Where the past isn’t even past.
It’s a rough for too many families this Thanksgiving. With an unemployment rate of 7.3 percent, with nearly a million of discouraged no-longer-job-seekers, ashamed and invisible, not even showing up in that total; with an unemployment rate for black teenagers of 36 percent and, as The Nation’s George Zornick points out, the season of feasting a season of fasting for too many families on food stamps—cheer can be hard to find.
Keep our suffering neighbors in your thoughts as you celebrate. And for a possibly cheering contrast, consider a time when things were even worse: 1973, which I’ve researched for my upcoming book on the 1970s, when it was oh-so-much harder to head over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house because the Arab oil embargo quadrupled the price of a barrel of crude.
October was rung in with biblical prophecies from an assistant secretary of the interior. “With anything less than the best of luck,” Stephen Wakefield announced, “we shall probably face shortages of heating oil, propane, and diesel fuel this winter.… I am talking about men without jobs, homes without heat, children without schools.” In Los Angeles the Department of Water and Power predicted a 35 percent energy shortage by April. It came the day after the President’s Cost of Living Council set a new ceiling on the price of domestic crude; the major oil companies responded by raising the prices they charged their affiliate service stations by about a penny a gallon. In San Francisco 3,000 service stations shut down for three days in protest—street corners became ghost towns in the beautiful City by the Bay. And all this was before the Arab oil embargo.
That began October 17, after America decided to airlift weapons to Israel in its war with Egypt and Syria. A Watergate-scarred president went on TV and announced “a very stark fact: we are heading into the most acute energy shortage since World War II.” Americans, he said, would have to cut back: “less heat, less electricity, less gasoline”—almost stop being Americans at all. He called for shorter school and factory hours. And the cancellation of 10 percent of jet flights. The federal government would provide an example by setting thermostats to sixty-eight degrees or less, he said (“and that means in this room, too, as well as in every other room in the White House”); government vehicles would be limited to fifty miles an hour. He told governors to pass laws mandating fifty miles per hour for everyone, Congress to pass an emergency statute returning to year-round daylight savings time and to relax environmental regulations. Start carpooling, he recommended: “How many times have you gone along the highway,” he quizzed, “with only one individual in that car?”
Thousands, of course—for wasn’t zooming alone across endless vistas of highways supposed to be the most American pastime of all? Not any more, apparently. What he was describing, he allowed, sounded “like a way of life we left behind with Glenn Miller and the war of the forties.”
Honoring a non-binding presidential request, gas stations began closing down from 9 pm Saturday through midnight on Sundays. So people began “topping off”—filling their tanks every time they passed a gas station, leading to hours-long lines in which idling cars… just wasted more gas. Everyone wanted to get to a pump before the last drop was gone and one of the ubiquitous sorry, no gas signs was hoisted up. Then, they would have to return the next day—when prices were usually two-cents-a-gallon higher. Tempers flared, no architect having thought to design a corner gas station for the eventuality of dozens of angry motorists cutting fellow motorists off on street corners like it was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Time called the energy crisis the “most serious economic threat to face the nation since the Depression.” Cities began reducing bus service. Schools in Massachusetts and Connecticut, states reliant on oil for heat, announced Christmas break for the entire months of December and January. At the New England School of Art, heated only to sixty-five degrees in the Boston chill, nude models were afforded the comfort of roasting in their own body heat in a clear plastic tent. In Rhode Island, a prize high school composition was customarily chosen to be signed by the governor as the official state Thanksgiving proclamation. The governor refused to sign this year’s winner, in which a 17-year-old wrote, “Thanksgiving seems to be pretended, a farce, little more than an outdated tradition no one has yet found time to discard.”
Time’s Thanksgiving cover had Archie Bunker in his trademark easy chair, stalactites of frost hanging from his cigar and winter cap—he couldn’t afford home heating oil. Plastic bags, made with petroleum, became prohibitively expensive; petrochemicals were also ingredients in many lifesaving drugs—so pharmaceutical executives projected a shortage. Twenty-five New Hampshire towns suspended police, fire protection, garbage pickups, road repair and school transportation.
The mayor of Rensselaer, Indiana, turned off the city’s 425 street lights, until a rash of burglaries forced him to turn them on again. In an interview he revealed his motives as less than Christian: “If everyone in the country would make this kind of effort, we could tell the Arabs to go to hell.” Unchristian motives were everywhere. A gas station owner stopped letting owners of big cars buy more than a dollar of gas at a time—“just enough to keep them off the road.” People started driving with a full can of gas in the trunk, which turned them into inadvertent firebombs. The Senate came within eight votes of passing a law rationing gasoline, and the White House ordered the Bureau of Engraving to prepare by printing over 10 billion ration coupons.
