Peter Beinart, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that President Obama is spearheading RN’s foreign policy:
Obama’s foreign policy, in fact, looks a lot like Richard Nixon’s in the latter years of Vietnam, which sought to scale down another foreign policy doctrine — containment — that had gotten out of hand. And Nixon’s experience offers both a warning and an example: pulling back from your predecessor’s overblown commitments can be vital. The risk is that it can make you look weak or immoral, or both.
But RN didn’t look weak or immoral, Beinart explains further:
The best precedent for all this is what Nixon did in the late Vietnam years. For roughly two decades, the U.S. had been trying to contain “communism” — another ominous, elastic noun that encompassed a multitude of movements and regimes. But Vietnam proved that this was impossible: the U.S. didn’t have the money or might to keep communist movements from taking power anywhere across the globe. So Nixon stopped treating all communists the same way. Just as Obama sees Iran as a potential partner because it shares a loathing of al-Qaeda, Nixon saw Communist China as a potential partner because it loathed the U.S.S.R. Nixon didn’t stop there. Even as he reached out to China, he also pursued détente with the Soviet Union. This double outreach — to both Moscow and Beijing — gave Nixon more leverage over each, since each communist superpower feared that the U.S. would favor the other, leaving it geopolitically isolated. On a smaller scale, that’s what Obama is trying to do with Iran and Syria today. By reaching out to both regimes simultaneously, he’s making each anxious that the U.S. will cut a deal with the other, leaving it out in the cold. It’s too soon to know whether Obama’s game of divide and conquer will work, but by narrowing the post-9/11 struggle, he’s gained the diplomatic flexibility to play the U.S.’s adversaries against each other rather than unifying them against us.
RN’s National Security Adviser and Secretary of State evaluates President Obama’s Afghanistan strategy:
1 December 2009 and 3 November 1969: the desire to contain a vocal minority and the determination to mobilize a silent majority.
I’ve looked at a lot of the coverage of the President’s speech at West Point last night, and, so far at least, no one seems to have noticed the precedent and example that is hiding in plain sight: Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” speech of 3 November 1969.
Nixon was eleven months into his presidency forty years ago —just as Mr. Obama is eleven months and a week into his— when he went to the people to explain his plans for the war the nation was fighting in Vietnam.
Both leaders used a highly-publicized and much-anticipated speech to explain the conduct of a war started by their predecessor(s); to separate themselves from that history; and to announce their new policies for ending the war and bringing peace.
Both speeches were about the same length —4500 words. And both, based on the knowledge that the nation was divided and confused, and that there was a widespread feeling that the leaders hadn’t been leveling with the people, began with straightforward narratives of the story to that point.
Nixon even listed the questions he would answer:
How and why did America get involved in Vietnam in the first place?
How has this administration changed the policy of the previous administration?
What has really happened in the negotiations in Paris and on the battlefront in Vietnam?
What choices do we have if we are to end the war?
What are the prospects for peace?
Obama recalled the brutal provocation of 9/11, the decisions that followed, the developments in Iraq, and the current situation in Afghanistan:
Over the last several years, the Taliban has maintained common cause with al Qaeda, as they both seek an overthrow of the Afghan government. Gradually, the Taliban has begun to control additional swaths of territory in Afghanistan, while engaging in increasingly brazen and devastating attacks of terrorism against the Pakistani people.
Nixon mentioned his reservations about the way the war had been conducted:
Now, many believe that President Johnson’s decision to send American combat forces to South Vietnam was wrong. And many others —I among them— have been strongly critical of the way the war has been conducted.
Obama recalled his outright opposition:
I opposed the war in Iraq precisely because I believe that we must exercise restraint in the use of military force, and always consider the long-term consequences of our actions.
Nixon mentioned the possibility —and acknowledged the temptation— of simply ending the war by blaming the administration that began it.
From a political standpoint this would have been a popular and easy course to follow. After all, we became involved in the war while my predecessor was in office. I could blame the defeat which would be the result of my action on him and come out as the Peacemaker. Some put it to me quite bluntly: This was the only way to avoid allowing Johnson’s war to become Nixon’s war.
But I had a greater obligation than to think only of the years of my administration and of the next election.
Obama examined and refuted the arguments —within his own party— that he should wash his hands of the wars his predecessor started. Indeed, he cited Vietnam in this regard:
I recognize there are a range of concerns about our approach. So let me briefly address a few of the more prominent arguments that I’ve heard, and which I take very seriously.
First, there are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam. They argue that it cannot be stabilized, and we’re better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing. I believe this argument depends on a false reading of history.
Both Nixon and Obama quoted Eisenhower — Nixon albeit indirectly and Obama to make the opposite point. Nixon said:
In 1963, President Kennedy, with his characteristic eloquence and clarity, said: “. . . we want to see a stable government there, carrying on a struggle to maintain its national independence.
“We believe strongly in that. We are not going to withdraw from that effort. In my opinion, for us to withdraw from that effort would mean a collapse not only of South Viet-Nam, but Southeast Asia. So we are going to stay there.”
President Eisenhower and President Johnson expressed the same conclusion during their terms of office.
I’m mindful of the words of President Eisenhower, who — in discussing our national security — said, “Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.”
The thirty-seventh President spoke of the great weight of his decisions as Commander in Chief:
There are powerful personal reasons I want to end this war. This week I will have to sign 83 letters to mothers, fathers, wives, and loved ones of men who have given their lives for America in Vietnam. It is very little satisfaction to me that this is only one-third as many letters as I signed the first week in office. There is nothing I want more than to see the day come when I do not have to write any of those letters.
I want to end the war to save the lives of those brave young men in Vietnam.
As did the forty-fourth:
As President, I have signed a letter of condolence to the family of each American who gives their life in these wars. I have read the letters from the parents and spouses of those who deployed. I visited our courageous wounded warriors at Walter Reed. I’ve traveled to Dover to meet the flag-draped caskets of 18 Americans returning home to their final resting place. I see firsthand the terrible wages of war. If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow.
So, no, I do not make this decision lightly.
Although the two speeches —separated by forty years— shared many similarities, there were major differences between them in terms of substance, technique, and intention.
At the core of both speeches, both Presidents presented essentially similar policies in radically different ways. Nixon expounded on the Vietnamization that he had initiated earlier in the year:
We have adopted a plan which we have worked out in cooperation with the South Vietnamese for the complete withdrawal of all U.S. combat ground forces, and their replacement by South Vietnamese forces on an orderly scheduled timetable. This withdrawal will be made from strength and not from weakness. As South Vietnamese forces become stronger, the rate of American withdrawal can become greater.
And Obama set out what amounted to a policy of Afghanization:
The 30,000 additional troops that I’m announcing tonight will deploy in the first part of 2010 —the fastest possible pace— so that they can target the insurgency and secure key population centers. They’ll increase our ability to train competent Afghan security forces, and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight. And they will help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans.
But Nixon was adamant about staying until the job was done and about keeping his counsel in the meantime:
I have not and do not intend to announce the timetable for our program. And there are obvious reasons for this decision which I am sure you will understand. As I have indicated on several occasions, the rate of withdrawal will depend on developments on three fronts.
While Obama was definitive about his timetable for disengagement.
And as Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.
