Monday, June 26, 2006

The Politics of War: Then and Now

An unpopular war raged but the president refused to acknowledge error or change course. A talented and ambitious congressman continued to support his president in spite of private doubts and even misgivings from his own children. He largely supported the president’s domestic agenda and as a Washington insider received many briefings from the Pentagon, State Department and CIA.

They all told him the administration’s policies were working and a premature withdrawal was tantamount to weakness. The war was of course Vietnam. LBJ was in the White House. And a Massachusetts congressman named Tip O’Neill was on a collision course with President Johnson after years of steadfast support.

As I followed the recent deliberations in the Senate, I felt compelled to reread Man of the House: The Life and Political Memoirs of Speaker Tip O’Neill, published by Random House in 1987. His Vietnam anecdotes were especially poignant and haunting. This passage in particular is especially relevant after listening to Republican drones unleash their stay the course and don’t cut and run propaganda:

“One Friday, I was invited to speak at Boston College, where Susan and Tommy were both undergraduates. I gave my usual talk on the war, which was followed, as usual, by a dialogue with the students. As always, they took issue with both my information and my views.

‘You know,’ I told a young man who had challenged me, ‘I think I know more about this situation than you do. I’ve been briefed forty-three times. I’ve been briefed by Robert McNamara. I’ve been briefed by the CIA. I’ve been briefed by Dean Rusk. And I’ve been briefed by the president of the United States.'

‘That’s a lot of briefings,’ said the student, whose name was Pat McCarthy. ‘But how many times have you been briefed by the other side?’

The question came as a complete shock. Nobody had ever asked that one before.

That night, as I was lying in bed, thinking over the events of the day, I kept coming back to Pat McCarthy’s question. And I had to acknowledge that I hadn’t ever taken a good look at the other side of the issue. Before I fell asleep, I resolved to do just that.”
It was 1967 and for Tip O’Neill an epiphany. O’Neill had been on the rise in the House and enjoyed a good relationship with Johnson. He was also personally close to Speaker John McCormack an avowed hawk.

It was McCormack who persuaded O’Neill not to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution three years earlier:

“’If you vote against this resolution,’” he said, “’you’ll be seen as a traitor to your country. It will be the worst vote you ever make. I urge you in the strongest possible terms not to do it.’

I decided to go along with his advice. But I don’t want to blame John McCormack, because I was free to vote my conscience. I just didn’t have the courage.”
After the Boston College encounter, O’Neill found his voice and sent his constituents a newsletter declaring his opposition to the Vietnam War:

“For a mainstream Democratic congressman like myself, the newsletter represented a radical departure – not only from the views of my colleagues, but also from those of my constituents. For despite all the colleges in my district, the students who were old enough to vote did so in their home communities. Of my regular constituents, only 15 percent opposed the war. The day I sent out the letter I told my son Tommy that I had just signed my political death warrant.

But I knew it was the right thing to do.”
There was an initial backlash from his district and inside the Democratic Party leadership. Johnson feared that as a member of the Democratic establishment, O’Neill could become a rallying point for other restless members of his party and he summoned the congressman to the White House. Johnson managed to persuade O’Neill to mitigate his opposition and “give me time” to straighten Vietnam out.

Vietnam wasn’t straightened out and in another year O’Neill’s opposition was dwarfed. Eugene McCarthy launched an insurgent campaign for the presidency followed by Robert Kennedy. Johnson opted not to seek another term. Vice President Humphrey carried the Democratic banner honorably but his association with Johnson denied him the presidency. More blood was shed on both sides under Nixon.

Tip O’Neill was a good man. But he didn’t have the courage to stand up to LBJ in 1964. Not many did. When he was finally ready to dissent, O’Neill was willing to sacrifice his congressional seat for the greater good but it was too late.

Today’s politicians are cut from different cloth than Tip O’Neill. However, contrary to the media’s focus on division among the Democrats, the party is finally finding its’ voice. Not everyone supports a fixed date of withdrawal but the Democrats are deliberating over real alternatives to Bush’s moronic stay the course policies.

Understandably, as a minority congressional party the Democrats are institutionally incapable of rallying behind a single position or leader on the issue – especially with several of them jostling for 2008. Nonetheless, we are hearing some creativity from John Murtha, Russ Feingold and even Joe Biden. Even more remarkably, General Casey's plans for troop reductions strongly resemble the recent Senate resolution offered by Feingold and Kerry!