A coffee table book, They Could Not Trust the King, with text by William Shannon of the New York Times editorial board, went to press. It called Watergate “a complex and far-reaching political plan that could serve as dress rehearsal for an American fascist coup d’état.”
Then December, and the presidentially mandated closing of service stations from Saturday evening until Monday morning. A Hanford, California, gas station owner shot up six of the pumps of a rival who stayed open across the street. A Miami man yelled to a gas station attendant who wouldn’t sell to him on a Saturday night, “I am going to get some gas even if I have to kill somebody”—and then, waving a pistol, almost honored his pledge. Auto supply houses ran out of siphons, tools of the new street crime of choice—and locks for gas caps. More ambitious crooks started hijacking petroleum trucks. Brooklyn motorists filled up with “Gambinoil”—oil the Gambino stole from bulk plants in the area and sold to area dealers at 70 percent more than legitimate distributors.
A cheap paperback came out, Predictions for 1974, starring a panoply of psychics with names like “Countess Amy, the Gypsy Seeress,” and “Aquarius, Campus Clairvoyant.” It featured, alongside news-to-come about traffic accidents (“A submarine and a UFO will collide off the Aleutian Islands”), the occult (“reincarnation will be espoused by more and more young people as a valid explanation for the dislocations in modern society”), celebrities (“Dean Martin may have a health problem and definitely should be careful of his nose”), and celebrities and the occult (“A youthful female actress of sudden fame will publicly announce that she used witchcraft to obtain her current level of success and happiness”), prediction after prediction about how of the world would collapse. That was what the future looked like now. Deaths from record bitter cold. Deaths from a “nerve gas leak” off the coast of Florida. A 1929-style stock market collapse. A declaration of bankruptcy by New York City—“the first tangible sign of the collapse of our entire civilization.” Single people banned from buying big cars. Locusts and floods, “like the plagues of Egypt,” worldwide droughts, rising sea levels “inundating all coastal areas throughout the world.” Rationing of every staple, urban blackouts, riots, martial law. “Disaster will hit one of New York’s skyscraper landmark buildings." "Man is an endangered species,” as one soothsayer put it. It was a map of the dreads of a nation.
Good times. Let us cherish what we have, and what we have transcended before. Love, and let yourself be loved. Fight injustice, that our children might be blessed. Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers; you help make my life immeasurably meaningful and rich.
For families on food stamps, traditional Thanksgiving meals are out of the question.
Journofolks are talking a lot about the Heritage Foundation these days. The narrative is that a once-august right-wing research shop has gone all hackish on us since being taken over by former Senator Jim DeMint and his fearsome 31-year-old deputy Michael Needham. “The Fall of the Heritage Foundation and the Death of Republican Ideas,” is how the The Atlantic’s Molly Ball tags it. In The New Republic, a profile of Needham, whom The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank labeled “The Shut-Down’s Enforcer-in-chief,” quotes Republican legislators lambasting him for “his ideological inflexibility and aggressive zero-sum tactics.” A bitter Senator Orrin Hatch is quoted in The New York Times: “Is Heritage going to go so political that it really doesn’t amount to anything anymore? I hope not.”
Of course, for a movement supposedly devoted to conserving the past, conservatives are oh-so-splendid at forgetting their own past. The notion of Hatch as the high-minded conservator of the scholarly temper would have been pretty laughable when he won his Senate seat in 1976 as the first major feather in the cap of the nascent New Right fundraising machine captained by Richard Viguerie. Back then, his campaign served as a pass-through for all sorts of Long Con hanky-panky. But never mind. The notion of Heritage’s fall from some noble intellectual golden age has been so ably debunked by historian Jason Stahl that I have little to add.
But not nothing to add. First, some more historical detail. I’ve written here before about the extraordinary events of 1974–75 in Kanawha County, West Virginia, when the school board encompassing the state’s biggest city, Charleston, voted to adopt textbooks Christian conservatives insisted endorsed miscegenation, “secular humanism,” and other assorted alleged sins, ended up dynamiting the school board building. But not before the brand-spanking-new Heritage Foundation rushed to aid the folks laying the dynamite.
