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Sometimes, Deaths Do Come in Threes

By Mark Davis

Surely you have heard the theory that famous people tend to die in threes. And surely you know that this is nonsense. Well-known people die in a fairly regular unending litany, and we could group them into threes, fives or any number we wish and then shape the timing to fit whatever mold we like.

That said, the holidays of 2006-07 provided one of the earth-shaking death trifectas of all time.

For me, it wasn't just a former president; it was the first one I ever voted for. It wasn't just an influential singer; it was one of my favorite performers ever.

But before we get to remembrances about Gerald Ford and James Brown, who left us richer for their efforts, let's spend a moment on Saddam Hussein, whose misbehavior earned him top honors on the list of regimes that needed to fall on the path to replacing tyranny and terror with democracy across the Middle East.

That path is proving far more difficult than we envisioned, and any objective assessment of the war must contain the observation that a wide range of things must go better if we are to have even a glimmer of a hope of success.

But as Saddam's body plunged through that trap door atop the gallows in Saturday's predawn darkness, Americans and freedom-loving Iraqis could claim a meaningful victory.

Even in a country that is an incalculable mess, the wheels of justice turned. Our forces found him, but Iraqis tried him. The trial was fair and complete, even amid murders and death threats among lawyers and judges.

A terrorist despot was deposed, tried and hanged. That does not happen nearly enough around the world, and all who played a part in Saddam's path from undeserved power to a richly deserved death should be proud, our troops first and foremost.

In America, political power is earned at the ballot box, but the ex-president we saw eulogized this week served as vice president and then as president without being elected to either post.

Gerald Ford became vice president when Richard Nixon selected him and became president when Mr. Nixon exited. On both occasions, Mr. Ford's ascent swept away the stench of impropriety.

In replacing the disgraced Spiro Agnew and the even more deeply disgraced Mr. Nixon, the guileless, unambitious Mr. Ford became exactly the kind of leader America needed. Freed from the ego and overeager zeal that brands most modern politicians, Mr. Ford simply accepted the mantle he inherited and served with dignity and a gentle good humor.

I was proud to vote for him in 1976, when I was 19. He did not win, of course, but a vote for a good man is never wasted.

Twelve years before casting my first vote, I was spending lemonade-stand money on my first 45 RPM single records. Alongside normal white-boy staples like the Beach Boys' "I Get Around" and Roy Orbison's "Oh Pretty Woman," I had secured "Out of Sight," a James Brown song I had seen on some TV show or another.

As the '60s continued, my Beatles and Rolling Stones collections shared shelf space with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "I Got You (I Feel Good)" and one of my favorite song titles ever, the 1970 gem "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door I'll Get it Myself)."

As James Brown helped define funk in the '70s, setting the stage for rap and hip-hop, I dove off into a typical teenager's immersion in arena rock. Foreigner and Foghat filled my eight-track player, and it wasn't until the last 10 years or so that I've scarfed up every CD I can find of Mr. Brown's collaborations from that era with pioneers like Bootsy Collins and Fred Wesley. The band was called the JB's, and its influence still echoes in the work of today's rockers and rappers.

James Brown's life was filled with plenty of self-abuse, personal strife and outright lawbreaking, but from the Beatles to Willie Nelson, I've learned that I can appreciate a body of work without necessarily seeking to emulate any artists' personal lives.

So we enter 2007 with one less ex-president, one less musical genius and one less evil dictator. May God bless the first two.

Mark Davis is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News. The Mark Davis Show is heard weekdays nationwide on the ABC Radio Network. His e-mail address is mdavis@wbap.com.

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