Nixon had written his speech entirely by himself at Camp David over the weekend before the Monday night on which he delivered it. He did this partly because he considered the content so important, and partly because he was determined that none of it would leak in advance. He took considerable satisfaction from the fact that what he said completely confounded the widespread speculations and predictions about what he would have to say.
Obama’s speech was parceled out in leaks over the preceding several days; and the text was accurately reported twenty-four hours before the speech was delivered. In the event, the delivery confirmed the expectations.
Nixon read his speech in the Oval Office in the White House at 9.30 PM. The glass-top desk was covered with a piece of brown baize and the only backdrop was the closed gold silk window curtains. The Obama address, delivered using TelePrompter at 8.30 PM, was a highly staged and choreographed event in Eisenhower Hall at the United States Military Academy at West Point —the second largest auditorium east of the Mississippi (only Radio City Music Hall is bigger). The event was opened with introductions and concluded with a crowd bath.
The Nixon speech was intended to speak directly to the American people by going above the large and growing anti-war movement while going around its sympathizers and supporters in the media. Nixon was convinced that “the great silent majority” of Americans would support his plan to end the war the way he proposed if only he could reach them and explain himself to them.
His belief was justified by the phenomenal results of that single speech. Overnight his poll ratings jumped from the high thirties to the high sixties, and the wind was at least temporarily sucked from the sails of the anti-war movement.
The Obama speech, on one very important level, was a finely calibrated exercise at mollifying, or at least containing, the vocal minority of leaders and activists inside the president’s own party who want nothing to do with this or any war.
Whether President Obama’s speech is as successful at containing the vocal minority as President Nixon’s was at mobilizing the silent majority will take at least a few more days to begin to figure out.
In recent months little has been heard about the scandal that forced former Senator (and 2004 Democratic vice-presidential candidate) John Edwards from political life. A grand jury in North Carolina is now hearing testimony regarding the question of whether funds earmarked for his 2008 presidential campaign were diverted to pay the living expenses of Rielle Hunter, who in February 2008 gave birth to a daughter who, it is widely reported, was fathered by Edwards. I wrote about “the Edwards Zone” a number of times in 2008 at TNN, but developments since I last discussed the case have been as bizarre and murky as ever, so I’m waiting to see what comes out of the grand jury’s deliberations.
But a passage in the new book The Audacity To Win by David Plouffe is worth mentioning. Plouffe, the campaign manager who handled President Obama’s race for the White House last year, says in it that just after then-Senator Hillary Clinton narrowly defeated Obama in the New Hampshire primary in January 2008, “a senior Edwards advisor” telephoned him with a remarkable offer.
The advisor pointed out that Edwards’s failure to win in Iowa (where he finished second, just ahead of Clinton but well behind Obama) or in New Hampshire made it unlikely that he would be the nominee. The advisor also observed that Clinton’s win in the Granite State had put Obama in a difficult position going into the next primary in South Carolina. He proposed a solution: that Edwards drop out of the race, endorse Obama, and be anointed by the Illinois senator as his running-mate should he receive the nomination. The two senators would then campaign jointly. The Edwards advisor argued that this would give Obama the edge in South Carolina, Edwards’s native state, and in the other Southern states on Super Tuesday, and thus guarantee him the nomination.
Plouffe took this offer to Obama, who rejected the idea. The advisor then informed Plouffe that he would approach Clinton instead, but if the notion was even presented to Hillary, no evidence has turned up so far.
Leaving aside the question of why Edwards thought he might help lead a Democratic ticket to victory in the fall when his onetime mistress was due to give birth in a few weeks after this idea was floated, the proposal had one obvious flaw. In 2004, when Edwards ran with John Kerry, it was widely trumpeted by his supporters that as a Southerner he would help win North Carolina, and perhaps Florida, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, for the Democrats. As things turned out, the whole South (and mid-South) went Republican. In 2008, Obama won Florida, Virginia and North Carolina on his own; having Joe Biden, a Pennsylvanian serving from Delaware, was no particular plus.
Obama was also probably aware of an earlier case where a presidential hopeful committed himself to a running-mate before actually being nominated (or having the nomination locked up). In 1976, just before the GOP convention got underway, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, in the hope of gaining the support of enough delegates to overtake President Gerald Ford’s lead, announced that he would select Pennsylvania Sen. Richard Schweiker, regarded as a moderate-to-liberal figure, as his running-mate.
This choice generated little enthusiasm among the delegates Reagan sought, but it did upset his conservative base, with Sen. Jesse Helms urging the drafting of Sen. James Buckley to be Reagan’s running-mate instead. As a result, Reagan lost the nomination – though so narrowly that, though few liberal pundits believed it at the time, his ultimate journey to the White House was a sure bet.
For Obama to do something similar would have been a grave misstep; even if Edwards didn’t have the baggage he carried, had the Obama/Edwards ticket gone down to defeat in November 2008, it’s all but impossible that the Illinois senator would have been a viable candidate in 2012 or any time after. So, as the President looks back on 2008, he can rest assured that he made a wise choice.
November 27, 2009 by David R. Stokes | Filed Under Afghanistan, American Politics, Barack Obama, Cold War, George W. Bush, History, Military, National Security, Obama administration, Presidents, Republican Party, Terrorism, U.S. History, War on Terror | 3 Comments
This Tuesday, Barack Obama will travel to the United States Military Academy at West Point to deliver the most important address of his young presidency. He has obviously chosen the site for the speech with great care and in the hope that the backdrop – a storied scene on the Hudson – will engender an image of him as a strong and effective commander in chief.
It is probably a smart move, but one not without a measure of risk.
The President of the United States will be treated with respect and be received enthusiastically – all very appropriate and quintessentially American. But when the fanfare fades and the applause lines become fewer, he will have the tough job of articulating a compelling vision for the future of a war that has lost its name, if not its way.
Though Mr. Obama’s White House predecessor spoke at West Point twice – once in each term – not all presidents make this trip. Eisenhower, one of the two graduates of the academy who went on to become Commander in Chief (the other being fellow Republican, Ulysses S. Grant), never made a major speech there during his two terms as president. And his predecessor, the man from Missouri, avoided the place like the plague. President Truman saw West Point as a breeding ground for “stuffed shirts” – and at any rate, his firing of the academy’s former commandant – Douglas MacArthur – probably kept the presidential welcome mat in storage in the basement of the Thayer Hotel.
As Mr. Obama’s team prepares for this important speech, I wonder if the wordsmiths are taking time to consult the history of what has been said there by other presidents and prominent Americans?
Franklin Roosevelt gave the commencement address in 1939 to graduates who would soon be in harm’s way in Europe and the Pacific. He told that class:
During recent months international political considerations have required still greater emphasis upon the vitalization of our defense, for we have had dramatic illustrations of the fate of undefended nations. I hardly need to be more specific than that. Recent conflicts in Europe, the Far East and Africa bear witness to the fact that the individual soldier remains still the controlling factor.
However, when John F. Kennedy spoke to another graduating class on June 6, 1962 (inexplicably, for a president who prided himself on his sense of history, never mentioning that date as the 18th anniversary of D-Day), he shared a vision about changes in warfare, telling his honorable audience:
Your responsibilities may involve the command of more traditional forces, but in less traditional roles. Men risking their lives, not as combatants, but as instructors or advisers, or as symbols of our Nation’s commitments.