In one of the first forays of this “scholarly” organization into national politics, Heritage sent sent two staffers to West Virginia. James McKenna, a lawyer who had won a string of cases defending the rights of parents to homeschool their children, came to defend the activists under indictment for violence. Connie Marshner was a young University of South Carolina graduate who had accepted a job in 1971 on Capitol Hill as a plain old secretary for Young Americans for Freedom, which was where she quietly transformed herself into an expert on Senator Walter Mondale’s bill to establish a national system of federal childcare centers—the “therapeutic state invading the home,” Marshner said. On her own, she started a letterhead organization to fight the bill. When Nixon vetoed it, calling it a threat to “the family in its rightful position as a keystone of our civilization,” she claimed victory, and was hired as Heritage’s first director of education. Soon she was soon hard at work finding “little clusters of Evangelical, fundamentalist Mom’s groups,” and transforming them into troops for the conservative movement army. She ended up writing a book called Blackboard Tyranny as her lasting contribution to the “parents rights” movement’s scholarly legacy. Based on the ideas of the Christian deconstructionist Rousas J. Rushdoony, the book argues that education professionals began their plot to replace Christianity with the “messianic” religion of secular humanism when they started teaching that education should indoctrinate children into democracy, and that parents’ right to oppose this “came from God by way of the natural law.” Scholarly!
The Heritage Foundation saw the Kanawha incident as an opportunity to build strategic capacity. “If you pick the right fight at the right time,” McKenna explained, “[y]ou can make your political points, you can help the people involved, and you can become a force in the political community.” Conservatives used to call people like this “outsider agitators.” On October 6, 1974, they were among the featured speakers at a rally before 8,000 textbook activists. One preacher cried, “If we don’t protect our children we’ll have to account for it on the day of judgement!” The next day this same preacher was among the twenty militants arrested at a garage for sabotaging school buses; the following day, two elementary schools were firebombed. Scholarly!
And now, some personal anecdotage. I’ve visited the Heritage three times for research purposes. My host was Lee Edwards, who in the service of the Heritage Foundation writes hagiographies of conservative institutions and luminaries; nice work if you can get it. Edwards is a friendly guy, generous with his time and recollections, but for all that, as a conservative-movement lifer, someone also implicated in the Long Con: in 1972 he was one of the principles in a hustle called “Friends of the FBI,” to which gullible folks at the grassroots funneled cash that mostly ended up going back to the hustlers; their front man, TV star Efram Zimbalist, withdrew from the project after saying its three founders, including Edwards, were guilty of “fraud and misrepresentation.”
Anyway, on one of these visits, the foundation was fulsomely hosting some Asian dictator, holding him up as a tribune of freedom. On another, one Heritage fellow, a superannuated former Reagan UN ambassador, told me stories about Barry Goldwater “chasing pussy.” On a third, Edwards led me to Edwin Meese’s office for an interview. We passed through a room dedicated to Amway, with a full complement of their products on display—some think tank! (Regular readers of this blog know what I think of Amway, a seriously scholarly outfit…). Once there, the former attorney general of the United States told me no one had ever complained about racism in the Oakland police when he was the Alameda County DA in the 1960s. I told him I knew of some fellows who would have disagreed. He looked at me like I was nuts.
Yes, it used to be a such high-minded, intellectually serious place. Nowadays: What hath Jim DeMint wrought?
Katrina vanden Heuvel on the irrelevanceof the Heritage Foundation.
The Life magazine dated November 22, 1963, which would have arrived on newsstands around November 15, featured a terrifying story by Theodore White, author of the groundbreaking bestseller The Making of the President 1960. Titled “Racial Collision,” and subtitled “the Negro-white problem is greatest in the North where the Negro is taking over the cities—and being strangled by them,” it was a terrifying intimation of an imminent racial holocaust. The first of two parts, the conclusion ran in the issue dated November 29—which ordinarily would have appeared on newsstands on November 22 but was held back to put the martyred President Kennedy on the cover, and to include, inside, several thousand words of what must have been some very speedily written copy about his death. That second part was even scarier. It reported terrors like Adam Clayton Powell’s call for “ ‘a Birmingham explosion in New York City’ this fall”; Communist infiltration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle; a civil rights group’s fears that it would be labeled “a front for the white man” unless a peaceful march was turned into “a violent putsch on government offices”; and some protesters&rssquo; demand for cash reparations for slavery—“There is a warning if such sin-gold is not paid by white Americans to black Americans, the ‘power structure’ is inviting ‘social chaos.’ ” And it quoted James Forman of the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee reaching the following unsettling conclusion: “85% of all Negroes do not adhere to nonviolence.”
