Friday, February 2, 2007


[Another column for The Wanderer, the nation’s oldest weekly Catholic newspaper—with some updating added].

By Thomas F. Roeser

CHICAGO—If, up to now, you ever thought that politics should stop short at the water’s edge from being mixed up with war and foreign policy, think again. Since this nation’s founding, presidential candidates played politics with war and peace —all for their own partisan benefit. And by and large the country has been the better for it.

In 1952, retired general of the army Dwight Eisenhower, announced for president and made speeches didn’t mix his politics with the Korean War or foreign policy and put everybody to sleep. All the while, the nation’s newest political taste-of-the-month, an all-but-unknown one-term Illinois governor named Adlai E. Stevenson was charming America with references to war and foreign policy in clipped talks containing memorable phrases he wrote himself in superb English with brilliant flashes of humor.

Eisenhower being dull wasn’t the worst things that happened to the GOP in 1952. Just as Ike was promising to “clean up the mess in Washington,” news of Richard Nixon’s secret $18,000 slush fund broke (a parcel of cash put together for his own benefit by some close California business buddies). There was talk of dropping him from the ticket. Nixon got off the hook with a lachrymose TV performance where he talked about his kids’ little dog Checkers. The speech worked but when he greeted Eisenhower, he wept on the general’s shoulder as flashbulbs popped. There was produced a news photo that showed a dark-haired slick-appearing young hustler blubbering all over the nice clean suit of a 5-star general producing a sight that was, well, let us say unmanly.

All the while, Stevenson was rising in the polls and scoring points while Eisenhower was falling flat. Adlai coined the phrase that lasted for decades saying the GOP “has to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 20th century.” Finally, in October, 1952, the Republican high command faced up to the possibility that 1952 might become 1948 all over again. Then an underdog Harry Truman knocked out front-runner Tom Dewey.

The Republican big-shots gathered for a strategy session in Detroit, site of a major speech to be delivered by Eisenhower. They said in public they weren’t worried at all but once the doors slammed shut on their hotel suite, they all flew at each other’s throats blaming each other for the mistake-filled campaign..

In that session, they agreed nothing was going right. Eisenhower would never be a good speaker. He couldn’t deliver a memorable line of oratory. Nixon was a drag. Nobody in the GOP had the slightest idea on how to conclude the Korean War. Ike wouldn’t talk much about it in order to preserve national unity. But General Douglas MacArthur, the GOP keynoter, wanted us to go into China which seemed a no-no; Bob Taft wanted us to pull out: another no-no. But on Korea, everybody was asking: Where did Ike stand?

They knew this: the war was running out of control, so-called truce meetings were deadlocked and the fighting might well go on for the remainder of the next term—a war started by a Democratic president. Now Eisenhower was due to make a major speech in Detroit but the lines were stale, the rhetoric moldy and the expected delivery mediocre. What could he say about Korea where the war was raging and talks between us and the North Koreans were dragging on interminably? What could he say that was fresh and different, that could give the people some hope?

Then a guy who somehow got into the room named Emmett Hughes, an Eisenhower speech-writer and former Time magazine wordsmith who had never been in politics before and who wasn’t even a Republican but a liberal Democrat, piped up. The general should say, “If elected, I will go to Korea!” Everybody said: Huh? What’s so magic about……Then they paused. And all together they said: Wait! That’s a great idea! It’s one thing Eisenhower, as a world-famed general could do that will ring the voters’ cash register! And it doesn’t commit our guy to do anything about it—just go! It’s the one thing Adlai can’t match!

So they all rushed into Eisenhower’s suite saying they just came up with this idea (giving Hughes no credit). “General,” they said, “we have a great idea for this speech! In it you say “If elected, I will go to Korea!”

But it didn’t ring the bell with Eisenhower.

“That’s the silliest thing I ever heard of!” he fumed. “What possibly would I learn going to Korea that I don’t know about the war—or any war? I’ve been on battlefields since World War I! Besides, what will I do when I get there? Besides, I’ve promised not to exploit the war for partisan ends.”

Leonard Hall, the GOP national chairman, said: “General, you won’t. You’ll just say you’ll go! The big news is that you’ll go! Decide what you’ll do later after you’re elected! Besides, if you don’t say something about Korea you may not get elected!”

The possibility of defeat like Tom Dewey caught Ike’s attention. Go to Korea sounded hokey. It was hokey. But then the more Ike turned it over in his mind, the more he saw in the possibilities. After all, he wasn’t a general any longer but a player in a hokey game: politics. Saying he’d go would put off any pressure to say what he’d do about it. He couldn’t give a solution until he would go. And he wouldn’t go until elected. A genius idea! He gave the idea the green light. And he’d use the idea in his Detroit speech that very night.