He, though, never lived to see how quickly “instructors or advisors” would become “combatants.”
The most recent president to make a major speech at West Point was George W. Bush, a man who usually does not fare well in the eloquence department, especially when compared to President Obama. Yet, what he had to say back in 2002 should be reviewed, not only by White House speechwriters, but also by all Americans – because the words still ring true:
Because the war on terror will require resolve and patience, it will also require firm moral purpose. In this way our struggle is similar to the Cold War. Now, as then, our enemies are totalitarians, holding a creed of power with no place for human dignity. Now, as then, they seek to impose a joyless conformity, to control every life and all of life.
America confronted imperial communism in many different ways – diplomatic, economic, and military. Yet moral clarity was essential to our victory in the Cold War. When leaders like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan refused to gloss over the brutality of tyrants, they gave hope to prisoners and dissidents and exiles, and rallied free nations to a great cause.
Some worry that it is somehow undiplomatic or impolite to speak the language of right and wrong. I disagree. Different circumstances require different methods, but not different moralities. Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time, and in every place. Targeting innocent civilians for murder is always and everywhere wrong. Brutality against women is always and everywhere wrong. There can be no neutrality between justice and cruelty, between the innocent and the guilty. We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name. By confronting evil and lawless regimes, we do not create a problem – we reveal a problem. And we will lead the world in opposing it.
However, if I were on Mr. Obama’s speech writing team (corpulent opportunity), I would spend some time going over another famous speech made at West Point. It just may be the most relevant to current realities, not to mention one that we all need to hear again.
The date was May 12, 1962 and the speaker was retired General Douglas MacArthur. The Old Man was 82 years of age and his frail movements reflected it. But there was a spark of eloquence left in him; one that he fanned that day into a brilliant rhetorical flame.
When I watch Mr. Obama’s speech this Tuesday, it will be Big Mac’s speech that I use as the gold standard reference point. Here are some excerpts. The words speak for themselves:
Duty, Honor, Country: Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn. Unhappily, I possess neither that eloquence of diction, that poetry of imagination, nor that brilliance of metaphor to tell you all that they mean.
The unbelievers will say they are but words, but a slogan, but a flamboyant phrase. Every pedant, every demagogue, every cynic, every hypocrite, every troublemaker, and, I am sorry to say, some others of an entirely different character, will try to downgrade them even to the extent of mockery and ridicule.
And through all this welter of change and development your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable. It is to win our wars. Everything else in your professional career is but corollary to this vital dedication. All other public purpose, all other public projects, all other public needs, great or small, will find others for their accomplishments; but you are the ones who are trained to fight.
Yours is the profession of arms, the will to win, the sure knowledge that in war there is no substitute for victory, that if you lose, the Nation will be destroyed, that the very obsession of your public service must be Duty, Honor, Country.
The long gray line has never failed us. Were you to do so, a million ghosts in olive drab, in brown khaki, in blue and gray, would rise from their white crosses, thundering those magic words: Duty, Honor, Country.
On the debate of “Pacific presidents:”
Yes, Obama lived for 14 years in Hawaii, which is in the Pacific. But two presidents (Ronald Reagan, and before him Richard Nixon, who in 1972 ended the freeze in U.S.-China relations that began in 1949) came from California, which is on the Pacific. So, is the world-historic difference in the preposition?
(Hat tip: Tom Van Oosterom)
President Obama welcomed Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the White House today. Singh will join President Obama for his first State Dinner since taking the reigns of the Oval Office.
President Obama welcomed Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the White House today. Singh will also dine at the White House tonight, marking the President’s first state dinner since taking office in January.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the two spoke for over two hours in the Oval Office about reinforcing cooperation on counter-terrorism and intelligence efforts, and strengthening economic ties between the United States and India.
Obama called the diplomatic bonds between the two nations as “one of the defining relationships” of the 21st Century.
The importance of this strategic relationship is currently demonstrating itself in our efforts in Afghanistan:
In addition to their military efforts to secure Afghanistan, the United States and NATO have struggled to ramp up economic assistance–the “build” part of counterinsurgency. Unfamiliar cultures and languages and harsh conditions have constrained Western capacity on the ground. As a practical matter, American NGOs have not been able to function outside major population centers in Afghanistan for two decades. Outsourcing to Beltway contractors is not cost-effective, and NATO has been unwilling or unable to help fill the gap.
But India has demonstrated unique and effective capabilities that will make a big difference in Afghanistan. With its historic ties and cultural affinity to the country, India has already provided impressive civilian assistance. It is the fifth-largest bilateral donor to Afghanistan. India’s $1.2 billion contribution to date has supported projects in power, medicine, agriculture and education. Afghanistan’s new parliament meets in a building constructed by India. Indian engineers built a port-access road in violent southern Afghanistan, and India has trained Afghan civil servants, demonstrating an Indian comparative advantage on the ground.
It doesn’t take a genius to recognize the political, strategic, and moral worth to America, the world’s most powerful democracy, of a strong alliance with India, the world’s largest. Mr. Obama, by no stretch a man of tepid intelligence, has calibrated things artfully: Not only is Mr. Singh the first state visitor to Washington since the president took office in January, his trip is the first time that India has headed an American president’s list for a state visit—ever. (Richard Nixon must be turning in his grave.)
Would RN really be turning in his grave? On November 4, 1971 he welcomed then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to the White House and invited her — to of all things — a State Dinner.
RN’s approach to Gandhi was neither contemptuous or motivated by anti-Indian attitudes. Just like President Obama, he saw India as a critical player and a partner in peace.
RN recalled that his meeting with Gandhi couldn’t have come at a more critical time as nearly 10 million refugees were fleeing from Pakistan to India. Stability on the Indo-Pakistan border was threatened after a separatist movement in East Pakistan had fomented rebellion against the Yahya Khan government.
Tasking himself with the burden of reducing regional tensions and abating Soviet maneuvering , RN urged Prime Minister Khan not to intensify the conflict. During the White House meeting he asked Gandhi not to intervene in Pakistan. She responded by telling RN that her goal was stability at all costs, not to cripple or destroy Pakistan.
Gandhi went back on her word.
With Soviet aid, the Indian Army invaded East Pakistan, and later had designs to invade West Pakistan.
In December, East Pakistan declared its independence, establishing The People’s Republic of Bangladesh. Through hard headed negotiations with the Soviet Union, RN prevented the fall of West Pakistan.
RN pictured with then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during her visit to Washington in November 1971. RN also hosted her at a State Dinner.
George Will’s latest column in Newsweek discusses President Obama’s much-disputed claim, during his just-concluded trip to Asia, that he is America’s “first Pacific President” because he was born in Hawaii and raised there and in Indonesia. Other pundits in recent days have discussed twentieth-century Chief Executives in this regard – Richard Nixon’s status as a California native, William Howard Taft’s years a century ago as governor of the Philippines, Herbert Hoover’s years as a mining engineer in Australia and China. But Will looks into the relationship of nineteenth-century Presidents to Asia.
Now, it is true that, from the very earliest days of the Republic, the nation’s leaders have had Asia in mind, long before any American territory had a Pacific coastline. George Washington was often in communication with businessmen like Robert Morris about trade with China. Thomas Jefferson took the step of acquiring the Louisiana Purchase territory from Napoleon so that the United States could one day develop ports from which ships could cross the Pacific without bothering, in those pre-Panama Canal days, with Cape Horn.