Such foreboding was entirely typical of that very tense summer and fall—and the culmination of fears that had been mounting ever since the Bay of Pigs and the Berlin Crisis and the Cuban missile crisis and the Oxford, Mississippi, crisis of 1961 and 1962. The fear escalated after Bull Connor’s fire hoses in Birmingham in the spring of 1963 unleashed what felt to whites like an uncontainable torrent of black rage across the country: in Columbus, Ohio, two men chained themselves to furniture in the state Capitol; in Boston, a black parent told the segregationist city school board “it is too late for pleading, begging, requesting, or even reasoning.” Whites thereby reacted against the rage: George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama. Medgar Evers was shot. Barry Goldwater began looking good to Republicans—and rival bands of Goldwaterites turned the Young Republican National Federation’s convention into a near-riot.
It felt like riots were breaking out everywhere.
On September 15, Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed by Klansmen, killing four little girls.
In Dallas, on October 24, United Nations ambassador Adlai Stevenson was shouted down, spat upon, and physically assaulted on the street by right-wingers.
In Saigon, on November 2, South Vietnam’s president Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated in a US- backed coup.
And in Dallas, on November 22, President Kennedy was supposed to give a speech addressing the widespread feeling that America had become a very scary place, specifically as regarded the 1963 version of Tea Partiers, who had become so scary that many people presumed that they had been the ones that shot him. “In a world of complex and continuing problems, in a world full of frustrations and irritations,” ran the text he was killed before he could deliver, “voices are heard in the land…preaching doctrines wholly unrelated to reality, wholly unsuited to the sixties, doctrines which apparently assume that…vituperation is as good as victory and peace is a sign of weakness…. At a time when we are steadily reducing the number of federal employees serving every thousand citizens, they fear those supposed hordes of civil servants, far more than the actual hordes of opposing armies.”
This was the world that Theodore White, in his next article in Life after his near-prediction of race war proclaimed, until the day John F. Kennedy was killed, “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.”
* * *
The story of how the myth of Camelot was invented is wonderfully told in a great little book from 1995 that I’ve never seen referenced before, Theodore H. White and Journalism as Illusion, by media scholar Joyce Hoffman. It begins:
Theodore H. White was in a dentist’s chair on the Upper East Side of Manhattan on a Friday morning in late November 1963, when he learned that Jacqueline Kennedy had telephoned to say she needed him. One week had passed since President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, and now his widow was beseeching the journalist, whom she considered an old friend, to come to Hyannisport. She had something she wanted Life magazine to say to America, and White, she insisted, had to bear the message…. She had summoned White because she was angry, very angry. All week newspaper pundits had served up their instant appraisals of the brief and abruptly ended Kennedy administration. Arthur Krock’s New York Times column had especially rankled her…a lament about the failure of ‘even advanced democracy and self-government to extirpate in mankind the resort to anarchy…. Walter Lippmann’s “Today and Tomorrow’” column just four days after the assassination had spoken of the forces of hatred and ungovernability and how “habit of intemperate speech and thought had become deeply ingrained. It is deepened by the strains of war and the frustrations of this revolutionary age.”
In other words, commentators commentated accurately on the mood of the country. But “Mrs. Kennedy wanted White to rescue her husband’s memory from these men. History should celebrate the Kennedy years as a time of hope and magic, she insisted. White sat mesmerized for more than two hours, listening to the rambling and disjointed monologue…. She sneered at the ‘bitter old men’ who wrote history.” (That’s me!) “Finally, she came to the thought that had become her obsession, a thought embodied in the lyrics of the the Broadway musical—Camelot. Over and over again, she and the president had listened to the words sing out of their ten-year-old Victrola…”
What came next is pretty damned astonishing, a nadir in the history of court journalism, something that better belongs in the annals of the Kremlin. White retreated around midnight to draft his article in the maid’s room, “mindful that Life was holding its presses at a cost of $30,000 an hour. When he finished, Mrs. Kennedy took a pencil to White’s work, crossing out some of his words and adding her own in the margins. She hovered near the kitchen telephone—adamant that her Camelot portrayal remain the dominant theme—as he dictated the revised version to his editors.” The article came out. Arthur Schlesinger, baffled, said, “Jack Kennedy never spoke of Camelot.” One Kennedy hand said, “If Jack Kennedy heard this stuff about Camelot, he would have vomited.”
