Half Way to Mount Rushmore—and Back
December 2, 2011 - 1:15 pm
In the pilot for AMC’s Mad Men, there’s a conversation between Don Draper and his boss, Roger Sterling, during which Roger tries to sell Don to work with the advertising agency to advance their candidate in the 1960 presidential campaign:
ROGER: So, while I’ve got you in the afterglow here, what do you say you reconsider this presidential campaign?
DON: I don’t know, bunting and babies,that’s hard work -- I’d just make a hash of it.
ROGER: Modesty, that’s adorable. I expect significant billings on this thing. Country houses for all of us. And if that doesn’t make you patriotic, think about the product: he’s young, handsome, beautiful wife, Navy Hero. Honestly Don, it shouldn’t be hard to convince America Dick Nixon is a winner.
And at National Review Online, which has often been no friend to Richard Nixon (and for good reason), media mogul Conrad Black is more than willing to give it a go, describing Nixon as “Half Way to Mount Rushmore — his full term was amazingly successful:”
When Richard Nixon was inaugurated in January 1969, America had 550,000 draftees at the end of the earth in an inadequately explained war; 200 to 400 body bags a week were coming back from Vietnam; there were constant anti-war and race riots; the country was in shock from the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy; the skyjackings were beginning; and there were no relations with China or the major Arab powers, nor any talks under way with the USSR to de-escalate any aspect of the Cold War.
Richard Nixon was the first president since Gen. Zachary Taylor in 1848 to be elected to office without his party being in control of either house of the Congress. Despite the fact that the Democrats had plunged the country into Vietnam without any proper authorization, mismanaged the war, and lost control of domestic opinion, they, with the eager complicity of the national media, abandoned their former leaders and became anti-war agitators, and the entire Democratic establishment except Scoop Jackson set out to inflict defeat on the U.S. while Nixon and Kissinger worked with great skill and often courage to extract America from the war while salvaging a non-Communist government in South Vietnam, in obvious conformity with the wishes of most of the people of South Vietnam.
The Democrats failed to prevent Nixon and Kissinger from negotiating out of the Democrats’ war after South Vietnam successfully repulsed the Communists on the ground on their own in April and May 1972. They did this with no American ground support, though with heavy American air support, and after Nixon and Kissinger, with surpassing diplomatic agility, had recruited China and Russia to help pressure North Vietnam into a settlement. After having thus failed to prosecute the war they started, or to force an outright surrender from the succeeding Republican administration, the Democrats and their partisans in the national media approved the administration’s Vietnam peace treaty in the Senate (which was a formality Nixon did not have to seek), in which treaty it was implicit that anticipated North Vietnamese violations would be replied to with U.S. air power as they had been in 1972.
When the North Vietnamese assault came, the Democrats prevented the Nixon and Ford administrations from providing the South Vietnamese any assistance, dooming the mission for which 57,000 Americans had died. This outright betrayal of the South Vietnamese anti-Communists, which condemned millions to gruesome fates in the Cambodian killing fields and among the Boat People on the high seas, and to the insatiable execution squads of the Viet Cong, was covered by, in Napoleon’s phrase, the “lies agreed upon” that Nixon and Kissinger had known all along that a non-Communist Vietnam had no chance of survival and had deliberately sacrificed tens of thousands of American servicemen in order to masquerade as patriots and true-grit Cold Warriors. This was not just a shameful traduction; it was an egregious act of partisan transvestism.
In his one full presidential term, in addition to extracting America undefeated from Vietnam and opening relations with China, Richard Nixon negotiated and signed the greatest arms-control agreement in the history of the world with the Soviet Union, started the peace process in the Middle East, abolished the draft that had so vexed the hordes of supposedly conscientious anti-war demonstrators, ended school segregation while avoiding the court-ordered lunacy of compulsory busing of children all around metropolitan areas in pursuit of “racial balance,” and founded the Environmental Protection Agency.