So, outfitted with a fresh speech written by Hughes, the commander of the greatest invasion in world history announced—all the while keeping a straight face—that “if elected, I will go to Korea.”

To do what? He didn’t say. And nobody asked. Saying he’d go if elected was enough.

Immediately, the U. S. electorate seemed to heave a sigh of relief: Ike Will Go to Korea! thundered the headlines—and the pace of the campaign switched from the debonair, witty Stevenson to the symbol of the military solution, Eisenhower. Just as he had won the European war, he would win the Asiatic one when he would see Korea first-hand, after the mere formality of his election.

(Eisenhower was elected, went to Korea, came back and after the talks dragged on, quietly passed the word to the North Koreans and Chinese that unless they wrap up the negotiations quickly, he’d consider dropping the A-bomb. Since he was a 5 –star general, they figured he wasn’t kidding; they agreed quickly and left the conference table).

Eisenhower’s grandstand play was not was not the first time a candidate mixed politics with war. The first was Thomas Jefferson’s announcement that he would not continue to pay bribes to the damned Muslim Barbary pirates from Morocco, Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers in order to save $20 million in trade. His speech connected with the folks. And after reelection, he waged an undeclared war against the Muslims until they hollered “uncle.” Madison, Polk, Lincoln, McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, FDR, Truman, Kennedy, LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton and Bush II have all done it. And it’s happening again.

The latest mixing of war and presidential politics happened last week with the presidential campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton, originally from Park Ridge, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago and my hometown. In Iowa, where the first votes will be cast in caucus next winter, Hillary came forth with her own plan to end the war in Iraq.

First, she looked at all the other options out there. One put forth by Cong. John Murtha—pull everybody out and get them running as fast as their legs an carry them either home or to safe Okinawa—isn’t her style. It looks like we’ve been defeated and are giving up. Hillary voted for the war and her backing down would look bad.

Another idea is to redeploy our forces where they will be safer, outside Iraq’s dangerous cities, and conduct limited training and counter-terrorism missions, all the while using diplomats to beg for openings with Syria and Iran. That’s the strategy of Joe Biden, a just-announced competitor of hers for the nomination.

A pro-abort Catholic Senator from Delaware, Biden was hooted out of a Democratic presidential rim in 1987 on charges much, much worse than mere speech-plagiarism (everybody borrows a few lines from others these days). He stole not just whole paragraphs from a brilliant speech by British Labour leader Neil Kinnock but astoundingly appropriated most of Kinnock’s entire rags-to-success biography as a former poor kid from the Wales coal mining sector. It not only didn’t fit Biden, it didn’t fit the U. S. where, unlike Britain, upward social mobility is a common experience.

Biden’s not only stole Kinnock’s very words but his life-story—saying he, Biden, rose by his own bootstraps from working class roots and was the first of his family ever to go to college. You have to wonder about Biden’s mental stability to steal such a story. He wasn’t working class or poor nor the first of his family ever to go to college. He was born to a comfortably well-off suburban white-collar family whose father was a car dealer and grandfather a prominent state senator. Stealing somebody else’s bio which could be easily checked out was probably the most stupid gaffe a presidential candidate had pulled in the 20th century.

But here we are in the 21st. Hoping everybody’s forgotten it by now (as the media like to do with liberals) he announced for president again last week on TV, the recipient of artificial teeth whitening process, festooned with artificial hair-plugs. And he trumpeted the Iraq idea. But Hillary’s not buying Biden’s plan because (a) it’s not hers, (b) not Biden’s either but was lifted from Nebraska’s Republican presidential wannabe Chuck Hagel and (c) she’s too smart to suggest we beg negotiations with Syria and Iran in case she’d ever have to face a Republican opponent, like John McCain, in a debate.

Yet another option is President Bush’s idea—to all Democrats the worst of all: send a surge of fresh troops into the most dangerous neighborhoods of Baghdad, Ramadi and Nadej and keep them there indefinitely to keep the lid on until the whole things simmers down. It could fail because of lack of help from the Iraqi government. Or it could succeed only to be short-circuited by Washington if the Left were to pull the funding plug, which is what happened in Vietnam. General Creighton Abrams won battlefield victories that could have turned the tide in the war but for the congressional Dems who shut off the money spigot. Hillary doesn’t want to antagonize the powerful Left in her party.