The whole thing is a great object lesson in the horrors of access journalism—and access history. (“The notes of White’s interview with Jacqueline Kennedy,” writes Joyce Hoffman, “known as the ‘Camelot Papers,’ which White donated to the John F. Kennedy library in 1969, remained under restriction until May 19, 1995, one year after the death of Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis.”) If you hate the kind of writing Bob Woodward does now; if you hate Politico or, going back further, if you hate the kind of things Sally Quinn wrote on Monicagate (“ ‘He came in here and he trashed the place,’ says Washington Post columnist David Broder, ‘and it’s not his place.’ ”), or the childish abuse and systematic distortions meted out to Al Gore in 2000 because he didn’t fit into the Washington insiders’ village, blame Camelot—or “Camelot.” If you heard the public radio documentary this morning We Knew JFK: Unheard Stories from the Kennedy Archive and were as astonished as I was at how many journalists blithely based their admiration for the thirty-sixth president on the nice cocktails he and “Jackie” poured in the White House, or if you’ve seen David Auburn’s neat Broadway play from last year, The Columnist, which depicts the incestuous coziness between Joseph Alsop and John F. Kennedy, you know what I mean.
Teddy White, about whom I have complicated feelings, was a crucial conveyor belt in advancing this awful cultural trend—“High Broderism,” some of our better bloggers used to call it—and Hoffman’s book is an important primer for anyone who wants to learn how it happened. A child of Boston’s Jewish ghetto, Teddy (or, in his parents’ Yiddish-speaking mouths, “Tuddy”) White made his way as a scholarship boy to Harvard, where he came to identify with the clubby culture of the WASP with the zeal of the convert, with all the pseudo-aristocratic abuses of democratic culture that entailed. “White’s style of journalism,” Hoffman explains, “fit a model established by a generation of influential column and reporters who had functioned as a subsidiary of government during World War II and the postwar years…a patriot first and a journalist second.”
Twenty-five years before his “Camelot” coup, she notes, “he had written stories from China that had portrayed Chiang Kai-shek as a similarly heroic character.” Then he realized he was wrong, but it was too late—he had helped create the Frankenstein’s monster’s of America’s romance with Chiang, and thus the McCarthyite reaction to China’s fall to Communism, too; he then had to watch helplessly as that reaction devoured some of his friends. Hoffman argues White then helped created the myth of the presidency itself as some sort of American regency. He was the first to capitalize “Oval Office.” She tells an amazing story of how an interview with Kennedy there, for the last chapter of Making of the President, in which the new president, in his underwear being fitted for a suit, gossips altogether un-presidentially, coarsely insults Nixon and obsesses over how much money White will make on his book. Out of that unpromising raw material, White crafted a panegyric to a godlike man who commanded the eighteen-button telephone console on his desk like “the sword and the mace in the politics of the middle ages.”
White had identified so closely with JFK on the 1960 campaign trail that he wore a Kennedy campaign button. When the manuscript was complete, he showed it to both “Bobby” and “Jack,” acceding to RFK’s requested revisions. He didn’t extend the same courtesy to Nixon. But then again, Nixon didn’t invite Teddy White to his cocktail parties. Here’s a diary entry from 1962: “Mad night at Bobby’s great fun. He set the Caroline [the Kennedys’ pet name for Air Force One] up from Washington, we got aboard at 5:00 followed by Harry Belafonte and his wife Julie…”
This sort of thing had real consequences for the country. It is one of the Big Ideas of my first book, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, that just this sort of consensus-besotted denial of the roiling tensions beneath America’s consensus facade in the early 1960s—the time “before the storm”—made the storms of the later 1960s so much nastier than they would have been, had Americans been better been prepared to accept the ineluctably divisive reality of American life. Instead, the tension burst forth like the return of the repressed.
Anyway, here’s a new Big Idea: journalist sycophants like White helped give us Watergate.
Consider: White felt so guilty at having slighted Nixon in Making of the President 1960 that he turned Making of the President 1968 into a virtual love letter to him, and sent him the book with a fulsome apology. Making of the President 1972 sucked up to Nixon even worse. But then, oops—I discovered this in research for the book I’m finishing now—White had to postpone publication so he could tack on a chapter about a little thing called Watergate, whose seriousness caught him completely by surprise.
