Monday, December 31, 2007

Flashback: Hubert, Losing His Nerve, a Scary Thing for a Leader, Tries to Get Johnson to Back Down and Stop the Bombing…Gene Resolves Not to Let Bobby Muscle Him Aside. The Comedy of Trying to Negotiate with Bobby. Bobby Announces. And Gene’s Ron Paul...

[More than 50 years of politics written for my kids and grandchildren].

Hubert Loses His Nerve.

As Gene McCarthy went from Washington National airport to a private meeting with Jerry Eller, Hubert Humphrey was losing his nerve. Feeling sure that Lyndon Johnson wouldn’t run again—but not being told that, exactly—and knowing he would be the nominee, Hubert panicked and tried to resolve the impasse between the peace people and the administration. The peace people had made much over the heavy plastering of North Vietnam by huge, high-flying B-52 bombers. By Spring of 1968 we were dropping up to a million pounds of explosives each day. The heat the Johnson administration was getting was similar to the heat George W. Bush and his administration received before the launch of the surge. Hubert was melting like a snow-cone in July.

Johnson was melting into puddles of uncertainty as well. It had nothing to do with Vietnam—but with his ambitious domestic program he called “The Great Society.” If Vietnam was chaotic, he couldn’t pass the measures he thought his legacy would depend on. What to do? It was to somehow pull his irons out of the fire in Vietnam so he could concentrate on his domestic program.

Trouble was, all the old Kennedy people who had had so much faith in firmness were either gone or uncertain. In hindsight, Johnson’s original view—to stick with his win-the-war objective-- was right and his frantic maneuvering to win peace wrong. The North Vietnamese had spurned his overtures for peace and when he met Ne Win, the neutralist premier of Burma, Win told him in Humphrey’s presence that the wish to strike a deal with the North Vietnamese was wrong. “You are wrong in asking for peace,” he said. “The North Vietnamese interpret that as weakness.” But the old senatorial deal-maker was scared stiff of losing the public and the congress so he came up with a plan to propose a halt in the bombing above the 20th parallel as a gesture which might lead to the beginning of negotiations. Johnson was being pushed by his close friends in the administration like Clark Clifford who had succeeded Robert MacNamara. MacNamara the epitome of the cool, corporate manager had lost his nerve and dwindled into a puddle of guilt for his role in Vietnam—which guilt has stayed with him today in his nineties.

Like Johnson, Clifford was a relativist, a wheeler-dealer, a high stakes poker player and never found anybody in his legal-political career who wasn’t ready to deal. He and Johnson were wrong about the Vietnamese. In retrospect it’s obvious if you were the North Vietnamese as Ne Win had said. Why deal now when the U.S. appears to reeling with indecision? Why not wait for the next offer?

Suggestion for the next offer came from Hubert. Panicking, Hubert came over to the White House living quarters the first Saturday after the New Hampshire primary. Johnson and he conferred in Johnson’s bedroom. What Hubert said and to which Johnson agreed underscored fundamental character weakness in both men, a weakness that may serve as the dividing-point between liberals and conservatives. Up to now with a few bobbles and twists, Hubert was on record as wanting to win in Vietnam. Now he allowed the disintegrating political situation in the United States—impacting on his own fading possibilities of election—to sway him.

Hubert said, “Mr. President” (he never called him Lyndon after the election except once when his son was in the hospital and Johnson was pushing him hard to pass the civil rights bill), “from the political view here at home, that [the pullback to the 20th parallel] is not going to do much good. What you should do is stop it all. You should cease bombing north of the 17th parallel, the border of the demilitarized zone.” That was Humphrey’s mistake. It is clear that he was allowing the domestic political situation to take precedence over the military strategy—not recognizing the truth of what the Burma premier had told them. The same fundamental weakness accrues to Johnson—even worse. Johnson as president had resolved to win the war not weaken. In fact, Johnson had received word that Tet was not the disaster the media had represented. The media were against the war and for that reason, thinking of domestic politics, both Johnson and Hubert vacillated.

To be sure there were good political reasons for their vacillations but no matter how many pragmatic convolutions one must perform to get to the presidency, it is no good if you lose your confidence in what you know is right and wallow in experiments in order to cling to power. And if Johnson had thought about it more clearly, his reputation hung on Vietnam and winning it rather than showing weakness which would torpedo his Great Society anyhow. Winning it: That’s where character comes in. Assuredly there were some mammoth pressures on Johnson---but no more than accrues in many presidencies. Where Hubert and he weakened was that the pressures were all of a domestic political nature, not jeopardizing passage of their favorite liberal domestic programs—for the resolution of which they bargained away the credibility of the nation.