So she trumped them all last week in the political game. Hillary’s idea: We cap our troop levels at 140,000 and plan to withdraw them and all further aid to Iraq no later than January 20, 2009. The war is over: pffft, like that. Brilliant politically, given the tightrope she has to walk with her lefty party. January 20 will be the day she could take the oath as 44th president. The mess would be off her stove the day she would get in. Brilliant politically, too, because it captures the middle ground: no cut-and-run and no build-up.

Hillary is just one red state away from capturing the flag if she gets the nomination—but getting the nod will be the crucial problem for her. If she has to go farther to the left to get the nomination, she may well have foreclosed her chance to beat a Republican. Even now she’s flirting dangerously close to the Left—in order to keep her supporters from drifting off to Edwards (the farthest Lefty) or Obama who is almost where Edwards is. It’s a torturously nerve-racking game of chicken. So far she’s done pretty well.

She leaves the Left for John Edwards and Barack Hussein Obama. Edwards dominates the Left, crusading to cut off funds for the “surge” which is only a half-step from eliminating all funding for the war. Obama, aka Bambi, said last week said he wants the military out of Iraq within a year which sounds like cut-and-run. Edwards may just have a crack at the nomination—but it may not be worth more than it was for George McGovern or Mike Dukakis if he gets it. Illinois sentimentalists aside who want to reenact the hoary old civil rights spirit with a near-kid who wasn’t around when the marching and suffering were done, almost no one seriously expects Bambi will get the flag.

A voting record that slants left more than Ted Kennedy’s notwithstanding, he’s an empty suit who keeps generating the word “hope!” He reminds me of the Hopi Indian who tried to sell me a blanket many years ago when our California-bound Zephyr stopped near a reservation to allow the natives to hustle a few artifacts. We got out to stretch our legs and I overheard the Hopi joking to another Indian in perfect English—but when I approached him, he held forth the blanket and said pleadingly, “Me Hopi!” I answered: com’on, I just heard you speak English perfectly. To which he said, “Yeah, me Hopi! Hope I sell this blanket. You want it? Ten bucks!”

Bambi hopes all he has to say to get elected president is that he stands for hope: the audacity of hope. Hope for what? Damned if he can tell you. Hope he can get elected. Not enough, sorry. Not this year in the middle of a war.

Hillary’s the front-runner, all right, but up to now, things weren’t exactly coming up roses for Madame President-Expectant. She virtually had it all wrapped up until Bambi emerged, startled and wide-eyed, out of the woods and stole her Illinois base from her. With him commandeering Hillary’s home state, Illinois, she lost a sizable part of her geographic base. These Illinoisans have nothing against Hillary, they just want to patronize the black vote here which, with vacuous white liberals, constitute 2/3rds of the party strength. Which leaves Hillary without Illinois and no substantial Leftists—just the Center. And while the Center is where you want to be after you get the nomination, you should be perceived by the lefty base as acceptable. Which she hasn’t been ever since she voted for the war.

What Hillary needs to do is keep the center so that if she gets the nomination, she won’t be marginalized as were John Kerry, Al Gore and Mike Dukakis as extremist peaceniks. Whether or not in her Left-wing party she can get nominated with just the Center is a problem. That’s the big problem.

But another is her geographic base. This lady is an Illinoisan but Illinois now belongs to Bambi. She can claim Arkansas but it’s turned Republican so nothing much there to work with. She lived in Washington, D. C. So? The only state she has sewed up is the one she carpet-bagged to--New York. Not bad but New York is not the most comfortable place to be, home of the “New York Times” and all. In addition to New York, she had always counted on Illinois—B.B.: before Bambi.

Assuredly, Hillary Clinton is still the candidate to beat for the Democratic nomination but erosion sets in fast and she’s got to watch herself. Her defense of voting for the Iraq War because, she says, she was deceived by George W. Bush comes perilously close to George Romney having said he was “brainwashed” by the Pentagon. Ergo: The Dems can say if you’re dumb enough to be deceived by George W. Bush, you’re too dumb to be president.

So her advisers tell her several things: first, she has to ditch the argument that she was so gullible as to believe Bush; second, she has to make a big push to win the first definable test of strength, in the Iowa caucuses. Right now in Iowa, believe it or not, she trails John Edwards, Obama and Governor Tom Vilsack with likely Democratic caucus-goers: Edwards with 22% and Obama with 17%. Hillary’s third with 15%, followed by Biden 4%, Wesley Clark 2% and Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd and Dennis Kucnich with 1% each, the remainder undecided. Not very good.