Indeed, it was largely the clubbiness of the Washington village press corps that let Nixon get away with Watergate and still win his landslide in 1972. (Read Tim Crouse’s Boys on the Bus for the full story.) Call it Camelot’s revenge: the class of court scribes who made it their profession to uphold a make-believe version of America free of conflict and ruled by noble men helped Nixon get away with it for so long—because, after all, America was ruled by noble men.
Don’t let that be forgot. For who knows what latter-day sycophants and suck-ups in the media might let our leaders get away with next.
“Rick,” a Facebook friend writes, “curious to see what you make of the old debate (which may have some new evidence, see Galbraith II) re JFK and Vietnam. Would we have gone or stayed if JFK lived? Or was he the fervent Cold Warrior some paint him as? (My dad marched in his inauguration, and was almost killed six or seven years later.)”
The argument that John F. Kennedy was a closet peacenik, ready to give up on what the Vietnamese call the American War upon re-election, received its most farcical treatment in Oliver Stone’s JFK. It was made with only slightly more sophistication by Kenneth O’Donnell in the 1972 book Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye, in which the old Kennedy hand depicted the president telling him, “In 1965, I’ll become one of the most unpopular presidents in history. I’ll be damned everywhere as a Communist appeaser. But I don’t care. If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam, we would have another McCarthy red scare on our hands, but I can do it after I’m elected.” O’Donnell also claimed that in an October 2, 1963, National Security Council meeting, after debriefing Robert McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor on their recent trip to Saigon, “President Kennedy asked McNamara to announce to the press after the meeting the immediate withdrawal of one thousand soldiers and to say that we would probably withdraw all American forces from Vietnam by the end of 1965. When McNamara was leaving the meeting to talk to the White House reporters, the President called to him, ‘And tell them that means all the helicopter pilots, too.’ ” Promptly, wrote O’Donnell, McNamara double-crossed the president, giving the reporters merely a prediction of the end of America’s war, not Kennedy’s prescription of the end of America’s war: McNamara merely said they thought “the major part of the the U.S. task” would be completed by the end of 1965, nothing about the president’s intention to complete the task by the end of 1965.
O’Donnell was seeing the world through Camelot-colored glasses. As the historian Edwin Moise demonstrates in A Companion to the Vietnam War (2002), NSC minutes are a matter of record, and the notes show the president himself approving a statement that was only a prediction that things would be over by the end of 1965, framed merely as the observation of Taylor and McNamara. (“They reported that by the end of this year, the U.S. program for training Vietnamese should have progressed to the point where 1,000 military personnel assigned to South Vietnam can be withdrawn.”)
Now, on the broader claim that Kennedy truly intended to end the war by the end of 1965, things get more interesting, and that’s where the case recently made by James K. Galbraith, son of the famous Kennedy hand and economist John Kenneth Galbraith, comes in. As he put it categorically in a letter to The New York Times, “President Kennedy issued a formal decision to withdraw American forces from Vietnam.” Is that true? Only literally, which in the end adds up to mostly nothing.
Kennedy, of course, was the first president to send soldiers to Southeast Asia, 16,732 of them, supposedly as mere “advisers,” but many of them actually combatants. As Kennedy had told famously told The New York Times’s James Reston late in 1961 after the failure at the Bay of Pigs and the erection of the Berlin Wall, “Now we have a problem in making our power credible, and Vietnam is the place.” And a damned good place, his military men kept telling him: early in his third year as president, his Vietnam commanders reported that “barring greatly increased resupply and reinforcement of the Viet Cong by the infiltration, the military phase of the war can be virtually won in 1963”—an opinion he continued hearing repeatedly. That’s important context, for whether JFK’s plans on what to do in Vietnam were contingent on military success in Vietnam—as opposed to cutting and running even if that meant leaving the country to the Communist insurgency—is key to this debate.
As Edwin Moise notes, though, “President Kennedy also read much more pessimistic evaluations. These were written mostly by civilians—some by officials in the State Department, others by journalists like Malcolm Browne and David Halberstam. Kennedy did not openly commit himself to either the optimists or the pessimists.” What he did do was insist publicly that he would never cut and run. July 13, 1963: “We are not going to withdraw from that effort…. we are going to stay there.” September 2: “I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake.” September 26: “We have to stay with it. We must not be fatigued.”