Here were the domestic political pressures and worries.

. First, there was the danger that McCarthy’s good showing in New Hampshire would bring Bobby Kennedy in. Second, Hubert was worried that Martin Luther King, Jr. who was increasingly speaking out against the war, could impact the black vote. Third, Robert McNamara had crumbled under the pressure, had changed his stance from hawk to dove and had counseled the war couldn’t be won—so he resigned. Fourth, McNamara was succeeded by an old Washington wheeler-dealer, Clark Clifford, a wily lobbyist-lawyer of no fixed absolutes whatever who had saved Johnson’s neck several times in the past and was sworn to do all he could to salvage the political situation—and Clifford had concluded that the war couldn’t be won and that General William Westmoreland’s call for more troops shouldn’t be honored. Fifth, the Kerner Commission had turned in its report on civil disorders and had seen a nation split between white spread out in a suburban ring and black penned up in the inner city which pressured the administration to rectify it for political purposes overnight (which couldn’t be done). Sixth, as result of the urban violence, Alabama Governor George Wallace was touring white urban areas getting emotional backing for his campaign for president. Any efforts Johnson would make to help the blacks would be used by Wallace as fodder for the alienated white Democratic votes..

These domestic political problems were just that—domestic and political. But men of character who believe in their mission would adhere to principle—about the war and the fact that things were improving for the black condition. By then Lyndon Johnson had all but decided that he would not run again; all the more reason for him to tough it out as a lame duck. But the pressure was too much for Johnson, the old senatorial wheeler-dealer to stand without capitulating to his critics. And Hubert was the quivering heap of Jello, worried about how he could get elected. Both men who had concluded a thousand domestic political deals, felt the only hope for the Democratic party would be to conclude another one with the North Vietnamese.

As a lame duck, Johnson could have resisted all and resolved to stand tall in his war strategy. He did not have the intestinal fortitude to do it. He could have not worried whatsoever about Hubert nor a victory by Bobby Kennedy: confident that adhering to principle he, Johnson, would be justified. And he would have been justified by history far more than he has been. As for Hubert, knowing he’d be the next nominee, he would look far better in history had he measured up to the consequences of his and Johnson’s policies. As it was, Johnson didn’t run and Hubert lost. How better for Hubert had he lost fighting for principle. But no, the canny, clever old South Dakota pharmacist, writhed in agony for a wary out.

Contrast this with George W. Bush on Iraq. Sure, there were a number of mistakes surrounding our going to Iraq as there are mistakes in every war. One pretext was that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Whether he got rid of them, shipped them to Syria or not, that conclusion turned out to be unprovable. A pretext was that the actual conquering of Saddam would be a walk in the park. Yes it was—but no one had calculated the nature of the occupation and the hazards. Just as with Vietnam, the defense secretary, Don Rumsfeld, either evidently lost heart or, if he had a winning strategy, couldn’t carry it through (I don’t know which and I mean to ask him when we meet). I know Rumsfeld personally and have not talked with him since before he took the job, but I surmise he lost confidence in our ability to win--this must have been the case. He was always reported to be on the side of holding back more troops and doubting the efficacy of greater commitment (perhaps I am wrong). Rumsfeld was fired and has not been heard from again.

All the pressures devolved upon George W. Bush. The so-called mainstream media have made him the goat and a highly unpopular president. But he didn’t weaken. He fired one top general and found a far better one in David Petraeus. He lost control of the Congress to be sure in 2006 but the excesses of the anti-war Democrats did them in and Bush began to regain his relevance: the past session of the Congress ended in failure and non-accomplishment for the Democrats.

As with 1967-68, an election in 2008 is fast coming. But Bush has held firm, has not budged and those who are determined to win in Iraq dominate the field on the Republican side: McCain, Romney, Giuliani. In the presidency, character is the difference. That was the difference in 1968 with Johnson and Humphrey. I guess the answer is this: when political power means that much to you, that you’re willing to sell out principle on a major thing, you’re in an inherently weak position.

The folly of it is (to me at least) that Johnson and Humphrey, both shrewd negotiators, but now panicky, thought that tossing a few crumbs to the North Vietnamese and the fervid liberal peace people in their party, would do the trick. They may have, like McNamara, been inwardly persuaded that the domino theory had been disproved and so this country should toss in its cards and say the hell with it. But that was not the case.