For all of these reasons, Nixon was reelected in 1972 by the greatest majority of the states (49) since James Monroe ran unopposed in 1820, and by the greatest plurality in history (18 million). (He had defeated Hubert Humphrey four years before by only 500,000 votes.) The reason for this immense victory was that his one full term was, next to Lincoln’s and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first and third terms, the most successful in the country’s history, which has remained, these nearly 40 years, one of the most assiduously ignored facts of American history.
Subsequent Democratic leaders — McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Gore, and Kerry — have all been unrepentant old boys of the anti-war myth-makers’ brotherhood, and the current president, because of his comparative youth, is an alumnus of the red-diaper anti-Vietnam children’s auxiliary. The Democrats evaded the responsibility for getting into Vietnam by magnifying the Watergate nonsense into the destruction of the Nixon presidency, and then the responsibility for defeat there behind Ronald Reagan’s bloodless, bone-crushing victory in the Cold War (against every important tactical ingredient of which, especially the Strategic Defense Initiative, the Democrats had ear-splittingly railed; Reagan redeemed the efforts of earlier Democratic leaders of firmer mettle, such as Roosevelt, Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson).
Meanwhile, at the Gray Lady, Ross Douthat upends all of the conventional wisdom on Nixon’s opponent in 1960 that those who’ve had the microchip implanted that makes them believe everything in the New York Times and all that reactionary Democrats hold dear:
At its best, King’s new Kennedy assassination novel, “11/22/63” — which sends its protagonist back in time to change that November day’s events — offers an implicit critique of this generational obsession. (I am not giving much away when I reveal that the time-traveling hero does not succeed in freeing ’60s America from the cruel snares of history.) But its narrative power still depends on accepting the false premises of the Kennedy cult — premises that will no doubt endure so long as the 1960s generation does, but still deserve to be challenged at every opportunity.
The first premise is that Kennedy was a very good president, and might have been a great one if he’d lived. Few serious historians take this view: It belongs to Camelot’s surviving court stenographers, and to popularizers like Chris Matthews, whose new best seller “Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero” works hard to gloss over the thinness of the 35th president’s actual accomplishments. Yet there is no escaping the myth’s hold on the popular imagination. In Gallup’s “greatest president” polling, J.F.K. still regularly jostles with Lincoln and Reagan for the top spot.
In reality, the kindest interpretation of Kennedy’s presidency is that he was a mediocrity whose death left his final grade as “incomplete.” The harsher view would deem him a near disaster — ineffective in domestic policy, evasive on civil rights and a serial blunderer in foreign policy, who barely avoided a nuclear war that his own brinksmanship had pushed us toward. (And the latter judgment doesn’t even take account of the medical problems that arguably made him unfit for the presidency, or the adulteries that eclipsed Bill Clinton’s for sheer recklessness.)
The second false premise is that Kennedy would have kept us out of Vietnam. Or as a character puts it in “11/22/63,” making the case for killing Lee Harvey Oswald: “Get rid of one wretched waif, buddy, and you could save millions of lives.”
Actually, it would be more accurate to describe the Vietnam War as Kennedy’s darkest legacy. His Churchillian rhetoric (“pay any price, bear any burden …”) provided the war’s rhetorical frame as surely as George W. Bush’s post-9/11 speeches did for our intervention in Iraq. His slow-motion military escalation established the strategic template that Lyndon Johnson followed so disastrously. And the war’s architects were all Kennedy people: It was the Whiz Kids’ mix of messianism and technocratic confidence, not Oswald’s fatal bullet, that sent so many Americans to die in Indochina.
And speaking of Vietnam, don’t miss Scott Ott at PJM on “Huntsman’s Disqualifying Distortion About Vietnam” and how LBJ ignored the advice of his generals on Vietnam, with ultimately catastrophic results.
Apparently, Zhou Enlai never actually said that it was “too soon to say” what the results of the French Revolution were. But sometimes it does take a while to place events into focus — even if the articles above by Black and Douthat may be revisionism for its own sake.