaround time between when the appeal was filed and the verdict was read out makes it clear the case was not properly reviewed.
The NYT reports that U.S. officials say they have "credible evidence" linking the Iranians arrested in Iraq last week to criminal activities, which include attacks against U.S. forces. The U.S. military says five Iranians were arrested, but three of them have been released. The two remaining Iranians were described as senior military officials. The Iraqi government hasn't commented publicly on the arrests, and local officials were debating yesterday night how to handle the situation.
The NYT and WP go inside with Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s announcement that he opposes increasing the number of troops in Iraq. The Democratic senator from Delaware, who will be the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he plans to begin Iraq-related hearings on Jan. 9.
The LAT takes advantage of the announcement to publish a Page One story on how Democratic lawmakers will "move quickly next month" to get their voices heard on Iraq. Although the paper says Democrats want to "undercut any White House effort to increase troop levels," it fails to mention that incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he would be willing to support a short-term troop increase if military commanders are behind the decision.
The Post is alone in fronting the latest from Somalia, where Ethiopian troops are pushing back the Islamist forces as they approach Mogadishu. The NYT says the militias loyal to the Islamic Courts movement "are crumbling faster than anyone expected." But the WP points out the militias are withdrawing "almost simultaneously from their front line positions," which suggests a strategy. "I find it perplexing what the Ethiopians are up to," a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia said. He added, "Eventually it's going to turn into a nasty guerrilla war, and I don't think the Ethiopians have the stomach to carry on with that kind of campaign."