All the same, the initial pretext of domino was right. Those who said the fall of Vietnam would lead to the fall of Laos and Cambodia were right. Not in assuming the dominos would fall all throughout Southeast Asia and, as LBJ had said once, “at least down to Singapore and to Djakarta”—but right in the context of the global war with communism. No sooner had Vietnam fallen than Cuban troops appeared in Angola to help the Communist faction there and overwhelm pro-Western forces in a civil war and the pattern would be repeated the next few years with Russian advances in Ethiopia, Mozambique, South Yemen and Afghanistan. Certainly in domestic U. S. politics if Johnson had held firm and Hubert had taken the challenge, the result in 1968 would not have seriously changed. The character of these men which wilted under fire was the difference.

Gene Meets with Two Kennedys.

The day after New Hampshire, Gene got to his office, saw that he had a call from Bobby Kennedy again and arranged to meet Bobby on the fourth floor of the Old Senate Office building in Sen. Ted Kennedy’s office. To avoid reporters, Gene ducked into the Senate gym in the building’s basement, went out a back door and climbed up a staircase, doubling back to Ted Kennedy’s office where Bobby was waiting. They met for 20 minutes but nothing was resolved. Neither man liked the other. McCarthy surprisingly threw out one teaser to Bobby. He said that while he didn’t think he would get the nomination over Johnson or Hubert, if he did and got elected he would probably serve only one term, hinting that Bobby would be wise to wait to 1972 for his shot. Kennedy said the hell with that. So it broke up.

McCarthy went back to his office and announced he would enter, in addition to Wisconsin, Indiana and South Dakota primaries. Then he flew off to Wisconsin (with Abigail and Mary, their daughter) to greet his ecstatic troops who were revving up for the election on April 2. But while he was in Wisconsin, Eller and Blair Clark, huddling in Washington, thought of a way to resolve things. Let McCarthy and Kennedy divvy up the primaries so as to register the biggest possible vote against Johnson and the war and have to two, McCarthy and Kennedy, go for a showdown in California on June 4 with the winner to take on Johnson or Humphrey.

McCarthy didn’t like the idea at first but as Eller had reasoned it out, he accepted it. The next thing was to pose the idea to Kennedy. Well the 20-minute meeting with Bobby had gone so badly that Eller thought it might be better to pose the idea to Ted Kennedy. Gene agreed. Eller arranged a meeting with Ted Kennedy that night in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Eller, Blair Clark, Curtis Gans and Ted Kennedy all flew together to Chicago where they were to connect on a commercial flight to Green Bay.

Bad weather interfered and the Kennedy-Clark-Gans group chartered a Lear jet to Green Bay from Chicago using Clark’s personal credit card. By the time the Ted Kennedy party got to Gene’s hotel at 2:30 a.m., Gene had gone to bed. Abigail, Mary and Eller had a tough time getting him to get up out of bed, put on a kimono and meet with Ted Kennedy. Finally he did. Ted had brought along a reconciliation statement from Bobby but never got to take it out of his briefcase. Gene was suspicious of the briefcase; it was a double-latched affair not a valise. Gene later told me that one latch was open which to Gene meant that there was a recording device inside. Gene dismissed the talk summarily thinking he was being recorded. Whether Teddy did or not, Gene was having none of it.

Bobby would declare the next morning, said Ted; McCarthy said so what, it wouldn’t interfere with his plans. Abigail who had from the very start didn’t like the idea of Gene challenging an incumbent Democratic president nevertheless was angered with the high-handed ways of the Kennedys. So were Eller and Mary McCarthy. Here Bobby didn’t have the guts to run himself and now that Gene all but won the New Hampshire primary, there was the Little Big Man, Teddy, saying that Gene can back off now because the first team was about to take over. After all, Mary said, correctly, the problem in Vietnam was caused by John Kennedy hiking the number of U.S. troops from 700 advisers under Ike to 16,000. Now they insinuated they had claims on the presidency. Abigail agreed. “The hell with that,” she said. Bobby, she calculated as many had before and since, was a ruthless son of a bitch. Now if ands or buts about that.

The next morning, Gene got up, shaved, breakfasted with his family and with them went over to the Green Bay television station to watch Bobby announce for president from the Old Senate Caucus Room, the same spot Gene had announced 106 days earlier. Gene followed Kennedy by doing a national remote on the air from Green Bay and for once made a rather statesmanlike pronouncement, saying that he will continue, would run as hard as he could in every primary and that “if I find I can’t win, I will say to my delegates: `You’re free people. Go wherever you want and make the best judgment you can make.’” The reason the statement sounded so good is that Eller suggested it and drafted it after listening to Gene swear about Bobby with such vehemence that the television engineers covered their ears.

Watching him, Abigail decided: well, I was against it at first but we’re in it now and these Kennedys have enough gall and arrogance to assume they have virtual ownership of the presidency to cause anyone to challenge them.