But, as Will indicates, the resident of the White House who really undertook the first sizable effort to establish America as a significant power in the Pacific was Millard Fillmore. The thirteenth President has, of course, long been a figure of fun, perhaps best known to some Americans for lending his name (with the Millard changed to Mallard) to the web-footed right-wing journalist in Bruce Tinsley’s comic strip.
But Fillmore was a man of several considerable achievements. Born, like Lincoln, in a log cabin in upstate New York, he pursued his education in country schools and law offices, and worked his way up the ladder of the legal profession in Buffalo. A few years before being elected Vice-President on the ticket headed by Gen. Zachary Taylor, he founded a college which ultimately became the State University of New York at Buffalo, now the biggest school in the biggest higher-education establishment in the nation.
(It was for this achievement, as well as his deeds as President, that Oxford University wanted to award Fillmore with an honorary doctorate of laws degree when he visited England after leaving office in 1855. But Fillmore declined the honor on the grounds that his achievements and educational attainments did not merit it. He also said that he had never learned Latin and felt that a man should not accept a degree that he could not read himself. As we all know, President Obama was quick to say his achievements to date did not merit a Nobel Peace Prize, but that’s not stopping him from receiving it next month.)
Just after Fillmore took office, California joined the Union, followed soon after by Oregon. With trade to China increasing, Fillmore decided, in 1852, that the time had come for the nation of Japan to emerge from nearly two centuries of isolation in which it had traded only with China and the Netherlands. Therefore, he directed Commodore Matthew Perry to go to that land. Perry led his group of what the Japanese called “black ships” to the city then known as Edo (now Tokyo) and there told the Japanese emperor’s representatives that the United States wished to open relations with the nation, and would not take no for an answer.
Perry then went home, and, the next year (with Franklin Pierce now in the White House), came back to Edo to hear the Japanese government’s response. The emperor agreed to open his nation to the outside world, and thus began the process that ultimately made both nations among the world’s most important commercial powers – and which ultimately led to Hawaii, our current President’s home, becoming part of the United States.
So let’s give old Millard a little credit.
A tasteless joke – one that saw earlier popularity during the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush – has resurfaced across America. It is being told in whispers, emails, and even bumper stickers. During Mr. Clinton’s administration it even found its way into some Sunday church bulletins. And it is really beneath contempt in its lack of respect for the president, the presidency, not to mention the Bible itself.
It goes something like this: “Pray for President Obama. Psalm 109:8.”
At first glance it appears innocuous, even pious. But when time is taken to look up the reference, well, then it’s chortle, chortle time for buffoons:
“Let his days be few, and let another take his office.” – Psalm 109:8 (NKJV)
And the verse following continues the thought:
“Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.” – Psalm 109:9 (NJKV)
Of course, the point of the joke is to show disaffection with President Obama. But the real result is to use scripture in a twisted way and to find somehow funny the idea that our president should, well, come to an ignominious end leaving his family to grieve.
Funny stuff. Real Jackie Gleason belly laugh stuff: Har har hardy har har.
It should be clear to decent, reasonable, reflective, and compassionate people that some things simply aren’t funny. One just has to look back at what happened 46 years ago this weekend to see that. I have no clue if that same joke was around in the days of the Kennedy administration, but I know that the feelings of too-casual contempt it reveals were very much around.
I am a conservative when it comes to politics – a conservative with strong libertarian leanings. I am no fan of much of the political agenda of President Obama and his administration. Sometimes I get annoyed. Occasionally (okay, more than occasionally) I talk back to the T.V. when I hear or see something that, to me, does not pass the test of constitutionality or common sense.
I would probably only vote for Mr. Obama’s reelection if the choice was between him and, say, Harry Reid – or Boss Tweed. I very much believe that the president and his advisors have a socialist bent and that what they are trying to accomplish through Health-Care Reform and Cap-and-Trade machinations amounts to the kind of change Americans really didn’t envision when he was elected last year.
But it needs to be said that a president can be opposed and criticized – even in an animated way – without resorting to the kind of meanness that crosses the line of civility.
I have no problem with partisanship – even a little fiery rhetoric here and there. America is better when our politics are feisty. But, come on – using the Bible to make a joke about the man dying before his term is up?
Think back. Remember John “John-John” Kennedy Jr. saluting his daddy’s casket on that cold November Monday in 1963? Is there anything funny about that? Nope, it was all just very sad. And it bears noting that Mr. Kennedy evoked opinions and opposition from conservative Americans in much the same way Mr. Obama does now.
On the last morning of his life, JFK woke up in the Presidential Suite of the Hotel Texas in downtown Fort Worth, Texas. As he made his way down to the facility’s Crystal Ballroom to speak to a Chamber of Commerce breakfast gathering of about 2,000 people, he encountered a maid by the name of Jan White, who asked him to sign her newspaper. He did – probably the last autograph of his life – writing his name near his picture on the front page of that day’s Dallas Morning News. The headline on November 22, 1963 was: “Storm of Political Controversy Swirls Around Kennedy On Visit.”
The next morning that same paper bore the message: “Kennedy Slain On Dallas Street.”
People mourned. Americans who had not voted for Mr. Kennedy – and never would have – were deeply impacted by the violent tragedy. And, in fact, his days were made few, and another was allowed to take his office. His wife also became a widow and his children were suddenly fatherless.
I’m sorry, but there is nothing funny about that. Nor is there anything funny about using a passage of scripture as a punch line, one that finds sadistic humor in such depraved darkness as to be at all amused at the potential demise of a national leader.
Of course, I recognize that when George W. Bush was in office, the same things were circulated about him by a few on the other side of the political spectrum. But some things are simply not funny. It was wrong when liberals did it – and it is wrong for conservatives to do it.
Shortly before November 22, 1963 – when I was about seven years old – I came home from school one day armed with a joke about President Kennedy. I cannot for the life of me remember the punch line – or the straight line for that matter. But I do remember the moment I decided to let ‘er rip at the dinner table that night. I was sure that I was on safe ground, after all, my parents were Nixon people in 1960 (later Goldwater people in 1964, then back to RN again in ’68) and not big fans of Mr. Kennedy. I know I had heard my dad criticize the president for this or that, though never in a mean way. So I thought he would just love my hilarious joke.
I told it with all the skills of a 2nd grade class clown. Then I waited for the howls of laughter from my parents. And I waited. Then after a moment or two – and I can still see and hear this in my mind – came a powerful rebuke from the head of the table, ending with the unambiguous: “Son, don’t ever talk about the President of the United States like that!”
I learned something about respect that day. It’s something I think about now and again when things heat up politically and I find myself invariably frustrated with politics du jour. And though I sometimes fly admittedly close to the flame of the kind of disrespect that crosses the line between honest disagreement and just plain malice, I am never comfortable with that kind of indignation – righteous or otherwise.
Anger is toxic, often subtly so. Certainly there are times when animosity can give way to constructive change. But while such antipathy can occasionally be the catalyst for ultimate good, it must never be the default fuel. It is ferociously destructive.
By the way, the use of Psalm 109:8 as a joke applied to President Obama is not only a beneath-contempt expression of ugliness, it is also a profoundly ignorant use of the Bible. For when you read further in the good book, all the way through the gospels and into The Acts of the Apostles, you find Simon Peter, the recently redeemed Jesus-denier, quoting that very passage in reference to another Apostle who did something abhorrent – Judas Iscariot.