But that is not enough. The country must have principled courageous dissent within the GOP ranks on the Iraq war. Republicans rebelled against Bush on Social Security, immigration and Dubai ports. Yet on the Iraq War they remain mindless drones concerned more with political advantage than our national interest.

Occasionally, John McCain expresses no confidence in Rumsfeld and Chuck Hagel rebukes his party about tone. That is insufficient. Unless Republicans finally make concessions to reality, the ripple effect from the Iraq War will be impossible to contain and Afghanistan will be lost too.

Hopefully, the recent leaks about General Casey’s plans will do more than simply embarrass the Republicans and Bush. Perhaps a Bush loyalist within the GOP establishment will have an epiphany the way Tip O’Neill did forty years ago and put the national interest first. A nice thought but I’m not holding my breath.


jurassicpork said...

Kinda reminds you of Bush and Murtha nowadyas, doesn't it? Hell, Murtha even looks like O'Neill.

John D.C. said...

I have to agree with everything you said. But, like many, I believe the "Stay the course" policies will only last through, perhaps, September, after which Bush will call Iraq's new government "a success" and commit to begin a nominal withdrawal of troops in an effort to secure Republican control come November. We also must realize that with the Republicans (and with many Democrats), we'll only hear what they think will get them elected. Maybe McCain personally despises everything the president has done, but to say so would be the start of his political downfall. We really just need someone who is willing to state his or her true convictions - the political rhetoric is becoming true insanity.

John DC

thepoetryman said...

A very nice post my friend and I will have to get the O'Neill book and read it. thank you.

josephus said...

A good piece, Rob. My wife and I lived on Capitol Hill in 1867-68 when I worked for the Voice of America. My hours allowed us to attend hearings on the Hill so I remember listening to Rusk testify about Vietnam before Fulbright's Foreign Relations Committee, with Jimmy Reston peering over his half-eyes at the spectators. And I remember watching LBJ's announcement he would not run again. And, of course, we had numerous former South Vietnamese generals running about the Vietnamese section at the Voice. How long ago that was -- and how times have changed.

Richard said...

" a minority congressional party the Democrats are institutionally incapable of rallying behind a single position or leader on the issue."

I only realized that this was true in the last few weeks, but it is. Not only is there no binding decision process (like majority votes or anything) to follow a minority party discussion of any issue, there are strong motives for individuals to break from the common view, like Senators who want to distinguish themselves for a run for President or Congresspersons who want to distinguish themselves to the public from other Congresspersons.

Effectively, neither party exists outside the arenas provided by the Presidency and the Congress. The minority party has no spokesperson except one running one branch of government.

It is no surprise that the Democrats do not seem to have a unified position on the War. It is, in fact, inevitable. But it is also a media talking point used to suggest that the Democrats are not yet ready for prime time.

I finally figured this out on my own, and I am delighted to see someone else say it.

I still don't know what to do about it, but I am delighted to see someone else confirm what I had come to realize.

So what do we do about it?

By the way, you are on my blogroll at politics plus stuff because your writing is always worth reading.

thepoetryman said...

Have a happy 4th!

Peace, above all.

JollyRoger said...

In the Gopperdom of today, dissent ensures that Der Rovesmarschall will dig up a wingnut to run against you in the Gopper Primary-a well-funded wingnut.

As much as I'd like to think some Gopper will offer up his or her own head, it won't happen. Only Ron Paul will continue to make his opposition known.

Bob Higgins said...

Hey Rob

Everything OK?


VtPoet said...

Hoping for a "cut and run" Democrat, Rob? -- a "cut and run" Senator maybe?

"Flip flop" instead of "stay the course"?

Hey, Bush is fighting a "war on terror". What are *you* fighting a war on? -- you elitist New York Times reading *LIBERAL*!

I'll bet you don't even watch NASCAR.

OK... I know I'm sounding like a broken record, but it's not a matter of finding a leader or a single position or even being the majority party.

"Talking Right" Read it. By Geoffrey Nunberg.

Politics is no longer about debate or standing on principle. You stand on talking points. Rhetoric gets the vote.

David Brock:

"Every Wednesday morning in Norquist's Washington offices, the leaders of more than eighty conservative organizations—including major right-wing media outlets and top Bush White House aides—convene to set movement priorities, plan strategy, and adopt talking points. (p. 50)"

Remember, Batman is the best superhero because he isn't afraid to stoop to his enemies methods.

Think Batman.

Anonymous said...

Woo-hoo! Nicely done -and highlighted on the front page of the nation!!!!!! COngrats from your pals at BK!