Hang 'em High
Jude Wanniski
January 3, 2002


Memo To: Andrew Card, White House Chief-of-Staff
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: A Clint Eastwood Movie for the President

I got the idea of recommending this old Clint Eastwood movie to President Bush, so he can get a better handle on the recommendations being made to him on how to develop foreign policy. As a Texan who knows how to ride horses and sit around campfires, Mr. Bush might connect with Clint's portrayal of a U.S. Marshall trying to pacify a piece of the West the size of Connecticut all by himself. After all, as President of the only Superpower, he has the whole world to roam, keeping the peace. It seems to me he is confronting the same issues Eastwood did back in that 1968 flick, which begins when a bunch of solid citizens hang him from a cottonwood tree, thinking he killed a rancher and ran off with his cattle. While he is still dangling, a passerby cuts him down, revives him, and takes him into the county seat, where he is turned over to the law. The law is the federal judge (Pat Hingle) who checks out Clint and finds he really was a lawman in St. Louis before deciding to become a cowman. As the cows are now gone and Clint is in need of a job, the judge offers a badge and a handsome salary ($250 a month), to roam around and collect bad guys and, you know, bring them to justice.

Then comes the heart of the story. Clint goes out with a posse to find some other rustlers, who in the process killed the brother of another cowman. They find the cows and the rustlers, one of whom (Bruce Dern) was among the gents who lynched Clint at the movie's outset. The posse wants to hang 'em high, on the spot, but Clint says no, we have to do things by the law. The fellows in the posse are furious, but back down, and ride away to leave Clint bring in the three rustlers himself. The other two rustlers are just tow-headed boys, who can't be much older than John Walker, the Taliban fellow. Dern, a really bad guy, insists he didn't kill anyone when he rustled the cattle, but the boys said that he did kill the rancher and that they had nothing to do with it, although they owned up to the rustling. They ain't killers, you see, Mr. Card, and when Dern wriggles out of his ropes and gets the drop on Clint, giving them all the chance to get away, the boys refuse to help Dern, and Clint wins the fight and winds up taking the three into town to face justice. The judge (Pat Hingle) goes bananas when he sees the four riding down the main street. By gosh, he is so thrilled and excited you would think Clint brought in Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and that Taliban fellow, all by himself. He says he will get Clint a congressional medal and a bunch of other good stuff, for showing how to pacify the West with true grit.

Wait a minute, though. Clint tells the judge that Bruce Dern should surely hang high, but the two lads were not bad fellows, and that if it were not for their refusal to help Dern, he would be a dead man and they would all be somewhere over the border. Whereupon the Judge (Pat Hingle), tells Clint to mind his own business. The boys will hang too, after a fair trial of course. The reason, he says, is that while the bad guys of the West have to be punished, the good guys of the West have to come to understand that THE LAW will punish them, and they do not have to take the law into their own hands and run around lynching suspected killers, like they tried to do to Clint. In other words, if the Judge (Pat Hingle) goes all compassionate in his conservatism and only sends the boys up for life, the word will spread far and wide that THE LAW is soft, and if you catch a rustler, you should string him up yourself. When Clint tries to argue the case for the two boys in the courtroom, the Judge shouts him down, with three $10 fines for speaking his piece on the boy's behalf. Dern and the two boys all get to stretch ropes, while farmers and ranchers and their wives and kids come from miles around to watch.

Do you see what I mean, Mr. Card? This is the kind of problem the President is facing, as he tries to figure out how to manage the world. Should he be a "Hanging Judge," asking the Marshall to bring him this guy or that, dead or alive, preferably dead? There are plenty of guys in the posse who are already tired of roaming around Afghanistan and want to head for Baghdad. We know he is a bad guy, don't we? So why bother with "evidence." Just last Sunday I watched "Meet the Press," and there was William Safire of The New York Times (Pat Hingle) telling Robin Wright of The LA Times, that even though the rest of the world does not want to go to war with Iraq, it is our responsibility to do it alone, without evidence, with no smoking gun, because we have to show the world who is boss.

Now I'll grant you this is not a trivial argument. If we want to strike terror into the hearts of possible bad guys around the world, we may not want to announce that if they get their hand caught in the cookie jar, they will be arrested, read their Miranda rights, and then severely punished. Maybe it would be better to round up the usual suspects and cut off their hands. Maybe we should show who is boss by firing missiles into the office buildings we know are occupied by members of the opposition, or by torturing suspects, or by assassinating guys we know on the other side of the river who might be planning suicide missions on our side of the river. Safire (Pat Hingle) thinks that's the way to go. The Old Testament, with its eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. Robin Wright of the LATimes (Clint Eastwood) seemed to be saying, "No Judge, we should take a closer look at the aspirin factory before we bomb it. Maybe it is only producing aspirin. Maybe we should make a try at understanding why these bad guys might not be such bad guys if we tried some New Testament with the old. Islam, she said, is a mix of the Old and the New, like our own system of justice. It is as my wife said in this space on December 13, delighted that Attorney General John Ashcroft decided on a fair trial for a Muslim named Moussaoui, "What's Good for America is Good for the World."

It's a good movie, Mr. Card. The President will enjoy it.