Peter applied it as an epitaph for Christ’s infamous betrayer, though he must have done so with the humility to think, “there but for the grace of God go I.”
All praying people should fervently pray for President Obama and all those in authority – and not tongue-in-cheek petitions. As yet another Apostle, this one named Paul wrote:
“I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone, for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” – I Timothy 2:1-2 (NIV)
President Barack Obama appeared to be taking a page from Richard Nixon’s playbook Wednesday when he seemed to declare the suspected Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed guilty and deserving of the death penalty. In Nixon’s case, he pronounced cult leader Charles Manson guilty of several murders while Manson was being tried in a California state court for killing actress Sharon Tate and others.
Here’s what happened. In an interview, the president had this exchange with Chuck Todd of NBC:
TODD: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – can you understand why it is offensive to some for this terrorist to get all the legal privileges of any American citizen?
OBAMA: I don’t think it will be offensive at all when he’s convicted and when the death penalty is applied to him.
TODD: But having that kind of confidence of a conviction – I mean one of the purposes of doing – going to the Justice Department and not military court is to show of the the world our fairness in our court system.
OBAMA: Well –
TODD: But you also just said that he was going to be convicted and given the death penalty.
OBAMA: Look – what I said was people will not be offended if that’s the outcome. I’m not pre-judging; I’m not going to be in that courtroom, that’s the job of prosecutors, the judge and the jury.
The RN remark came on August 3, 1970. He was criticizing the media for glamorizing criminals, and used Manson as an example:
I noted, for example, the coverage of the Charles Manson case when I was in Los Angeles, front page every day in the papers. It usually got a couple of minutes in the evening news. Here is a man who was guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders without reason.
Ron Ziegler immediately retracted the remark, noting that RN had intended to say “alleged.” But the comment caused big problems for the prosecution — as Obama’s remark probably will.
There are a couple of differences. Nixon admitted error. At a press conference several months later, a reporter asked him about the Manson trial and other cases in which he suggested that criminal defendants were guilty. ”I think sometimes we lawyers, even like doctors who try to prescribe for themselves, may make mistakes. And I think that kind of comment probably is unjustified. “ Obama, by contrast, insisted that “when” really means “if.”
Also, the text of Nixon’s original comment was (and is) available on the public record. But the Obama White House, unlike its immediate predecessors, does not routinely post interview transcripts. To find them, one must search online in other places. And as any Googler knows, things often disappear from the web.
Nixon Center Starr fellow and TNN contributor Drew Thompson is also in Beijing this week. Today he did an interview form AMNY Magazine in which he discusses the impact of RN’s historic trip:
Obama’s trip will be one of relationship “maintenance” that “puts the bow” on negotiations done by both countries in recent years, said Drew Thompson, director of China Studies and Starr Senior Fellow at The Nixon Center in Washington, D.C. Nixonian breakthroughs so groundbreaking they inspire operas (as Nixon’s did in 1987) won’t be on the agenda.
Televised images of Nixon and Chairman Mao Zedong meeting inside the People’s Republic of China were almost incomprehensible. Such a mission coming from another president would have been considered suspect, but everyone knew Nixon was not soft on communism. Observers say that reputation gave Nixon needed cover to famously open the door to China, exploiting divides between China and the Soviets and recalibrating the global balance of power at the height of the Cold War.
Obama will be performing to expectations; the real shock would come if he aggressively took on taboo subjects such as human rights and Tibet.
Read the whole story here.
The Daily Mail’s Andrew Alexander is the latest:
When Vietnam was at its worst, President Nixon made the bogus claim that the Government in the South had reached the stage where it could fight the Viet Cong without outside support.
An undignified retreat then followed. Something like this can be expected for Afghanistan – just find an excuse to leave.
It was President Nixon’s goal to leave Vietnam in honor, not defeat. He said as much in his November 1969 speech, when he reached out to the “Silent Majority” for a peaceful end to the conflict. His strategy was neither irresponsible or undignified:
From a political standpoint this would have been a popular and easy course to follow. After all, we became involved in the war while my predecessor was in office. I could blame the defeat which would be the result of my action on him and come out as the peacemaker. Some put it to me quite bluntly: This was the only way to avoid allowing Johnson’s war to become Nixon’s war.
But I had a greater obligation than to think only of the years of my administration and of the next election. I had to think of the effect of my decision on the next generation and on the future of peace and freedom in America and in the world.
Let us all understand that the question before us is not whether some Americans are for peace and some Americans are against peace. The question at issue is not whether Johnson’s war becomes Nixon’s war.
Was it really bogus as Alexander purports? According to Vietnam War veteran and historian Lewis Sorley, the situation on the ground started to improve as the strategy started to be rethought in the late Sixties. Similar to the surge operations in 2007 and 2008, American forces started to concentrate on pacification efforts on the provincial and rural levels.
Rather than continue search and destroy missions, progress was made through the strategy of “secure, build, and hold.” In other words the Nixon’s administration’s plan was not to simply waste time fighting an enemy that exploited hostilities and blended into the population, but rather engage and protect the population, isolate them from insurgents, and help the Vietnamese Army attain the competence to defend from the North.
During this time, the Vietnamese government also gained greater legitimacy as an effective reformer. In 1972, President Thieu spearheaded an initiative to distribute 400,000 acres of land to farmers that lead to an increase in production and the re-opening of local markets.
The Republic was ready to stand on its own.
But in June of 1973, it was Congress — assisted by an amendment from Senators Church and Case — who decided to leave the South defenseless:
Sorley doesn’t just argue that ”clear and hold” beat the Viet Cong. He goes on to argue that the Vietnamization program in general was a success, and that by the time the last US troops left in 1973, the South Vietnamese Army was capable of defending the country. The villain, in this retelling of the war, is the US Congress, which cut off all funding for US military operations in late 1973-making it impossible for the US to provide the air support it had promised in case of an invasion by the North Vietnamese Army-and went on to cut aid to South Vietnam starting in 1975. If the US had just provided South Vietnam with a bit of military aid and air support, Sorley implies, we would have won the Vietnam War.
37: February 1972
44: November 2009.
The White House ID for downloading this photo is “hero_greatwall_LJ-01-60″
The Politico has a clip of RN appearing to bow to Mao. Jim Pinkerton comments: “This footage, at 1:24, of Nixon’s bow was not at all a bow, as Obama bowed. Nixon clearly just shook his hand, and then bowed as someone was obviously paying him a compliment. Much different. And I am not being ironic. Much different.”
On RN’s death, John Gardner wrote in the Harvard Crimson: “The trip to China was a strategic gambit of vast importance. At the depth of the Cold War, Richard Nixon and Zhou Enlai saw how china and America could work together. America’s involvement with China strengthened the hand of those who sought to turn away from the excesses of Maoism, including Zhou’s heir, Deng Xiaoping.” And in an email, John adds: “Look at :24 of the clip: he stuck out his hand to greet Zhou Enlai very quickly, even before leaving the steps of Air Force One – widely seen and interpreted as a gesture to make up for Dulles’s refusal to shake hands with Zhou at the Geneva Conference in 1954 (when, of course, Nixon was VP).”
