"Better that people insult me for a year and applaud me for a century, rather than the other way around." So said Argentina's President Carlos Menem last year when he imposed a severe austerity program on his country that mocked the populist traditions of his own Peronista party.
Today Mr. Menem is being insulted more than ever, this time for his pardons for the top military leaders who directed the "Dirty War" of the late 1970s and early 1980s. During that dark period, more than 9,000 civilians suspected of leftist and liberal sympathies simply disappeared, the victims of kidnappings, murder and torture by those armed with the authority of the state. No other event of recent Argentine history -- not even the disastrous, failed attempt to seize the Falklands from Britain -- so grieves the nation's soul.
Mr. Menem can scarcely be surprised to hear himself denounced by human rights activists for what he considers is an act of courage in the interest of national reconciliation. Perhaps the protests, which drew 40,000 demonstrators before the presidential palace Sunday, will subside before another year passes. This was the case when Mr. Menem released 280 persons (mostly junior officers up to the rank of colonel) in October 1989. But he has to wonder whether the Argentine military will ever really accept civilian authority and the democratic process, which is the only way he can earn a century's applause.