Most thoughtful commentators bemoan the decline of bipartisanship and the coarsening of political discourse in the United States. The president promised to reach out to the opposition and hoped for 80 Senate votes for his stimulus bill. But he disregarded all Republican suggestions for the bill and acquiesced in its Pelosification into a groaning, creaking, Democratic gravy train.
I remember, as a very young person, the august comparative tranquillity of the Eisenhower era, when the president requested national air time only for matters of indisputable national interest. He never abused this privilege, and there was no call for equal time. The morning after his addresses, two giant, finned Cadillac limousines would convey the Democratic leaders of Congress, Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House to assure the president and the media of the rock-solid support of Congress.
At the heart of the degeneration from that level of trust is an embittering partisan difference over the national interest, built on competing versions of recent U.S. history. Those Democrats who think about these things believe that the Kennedy administration’s response to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was a masterpiece of crisis management, an almost scientific path to a bloodless triumph. They believe the Kennedys would never have plunged into Vietnam, that Lyndon Johnson, despite his inestimable services to civil rights and the growth of the compassionate welfare state, blundered into a hopeless war (urged by the same people who had advised Kennedy during the Missile Crisis), and that he misled the public and provided a cautionary tale showing why the U.S. should commit forces to foreign combat only in precisely limited multinational operations of unquestionable virtue.
They believe that President Nixon took over the Vietnam War as his own, also misled the nation, and squandered 30,000 American lives in a shameful pursuit of a “decent interval” between the U.S. withdrawal and the collapse of the Saigon regime. According to this account, the Democrats forced a brave termination of the war with a shutdown of all aid to South Vietnam, and then redeemed the integrity of the U.S. government by forcing the departure of Nixon, a uniquely sleazy and villainous president. This version was frozen and fed to the public by the national media, who touted themselves as the heroic exposers of “imperial” government misfeasance, in Vietnam and Watergate.
Kay Graham’s version of what her late husband called the “rough first draft of history” became liberal holy writ. It was genuflected to like the Infant of Prague, and defended with the tenacity of the garrison of the Alamo. The conservative talk-show personalities who have grown like dandelions in opposition to this orchestrated groupthink, and the media controlled by Rupert Murdoch (Fox and the Wall Street Journal), are reviled as rabble-rousing muckrakers. (Murdoch is a more astute political maneuverer than has been seen in Washington for decades.)
The same liberals tend to believe that Ronald Reagan was “an amiable dunce,” though a “great communicator” and “Teflon man” (as opposed to a great orator and clever statesman). They claim Gorbachev ended the Cold War and Reagan seduced the country with a fools’ paradise of vulgar and easy self-gratification. It need hardly be added that George W. Bush has passed into these canons as a belligerent, pig-headed, semi-literate oaf.
Taken as a whole, this is a vulnerable catechism. We now know that there were 40,000 Soviet soldiers in Cuba in October 1962, and that the nuclear warheads were already in the country and could have been installed and fired in 24 hours. A disaster was avoided not by the portentous calibrations of Kennedy’s entourage, but by the president’s own, inspired, intuition. And it was no great strategic victory; in exchange for Soviet non-deployment in Cuba, the U.S. began the destabilization of the Turkish alliance by removing its long-deployed missiles in Greece and Turkey.
Lyndon Johnson had basically thrown in the towel in Vietnam in October 1966, when he offered Hanoi reciprocal withdrawal of forces from the South. If Ho Chi Minh had not thought that he could militarily defeat the United States, he would have accepted that offer, and crushed the South six months after the U.S. withdrawal. Johnson would not have tried to reintroduce ground forces, but Ho wouldn’t give the U.S. any cover for its disengagement; he was determined to humiliate it completely.
In April 1972, between Nixon’s historic visits to China and the USSR, the South Vietnamese defeated the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong invasion and offensive, with no U.S. ground support but with heavy air support. This formula might have kept South Vietnam afloat for 15 years, until international Communism collapsed. In his Silent Majority speech of November 1969, Nixon said that North Vietnam could not “defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that.” This is what happened, and the Democrats and the national media have been in steadily more implausible denial for over 30 years.
Watergate was nonsense. The House Judiciary Committee was a shameful riff-raff of grandstanding poseurs. Counsel John Doar’s charges against Nixon were a Stalin-worthy fantasy of what Kafka called “nameless crimes.” The “smoking gun” was tawdry but innocuous, and the only legal vulnerability was the payment of Watergate defendants’ expenses in possible consideration for altered testimony. This may have happened, but in a serious proceeding, it would have been very difficult to prove Nixon knew anything about it. He had a direct connection only to the supplementary payment to Howard Hunt, and it isn’t exactly clear what the consideration was. These were, and were not necessarily more than, what Nixon called “horrendous” mistakes “not worthy of a great president.”
Nixon’s only full term was, except for Lincoln’s one and FDR’s first and third, the most successful in history (founding the Environmental Protection Agency, ending the riots and assassinations and hijackings, ending the draft, reducing the crime rate, stopping inflation, the opening to China, SALT I, the Middle East peace process, and the withdrawal from Vietnam). His ethics were no more unprecedentedly deficient than his presidency aspired in any way to being imperial. Nixon was impeccably honest financially and an unwavering patriot. He had some infelicitous foibles that were worrisome, but they were grotesquely exaggerated by the media.
Thus did the Democrats discover the joys of criminalizing policy differences, which corresponded with the relentless rise of the powers of prosecutors in the country generally. They tried it again in the Iran-Contra foolishness, and the exemplary Caspar Weinberger briefly faced criminal prosecution. The Republicans returned the favor by deposing Speaker Jim Wright, sending Ways and Means chairman Dan Rostenkowski to prison, and taking President Clinton’s demeaning but hardly unprecedented peccadilloes to the only Senate impeachment trial of a president since Andrew Johnson.
Along with Truman, Nixon and Reagan did more than anyone else to win the Cold War, the greatest and most bloodless strategic victory in the history of the nation-state. Nixon was a master chess player, from propagator of the Red Scare in the Forties to architect of détente in the Seventies, to friend of Yeltsin in the Nineties. And Reagan was a great poker player; he raised the ante with his Strategic Defense Initiative, which the Democrats mocked, until the USSR was bankrupt. The U.S. now faces the consequences of the Democrats’ crucifixion of the one and over-mockery of the other.
The truth in all these controversies is between the poles, but the indigestible fact is that Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter are closer to it than the New York Times and the traditional networks. In this vortex, the gerrymandering of congressional districts and entrenchment of special interests in campaign financing has gridlocked legislation as an earmark contest and an endless war of attrition waged through soundbites, sniping, posturing, and poll-taking. The political class has taken an almost vertical dive in respectability since Stevenson and Eisenhower, or Kennedy and Nixon, contested the presidency.
This is not a culture war. The prevailing ethos rests on the vibrating pillars of the demonization of Nixon and the myths of Vietnam. Napoleon famously described history as “lies agreed upon.” What we have now are lies that are disputed. The liberals must relinquish their claimed monopoly on virtue. The conservatives must cease implying that the liberals are traitors. And the national media must re-earn public confidence or be swept into a cul-de-sac by Murdoch, Limbaugh, and the rest.