President Obama bowed to Japanese Emperor Akihito yesterday at his palace in Tokyo.
ABC’s Jake Tapper:
“This picture shows two things,” my friend writes.
“1) The ‘right’ is wrong about Obama’s bow.
“2) The ‘left’ is wrong about Obama’s bow.
“His bow is neither (1) unprecedented nor (2) a sign of cultural understanding.
“At their 1971 meeting in Alaska, the first visit of a Japanese Emperor to America, President Nixon bowed and referred to Emperor Hirohito and his wife repeatedly as ‘Your Imperial Majesties.’”
“Yet, (and?) Nixon gets the bow right. Slight arch from the waist hands at his side.
“Obama’s handshake/forward lurch was so jarring and inappropriate it recalls Bush’s back-rub of Merkel.
“Kyodo News is running his appropriate and reciprocated nod and shake with the Empress, certainly to show the president as dignified, and not in the form of a first year English teacher trying to impress with Karate Kid-level knowledge of Japanese customs.
“The bow as he performed did not just display weakness in Red State terms, but evoked weakness in Japanese terms….The last thing the Japanese want or need is a weak looking American president and, again, in all ways, he unintentionally played that part.
RN greeted Emperor Hirohito with a bow at a 1971 meeting in Alaska .
The new issue of the New York Review of Books has a short op-ed, which first appeared as a blogpost last week at the magazine’s site, by Garry Wills, professor emeritus at Northwestern University and author of several dozen books about religion and American history. His efforts in the latter field include his Pulitzer-winning Lincoln At Gettysburg, and his bestselling 1970 book Nixon Agonistes, which, in many ways, became the template for many of the books critical of the thirty-seventh President since then.
Wills’s article, in the space of about six hundred words, offers his opinion about what President Obama should do in Afghanistan. After the President returns from his whirlwind trip to Japan and China, it will be time, as Sen. John McCain pointed out this week, to make the final decision about how many more troops to commit to the eight-year fight against the Taliban, and for how long.
A considerable number of voices in the media and in the blogosphere have argued in recent weeks that the plan toward which the President seems to be leaning – an increase in the troop levels in Afghanistan, whether or not this corresponds to the 40,000 that the commanders in the field think is required at this point – is not one he should undertake. Wills is one of these voices.
In his article he contends that the arguments in favor of maintaing a military presence in Afghanistan are “the ones that made presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon pass on to their successors in the presidency the draining and self-lacerating Vietnam War.”
It’s worth mentioning that when President Nixon resigned in August 1974, I don’t remember any column or op-ed piece on the subject – and they were legion – which said that the Vietnam War was an ongoing conflict that Nixon had passed on to Gerald Ford. As far as the liberal pundits were concerned in those days, we were well and truly removed from that conflict for good. The North Vietnamese took such sentiments to mean that if they tried to overrun South Vietnam, the United States would do nothing to stop them.
And in the spring of 1975 this proved to be true when Congress rejected President Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger’s appeals to aid South Vietnam, disregarding the promises made by President Nixon to protect the sovereignity of that nation when the Paris peace accords were signed in January 1973 – promises made to protect peace, but which Wills, evidently, regards as an extension of war.
He goes on to say that “when we did withdraw, the consequences were not as fatal as those we incurred during the years that saw the deaths of over 50,000 of our soldiers and many more Vietnamese.” Well, it’s true that while many died in Vietnamese prison camps after the South was defeated, the numbers were not equivalent to the number of Vietnamese that died in the course of the war. But in Cambodia, a nation that fell into the hands of the Khmer Rouge at the same time as South Vietnam was conquered, far more civilians died in four years of “peace” than in the preceding years of war.
Cambodia is worth keeping in mind when one looks at what follows in Wills’s commentary:
Some leader has to break the spell before costs mount further while our wars are passed from president to president. Among other things, this will give our military a needed chance to repair the wear and tear on men and equipment that the overstretched regular services and the National Guard have suffered, and to make them ready for other challenges.
We are in Afghanistan in response to a challenge, if one could call the bloodbath of 9/11 such. The Taliban, with no provocation from us, allowed Osama bin Laden and his henchmen to use their nation as a base to launch the vicious attacks of that day. In the eight years that Americans have fought and died to make sure that the Taliban would not have the chance to abuse the rule of a nation in such a fashion again, it has become more and more clear that, if it were allowed to regain power, it would not only take bloody revenge on every man and woman hoping for a civilized life in Afghanistan – that is to say, perhaps as large a percentage of the population as died in Cambodia – but would do its best to help its allies in northwest Pakistan overthrow that nation’s government, and thus gain control of nuclear weapons. Then we would see “other challenges,” on a scale so abominable that “wear and tear” on our tanks and airplanes would be the least of our worries.
Yesterday’s announcement that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other 9/11 conspirators will be tried for murder in New York is a reminder of what American servicepersons in Afghanistan are trying to protect us from. I hope that during their trial, enough testimony is presented about the Taliban’s acquiescence in bin Laden’s evil to remind even Garry Wills of why we have to fight in Afghanistan, and why the consequences of withdrawal would be so tragic.
In his op-ed, Wills says that Obama should get our troops out of Afghanistan even if the response to such an action results in his being a one-term President. A man so familiar with American history should remember that the subject of his Pulitzer-winning book persevered in 1864, in the face of calls from many of the pundits of his day to make peace with the South on its terms, and, within a matter of months, prevailed. The Gettysburg Address, indeed, explains just what the United States is fighting to preserve and protect now. Perhaps Northwestern’s professor emeritus of history should reread it.
In Tokyo today, President Obama said: “As America’s first Pacific president, I promise you that this Pacific nation will strengthen and sustain our leadership in this vitally important part of the world.”
The president was in error. Though he was apparently referring to his birth in Hawaii and brief childhood sojourn in Indonesia, he is not our nation’s first Pacific president. If a “Pacific president” is one born and raised in a Pacific state, that distinction belongs to Richard Nixon, born in Yorba Linda, California in 1913. Indeed, RN spent a much greater proportion of his life near the Pacific than President Obama has. He grew up in Whittier, went to Whittier College, practiced law in Southern California, did naval service in the Pacific, represented California in the House and Senate, ran for governor of the state, and for years had a home in San Clemente. Between the Vietnam War and the opening to China, Pacific Rim affairs were a major focus of his presidency.
Other presidents also had significant experience in the Pacific. William Howard Taft served as Governor-General of the Philippines. Herbert Hoover spent much of his childhood in Oregon, graduated from Stanford, and spent years as a mining engineer in Australia and China. Dwight Eisenhower had military duty in the Panama Canal Zone and the Philippines.
And there was also some fellow named Reagan…
November 6, 2009 by David R. Stokes | Filed Under American Politics, Barack Obama, Cold War, Europe, History, International Affairs, Iran, Islam, Obama administration, Political Philosophy, Terrorism, U.S. History, War on Terror | Leave a Comment
Mark Twain often suggested that history doesn’t always repeat itself, “but it does rhyme.” This chronological cadence is particularly true when you note some of the key events in the past century that happened in early November.
November 7, 1917 was when the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, unleashing a still too-often ignored and dismissed era of tyranny and terror (the idea of an “October Revolution” has to do with the difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars). Long since discredited by the verdict of history, the ideas that formed the basis of what Ronald Reagan aptly called an “evil empire,” have found new adherents – some in high places in our land. But ignorant neo-Marxists in our midst notwithstanding, the reality of what took place under the czars-of-all-things-Soviet for more than seven decades was horrifying.