Her strategists tell her (a) she has to devote a lot of time to Iowa (until now she hadn’t been in the state since 2003); (b) get out of the bubble and mingle with the folks, sit in farmhouse parlor chairs, sip coffee and gab with the folks rather than be surrounded by security cops with earplugs who talk into their sleeves; (c) focus on electability, changing the view she is too polarizing; become more human rather than a robot.

How can she appear human? She’s a driven woman, obsessed with getting elected, fixated on the White House. Her advisers say: very simple: be self-deprecating, make jokes at your expense. But Hillary’s not great at making jokes period, let alone give herself some self-deprecation. Her image is that of an ice-maiden (which, in truth, she is, as I can testify: having been traumatized by her killer-hostile stare one winter day in Manchester, New Hampshire in 1992 when I slopped snow from my boots all over her neatly-pressed pantsuit). But I thought she looked cute when mad.

Other suggestions from the advisers: (d) move left on Iraq—which she just did without going over the edge, getting the troops out of there by January 20, 2009…and (e) build a top-notch precinct organization which she’s doing since she has tons of money to assure her friends will turn out on precinct night in Iowa, no later than the fourth Monday in February 2008.

The toughest job for a control-freak like her is being self-deprecating so as to ditch the ice maiden image. But this she accomplished to a fare-thee-well last week in a news conference in Des Moines as a large audience of many hundreds of Iowans looked on. A stupid mainstream media reporter set it up for her, asking how, as the first woman president, she could deal with a world controlled by rough, tough men. Then her idea light-bulb snapped on. The way she handled it told me she’s a real pro.

Hillary re-phrased the question: “What in my background equips me to deal with evil and bad men?” and gave the audience a knowing, conspiratorial smile. The re-phrase brought down the house, the audience sensing delightedly that she was referring to her experience with her husband, the skirt-chasing Bill. Then, further helping her out, another reporter asked if she had been thinking of her husband. She raised an eyebrow expertly and no, of course not. The crowd loved it. Far from being a gaffe as some inexpert reporters thought, it was a well-staged plus. With one verbal stroke she showed vulnerability, humanness.

When the laughter died, she belted out a home-run, saying as president she’ll be tough and caring. And, indeed, her ad campaign should say just that: Hillary—Tough and Caring! That would be the best all-round description for her.

“You guys!” she laughed afterward to the national press which gave it coast-to-coast currency. “I thought I was funny. You guys keep telling me, lighten up, be fun. Now I get a little funny and I’m being psychoanalyzed!” But she knew exactly what she was doing and the self-deprecation was exactly the kind her strategists had been hoping for.

By week’s end, John Edwards was attacked for betraying our soldiers by cutting appropriations. Obama was being defended by the liberal media because someone had the effrontery to ask if he had attended a radical Muslim school as a kid—imagine! How racist, how crass, how so utterly-utterly insensitive to a person of color, having to get CNN to respond as to whether or not he was ever a Muslim believer! What is this world coming to when an African-American candidate for president has to respond to a religious query the same way JFK and the Romneys have had to do! And for some to believe it was a decorous leak from the Hillary people! Hillary’s people wouldn’t do that! Look at squinty-eyed Harold Ickes, Jr. How can they believe he would concoct anything like this! It would have to be the Republican who did it! Sure, just as Lynn Sweet said.

Edwards…Obama…and now Biden. Biden was criticized for putting his foot in his mouth by trying to praise Obama but the words came out: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” A clean black man? The first black guy on the American political scene who can both shower regularly and speak properly? Biden apologized profusely for the first real bonehead statement of the 21st century. There is absolutely no way he can survive this, even if Jesse, Sr. grants him absolution. Wait for the first black audience to interrogate Biden. He’ll be toast.

All the while, the Ice Maiden was melting memorably into a genuine human being. Hillary: Tough and Caring! The little lady won’t be rolled by the big guys. Hillary, I want you to take the nomination because you’re the nearest thing to what the true Democratic party once was—not remotely as good as Humphrey and Jackson but better than your competitors. You’re a very-very faint shadow of Truman, Humphrey and Henry Jackson and but you’re the only one your decadent party has.

1 comment:

  1. Tom, it looks like you've moved on, but you brought back the Muslim prep school reference as soon as you stopped your “Bambi” bit. I was surprised you left out the middle name.

    Conversation with America? Tough and caring? Who keeps the week-at-a-glance calendar for HC’s slogan department? Are you suggesting blank pages remain or just a lot of cross-outs and question marks?

    Looking at the poll numbers you presented, 39% of Iowans – the undecideds and maybe Kucinich’s 1% – can’t be wrong.