Gene’s Ron Paul-Like Vision of the Presidency.

Today’s Ron Paul people like to compare him to Robert Taft. There is very, very little similarity as I’ve mentioned before. As a lawyer who worked on the staff of Herbert Hoover at Versailles, Taft was a lawyerly constitutionalist not a isolationist or bunker state demagogue. He supported creation of the League of Nations and the UN. As a senator he introduced legislation to provide federal assistance for housing following World War II and a variant of federal aid for education. Taft believed in defeating Communism in the world theatre; as a constitutionalist he had some questions about the legalities: i.e. whether NATO was structured sufficiently so U. S. troops were not led by a European. He supported creation of the UN but had legalistic differences about the construction of the organization’s charter. (See his book “A Foreign Policy for Americans” written in 1951).

He did not support Truman’s intervention in Korea because (a) Truman had not asked for a declaration of war or a resolution and (b) he opposed the concept of our entry into the war because there was no overt or covert attack on us by North Korea. Domestically, it should be remembered that Robert Taft idolized his father who as president prosecuted more trusts than Theodore Roosevelt and carried the role of the federal government as conservator of public lands as strenuously as did Teddy.

It was clear that had he been nominated for president, Taft would have probably invited Gen. Douglas MacArthur to become his vice presidential nominee…notwithstanding that MacArthur’s father (Gen. Arthur MacArthur) and Taft’s father had had an uneasy relationship. There was nothing about MacArthur that was restrained in foreign relations or military policy—or domestic policy as is clear from his policies when he single-handedly governed Japan as its occupier. Ron Paul’s people keep prattling that he is another Taft. Not so. In contrast, Gene McCarthy is a much closer model for Ron Paul. Here is McCarthy’s view of the presidency, expressed as he readied himself to go into the Wisconsin primary.

In his statement following his tantamount victory in New Hampshire, Gene McCarthy said: “A president should not only be able to sense the needs and aspirations of the country and accept the limitations of his power but he also should understand that this country does not so much need leadership, because the potential for leadership in a free country must exist in every man and every woman. He must be prepared to be a kind of channel for those desires and those aspirations, perhaps giving some direction to the movement of the country largely by the way of setting people free.”

That is the essence of modern libertarianism regarding the presidency.

Shortly after his emergence from relative obscurity through his victory in New Hampshire, the real liberals in his coterie rebelled because Bobby Kennedy was on the horizon and they saw themselves more accommodated by him. Author Al Eisele (a classmate of mine) summarizes it this way in his book “Almost to the Presidency”: “McCarthy’s unorthodox view of the presidency as an office that should be used not for exercising power but for sharing it so people could control their own destinies may have run counter to conventional thinking…” Exactly which is why McCarthy is a superb runner-up to Ron Paul.

The Staff Rebellion Against McCarthy.

As Chicago is only a few hours away from Milwaukee and McCarthy’s Wisconsin effort was headquartered there at the old Schroeder hotel, I made the trip two times to see how they were getting along. As soon as Bobby Kennedy got in the race, a leftist coterie around McCarthy rebelled out of dissatisfaction with McCarthy’s libertarian ways. On March 25, 1968 at the start of the final week of the Wisconsin primary campaign, forty young staffers gathered in the Milwaukee hotel room of Curtis Gans and held a discussion about McCarthy’s supposed “lack of concern” about the poor in Milwaukee’s black ghetto. McCarthy’s press secretary Seymour Hersh and his assistant Mary Lou Oates resigned for “personal reasons.” The staff felt McCarthy should speak more forcefully on civil rights and that he should appeal to the black voters in Milwaukee. Gans and Richard Goodwin argued against it saying it would cost McCarthy votes among Milwaukee’s blue-collar population. Other aides insisted it would be necessary to compete with Bobby Kennedy for black votes later on.

When I spoke to McCarthy about this later in Milwaukee he shrugged off Hersh’s resignation saying he didn’t write well enough anyhow. “Press secretaries come and go,” he said. “The most important thing is a campaign is a scheduler and a driver. If my driver got angry I’d cancel everything and sit down with him. Hersh is not important.” At that time, no. But later, Hersh became one of the most celebrated reporters and authors of the day, winning the Pulitzer prize in 1969 when he was with “The New York Times” for the My Lai massacre and scoring big stories ever since. He was born on the South Side to Yiddish-speaking parents who ran a cleaning establishment, went to the University of Chicago and then to the Associated Press before joining McCarthy. He has been one of the more upfront totally leftist, anti-USA journalists of our time.

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