Much is rightly made of the atrocities committed by the Nazis in Germany and we are regularly reminded that we must never forget. I agree. But while remembering all the depravity wrought by Hitler and his henchman, why do Communist leaders and regimes so often get a pass these days? Even by conservative accounts, more than 100 million people died via Communist oppression. Yet some apparently feel that the ideas behind the system are somehow still valid. Really?
Fast forward to November 4, 1956, and see Soviet tanks penetrating the Pest side of the Danube in Budapest, Hungary, in their offensive to put down a nationwide revolt against the so-called Peoples Republic of Hungary. Brave patriots sought to wrest control of their nation from the grip of Soviet-style Stalinism.
Meanwhile, America stood sadly down. The great General, who had led the allies to victory 11 years before, sent mixed signals. Freedom fighters were emboldened by what we were saying on Radio Free Europe, but the official policy turned out to be nothing more than impotent ambivalence. Within days, the courageous movement was crushed.
Speaking of the 4th day in November and presidential impotence, let us now move ahead to the year 1979 – the moment Iranian “revolutionaries” seized control of our embassy in Tehran, initiating a 444-day Hell for 52 American hostages. This was the moment when many average Americans first came face to face with the ugly egregiousness of Islamism. Jimmy Carter lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in those days, but his presidency would languish due to lack of foresight, insufficient resolve, and malaise-driven methodology.
Exactly one year later – yep, you got it – right smack dab on November 4, 1980, Ronald Wilson Reagan trounced Mr. Carter, who vainly sought re-election, with the networks calling the race even before many Americans had voted. The hostages would thereafter celebrate the very moment of Reagan’s inauguration the following January 20th as their moment of liberation. Clearly, the nuts running the show in Tehran had the requisite lucidity to know that they did not want to deal with the Gipper.
Another November 4th, this one in 1989, saw a crowd of nearly 1,000,000 people cram Alexanderplatz in East Berlin, rallying for freedom. This would lead in less than a week to something for many years thought to be unthinkable – the crumbling of the Berlin Wall. A little more than two years earlier, that same Ronald Reagan had challenged his Soviet counterpart-though-no-real-match, Mikhail Gorbachev, to “tear down this wall.” Those words penetrated hearts, minds, not to mention concrete that day, leading to the barrier’s ultimate demise as a metaphor.
Eventually, we came to yet another November 4th – this one in 2008, with Barack Obama’s election as U.S. President, an event that to many heralded a whole new world to come. But the “change we can believe” soon began to appear more and more like an awkward combination of antiquated socialism and naïve geopolitics. Frank Gaffney, president of The Center for Security Policy in Washington, suggests that the “Obama Doctrine” can be summed up in nine words: “Undermine our allies. Embolden our enemies. Diminish our country.”
You see, the toxins of Lenin’s bunch in 1917, and those of the gang in Tehran in 1980, share common and deadly DNA. To miss this leads to the very real potential for unparalleled peril.
Once we had leaders who instinctively understood the danger of sinister ideology. Now, all evidence seems to indicate that people in key roles overestimate Marxism and underestimate Islamism. The welfare state, once nearly dismantled after we had apparently learned its dark lessons, is now expanding exponentially once again with a vengeance. Our government preaches stimulation, but practices hegemony. Mr. Reagan always reminded us about the virtue of creating wealth. Mr. Obama seems dead set on redistributing it.
And this Monday, November 9th, on the 20th anniversary of the day Reagan’s instruction about that wicked wall was enthusiastically followed by a Berlin crowd, our new president will be a no-show. He has nothing against speeches in Berlin. Been there; done that. It’s not the venue that makes him uncomfortable. It’s the message.
When the wall came tumbling down, it was the most dramatic demonstration of the inherent bankruptcy of the ideas of Marx in actual practice. Sure, the doctrine promises hope, change, and the idea that human self-interest will one day “wither away,” but it has never really delivered – simply because it can’t. Harvard professor Richard Pipes has suggested the Soviet system collapsed because of “the utopian nature of its objectives.”
And when it comes to Islamism, the continued and persistent minimizing of its threat is not only misguided, it approaches political malpractice. The president, this past November 4th, reached out to Tehran seeking “a relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran based on mutual interests and mutual respect.” In response, leaders there vow to continue to show “unquenchable anger against the Great Satan.”
That, by the way, is how a clenched fist responds to an extended hand.
So here we are in another November in time and a 39-year old Army major – a psychiatrist and lifelong Muslim – climbs onto a table crying, “Allahu Akbar,” and opens fire on fellow-soldiers. Many die, while others cling to life. But will anything be learned?
It seems that the history of the past 100 years has been, in many ways, a battle of Novembers. At times, tyranny has temporarily triumphed; at other times freedom’s flag has flown. Yes, Mark Twain said that history could rhyme. But often these rhymes – so simple and clear – come across as riddles to those who are apparently determined to miss the obvious.
Rocco Landesman, who was appointed chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts by President Obama last May (as a replacement for Dana Gioia, the eminent poet who was its leader during the Bush administration), comes from an affluent and remarkable – make that downright colorful – St. Louis family.
His uncle and aunt, Jay and Fran (Deitsch) Landesman, have for sixty years been familiar figures of, in turn, the New York, St. Louis, and London avant-garde scenes, crossing paths with everyone from Jack Kerouac to Barbra Streisand to the Beatles to the Sex Pistols; last year their son Cosmo told the story of their lives in his book Starstruck. (Here it’s worth mentioning that Fran Landesman co-wrote the jazz semi-standards “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most” and “Ballad Of The Sad Young Men” with the late Tommy Wolf, later to be the musical director of Donny and Marie Osmond’s variety show.)
Rocco has had a somewhat more conventional career. After graduating from (and teaching at) the Yale School of Drama, he ran an investment fund for a decade until joining Jujamcyn Theaters, which operates a handful of the most prestigious showplaces on Broadway. In this capacity he produced some very considerable hits, including the late Roger Miller’s Big River; Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer-winning Angels In America; and Mel Brooks’s blockbuster musical adaptation of his film The Producers. He’s also ventured, not quite as impressively, into horse racing and minor league baseball.
Last week, Landesman spoke before a group called Grantmakers In The Arts. He described what he sees as the vastly improved state of American culture since the inauguration of the forty-fourth President, in contrast to the cultural desert of much of the proceeding decade, then remarked:
“This is the first president that actually writes his own books since Teddy Roosevelt and arguably the first to write them really well since Lincoln. If you accept the premise, and I do, that the United States is the most powerful country in the world, then Barack Obama is the most powerful writer since Julius Caesar. That has to be good for American artists.”
Since these words were first reported, many bloggers and columnists have remarked on them. What is thoroughly apparent from reading them is that the NEA chairman’s knowledge of the literary achievements of American presidents – and world leaders, for that matter – is a bit on the sparse side.
For one thing, it is a well-documented fact that Herbert Hoover, before, during, and after his Presidency, wrote every word of his many books and countless speeches, in a public career that stretched for a half-century from the 1910s. And there has never been much dispute that Jimmy Carter has written all or most of the contents of the two dozen books that have poured from his pen since leaving office in 1981, including his ventures into children’s fiction, the novel, and poetry.