And what of privately? Bug-out plans were indeed drawn up. Galbraith points to an October 4 message from General Taylor to the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “Program currently in progress to train Vietnamese forces will be reviewed and accelerated as necessary to insure that all essential functions visualized to be required for the projected operational environment, to include those now performed by U.S. military units and personnel, can be assumed properly by the Vietnamese by the end of calendar year 1965. All planning will be directed towards preparing RVN forces for the withdrawal of all U.S. special assistance units and personnel by the end of calendar year 1965.” (Galbraith himself adds the emphasis.) “Execute the plan,” the memo continues, “to withdraw 1,000 U.S. military personnel by the end of 1963…”
Noam Chomsky ably took on this claim by pointing out that the withdrawal plan in question, labeled NSAM 263, included language Galbraith conveniently omits, for instance, “It remains the central object of the United States in South Vietnam to assist the people and Government of that country to win their contest against the externally directed and supported Communist conspiracy. The test of all decisions and U.S. actions in this area should be the effectiveness of their contributions to this purpose.” And that supporting texts included phrases like “without impairment of the war effort,” and that “what furthers the war effort we support, and what interferes the with the war effort we oppose,” and “our actions are related to our fundamental objective of victory.” Moises points to language in minutes from the October 2, 1963, NSC meeting: “President Kennedy indicated he did not want to get so locked into withdrawal plans that it would be difficult to cancel them if the war did not go so well after all.”
In other words, whether John F. Kennedy’s formal decision would be carried through in the interim between October 1963 and January 1966 was contingent on what happened in the future. One day this summer I issued a formal decision to go the beach. Then it rained. And so I did not go to the beach.
And as anyone who knows anything about the Vietnam War knows, the people funneling intelligence to the president were alarmingly adept (“the military phase of the war can be virtually won in 1963”) at claiming the sun was shining when it actually was pouring down rain. In fact, when it came to America’s military prospects there, it was winter in Seattle just about all the time. But tomorrow was always going to be sunny, if you asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The best evidence that this “formal decision” by JFK lacks forecasting power is the actual outcome of phase I of that selfsame formal decision: to remove 1,000 soldiers from Vietnam by the end of 1963. Only 432 were actually removed by the end of 1963 (“although,” writes Moise, “some sources give lower figures,” and even that may have merely been the result of shifting deployment schedules). Sometimes war is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.
And that’s not because there was a new president by the end of 1963, at least if you trust Galbraith, who cites as clinching his argument (though it actually proves his argument is wrong) that a December 11, 1963, memo noting that the plan to withdraw 1,000 soldiers was still in force, “with no reference to the change of commander in chief.” Through the rest of 1963, in other words (Galbraith’s words), America’s Vietnam policy was still Kennedy’s, not LBJ’s. The policy, as articulated two days before Kennedy’s death by Henry Cabot Lodge, America’s ambassador to Vietnam: “We should continue to keep before us the goal of setting dates for phasing out U.S. activities and turning them over to the Vietnamese…. We can always grant last-minute extensions if we think it wise to do so.”
Finally, consider context. We all know how the Cold War worked: Republican claims about “losing China” motivated a generation of Democrats into pants-pissing fears about not looking tough enough on the reds. Writes Moise, “It is hard to believe that Kennedy as a man who had spent so much effort cultivating an image of machismo and youthful vigor would not have cared about being thought a Communist appeaser.” He observes, with subtly and sharp historical acumen, “It is not at all unusual in Washington for people to write plans based on a ‘best-case’ scenario. It also seems possible that when Kennedy based plans on the optimists’ projections, he was using this as a way of putting pressure on senior military officers to be realistic in their reports. They might be less inclined to write inflated claims of progress if they were clearly told that such claims would be treated as justifications for troop pullouts.”
He concludes archly, “To have reached a firm decision to withdraw, so long in advance, he would have to have felt that no possible new development, between 1963 and 1965, might create a prospect of an acceptable outcome of a continued struggle. To have thought the situation was such an unmitigated and unmitigatable disaster, he would have had to think that most of what was being said about he Vietnam War in the National Security Council was nonsense, and that his top military and foreign policy advisors were fools or liars. If he felt that, he did an extraordinary job of concealing it.” I agree wholeheartedly.
So what would have happened in Vietnam had JFK lived? Let the man who knew him best have the last word. Asked in 1964 whether America would have “go[ne] in on land” if the South Vietnamese were about to lose, Bobby Kennedy answered, “Well, we’d face that when we came to it.”
Part II of this series considers whether JFK’s assassination influenced the passage of LBJ’s sweeping social reforms.
A Facebook friend writes: “To what extent did Dallas factor into LBJ’s agenda getting through?”