While some Presidents, like Franklin D. Roosevelt, wrote rather little on their own apart from letters, others have been more involved in the writing process. President Nixon made a point of crediting the editorial assistance of others with his books, but what he did not write unassisted as a first draft, he always revised and reshaped, and the really important parts of his books were, much more often than not, entirely his own work.
These include the lengthy opening section of Six Crises, describing the Alger Hiss case; at the time RN worked on it, in 1961, only seven or eight books had been published on the case (most being the work of Hiss apologists), and of these only Whittaker Chambers’s Witness was a truly first-hand account of the events. So it was up to RN to describe the incredible twists and turns of the story, as he had seen them unfold in 1948 and 1949.
Landesman’s notion that President Obama is the most powerful person to qualify as a writer since Julius Caesar is also mistaken – quite apart from the fact, pointed out by a number of writers already, that it’s curious for a member of the Obama administration to compare our Chief Executive to the man who destroyed the Roman Republic.
For example, in the second century AD Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, a man who ruled a territory far larger than Caesar ever controlled, wrote his immortal Meditations in the downtime (as we’d call it now) of his campaigns against barbarian tribes. It’s true that Meditations was more in the way of a notebook than a carefully thought-out manuscript. But subsequent rulers have written full-scale books.
Henry VIII of England wrote a defense of Catholicism against Martin Luther, long before he led his nation out of the Church; for this he was given the title “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope, which the present Queen still uses. James I of England, around the time his subjects established the first permanent colony in Virginia, wrote a book warning of the baleful influence of witchcraft. In more recent times, Vladimir Lenin wrote a number of full-scale books and dozens of pamphlets while bringing the USSR into existence. Joseph Stalin, who fancied himself a literary and cultural critic, seemed always to be plugging away at a book, in the few moments he could spare from terrorizing his countrymen. And there was nothing Mao Zedong liked better than to pen some lines of poetry, when the mood struck him.
To mention a man far less powerful, Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha wrote many volumes of garrulous memoirs toward the end of his life, and kept novelist Ismail Kadare out of jail and writing so that he could personally edit his work – much as Russia’s Nicholas I once said to Alexander Pushkin, “it is I that will be your censor.”
Yesterday, Rocco Landesman offered a clarification (of sorts) of his remarks. In correcting his mistakes, he manages to make a few more. He says that Obama “wrote, on his own, the manuscript for his first book and went looking for a publisher.” This was not the case. Obama, when a student at Harvard Law School, was approached by literary agent Jane Dystel after the New York Times wrote about him. He contracted with Poseidon, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, to write the book that became Dreams From My Father. Several years later, with Obama out of law school and back in Chicago, but with no book finished, S&S canceled the contract. Ms. Dystel then took the project to Random House’s Times Books imprint, which acquired it, and the future President then completed his MS and the book was published.
Landesman also acknowledges that while Abraham Lincoln “never wrote a whole book per se, his writings were collected in one.” Now, the most complete collections of Lincoln’s writings have been in a number of volumes; one book, even thin-paper and over a thousand pages, wouldn’t hold them all if the innumerable legal papers he drafted before 1861 are included.
Before drifting off into an account of his new friendship with National Council of the Arts member Lee Greenwood (of “God Bless The USA” fame), Landesman manages to make one misstep of sorts; when speaking of books with a presidential byline, he says that “one important one, it is generally accepted, was written by a ghostwriter without credit.”
Several bloggers have already wondered if this refers to John F. Kennedy’s Profiles In Courage and the reports that have circulated since shortly after the book won the Pulitzer Prize that Theodore Sorensen was responsible for at least most of the text. Though Sorensen acknowledged in his recent book Counselor that he did write the first draft of most of the chapters, which were then revised by the future President, the Kennedy family has always been very sensitive about any suggestion that Profiles was not, in the last analysis, JFK’s own work. But it may be that Landesman had another book in mind: Ronald Reagan’s post-presidential effort An American Life, which was widely reported at the time of its publication to be essentially the work of professional ghostwriter William Novak. In any event, Landesman’s sentence is a rather gauche one. And his performance as NEA Chairman, so far, makes one wish that the capable and eloquent Dana Gioia were still in that position.
There has been quite a lot of coverage this week of President Obama’s early-morning journey on Thursday to Dover Air Force Base to witness the arrival of the remains of eighteen American servicemen killed in Afghanistan, and to meet with their families. At her blog at the New Yorker’s website, Amy Davidson draws a comparison to another President’s journey out of the White House after midnight: Richard Nixon’s trip at 4 am on the morning of May 9, 1970, to the Lincoln Memorial, where he met with demonstrators who were in town to protest the Vietnam War, the Cambodian incursion, and the shootings at Kent State University:
Obama’s trip to Dover lacked the spontaneity that made Nixon’s walk so strange and compelling and also a little heartrending. (One is allowed to have one’s heart rended by Nixon, as long as it doesn’t become a habit.) Obama was surrounded by the dead, and Nixon by the living—but although he famously spoke to the students at the Lincoln Memorial about football, they also talked about dying, and what he and they would die for. A few hours later, the students joined a hundred thousand others in a march about Vietnam in which they shouted that he was a murderer. Obama is not there yet. What both Obama and Nixon had in common was that a war kept them awake.
As Ms. Davidson says, President Nixon’s decision to go to the Memorial in that early-morning hour was a spontaneous one. Her post links to the passage concerning this event in Richard Reeves’s book President Nixon.
Reeves describes the series of phone calls that the President made after midnight to several people, one of them Nancy Dickerson, the mother of Slate’s John Dickerson. He then writes about the President leaving the White House, accompanied only by his valet Manolo Sanchez, White House aide Egil “Bud” Krogh, and a handful of Secret Service agents, and proceeding to the Memorial, where he emerged from his car, walked up to a group of sleepless students, and began talking.
This is still one of the more remarkable moments of the American Presidency, and not just because it’s quite inconceivable to think of anything similar happening today. Lyndon Johnson, a President far more comfortable mingling with crowds than Nixon was, did nothing similar when antiwar marchers assembled at the Pentagon in 1967. The reports coming in from Vietnam would often leave LBJ sleepless, but he would remain, as some pundits liked to say in those days, “the prisoner in the White House.”
Nixon’s trip to the Memorial was also unusual because, despite its taking place in one of the most thoroughly public places in the nation, it had none of the nature of a public event. All the reporters covering the demonstration were either asleep or huddled over a thermos somewhere else in the throng. None of the White House photographers went with the President. One of the students with whom Nixon spoke did have a camera, and he took some photographs – but almost forty years later, unless jpgs can be seen on some unheralded corner of the internet, these images have yet to surface, at least as far as I know.
By contrast, although the press contingent with President Obama was much smaller than usual, his visit to Dover was filmed, and on Thursday night America saw him in the role of wartime leader. President Nixon’s trip to the Memorial, however, was the act of a leader of the American people as well as the American armed forces, seeking to understand what the youth of his nation thought about the conflict he had to contend with, seeking to build lines of communication to them (and not, as some of the more glib articles about the event had it at the time, to talk college football with them). It’s quite noteworthy that RN’s meeting with the demonstrators still resonates now as strongly as it did then.