That’s an easy one: quite nearly one hundred precent. There’s no question that Kennedy was an utter failure as a passer of laws during his proverbial thousand days. I wrote about that in Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus: “His only real legislative victory had come in the second week of his term, when the House voted to enlarge the size of the Rules Committee to dilute the power its reactionary majority of Northern Republican and Southern Democrats had used to bog down…social legislation. But he won the victory by only a single vote.” (Those interested in more detail should seek out a 1968 book by Tom Wicker, JFK and LBJ: The Influence of Personality upon Politics.) And that victory, I wrote, “availed him nothing.” His bill to commit major federal funds to education for the first time failed; a bill for aid to depressed areas was watered down; a minimum wage increase was tiny, the number of workers it covered decreased. As for his heroic introduction of the sweeping civil rights bill, Robert Caro suggests that at the time of his death he was apparently ready to trade away its signature provision, the ban on discrimination in public accommodations. A housing bill and what would become Medicare were on the verge of failure—all this despite an approval ratings in the 70s during the spring before his death.
Then, the assassination. Then, Teddy White’s proclamation that America had just been deprived of “Camelot” (more on that later!). Lyndon Johnson stood before a joint session of Congress and said, in words scripted by Kennedy’s great speechwriter Ted Sorensen, “All that I have I would have gladly given not to be standing here today…. On the 20th day of January, in 1961, John F. Kennedy told his countrymen that our national work would not be finished ‘in the first thousand days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetimes on this planet. But,’ he said, ‘let it begin.’ Today, in this moment of new resolve, I would say to all my fellow Americans, let us continue!’ ”
Then came the legislative deluge. Same Congress; the only difference was the blatant and skilled manipulation of the memory of the fallen martyr by LBJ. Medicare. Medicaid. Civil Rights, without a single serious change from draft to passage. Federal aid to education. The tax cut I wrote about yesterday (he threatened to keep legislators in Washington through Christmas unless they passed it). Authorizing legislation for an “all-out war on human poverty,” claimed as an inheritance from Kennedy, though it had been Kennedy’s chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers’ idea to divert money to merely eliminating “pockets of party,” an idea tabled because Kennedy decided reaching out to suburban voters for 1964 was the more important priority.
Part 1 of Kennedy Week focuses on JFK’s legacy as a nuclear strategist and symbol of liberalism.
This week I threw it to the friends in my Facebook community (join us!) for requests about what I should write about for the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death, which falls this Friday. I got a massive response—scores of questions. All this week I’ll be addressing the most popular and interesting ones.
The very first reply that came in was this: “I can never hear enough about how a liberal Massachusetts Democrat used intelligence and creative intelligence and creative diplomacy to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis and saved us all from nuclear annihilation.” With all due respect to the questioner, a smart and experienced liberal activist, plus the five folks who gave the question a thumbs-up on Facebook, I wondered initially whether his question wasn’t meant as snark—that he might be referring to Garry Wills’s very convincing argument that the Cuban Missile Crisis was all Kennedy’s fault. As it happens, I agree with Wills: I don’t think Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis is something we should celebrate at all.
Wills made the case in the final section of his 1982 book The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power. Early in his term Kennedy fell in love with a plan, left over from Eisenhower’s administration, to send exiles to invade and overthrow Castro via a landing at the Bahía de Cochinos—the Bay of Pigs. He liked it so much because it was Kennedyesque: “A James Bond exploit blessed by Yale, a PT raid run by PhDs.” A failed invasion, his fault; then, despite the conventional wisdom that he learned from the failure, rather than leave well enough alone, Kennedy’s CIA kept on proliferating increasingly knuckle-headed schemes (exploding cigars!) to assassinate Castro, some using Mafia operatives. One set of plans on the drawing boards: “Operation Northwoods,” which proposed, among other ideas, creating the pretext for another American invasion. James Bamford wrote that the goal of the project was “for innocent people to be shot on American streets; for boats carrying refugees fleeing Cuba to be sunk on the high seas; for a wave of violent terrorism to be launched in Washington, D.C., Miami, and elsewhere. People would be framed for bombings they did not commit; planes would be hijacked. Using phony evidence, all of it would be blamed on Castro.”
We sometimes hear the argument that Kennedy never knew how about the depths to which such madcap plotting sunk, which were indeed always devised to protect the president via maximal “plausible deniability”—but what is undeniable is that the ultimate aim, overthrowing Castro, came straight from the top. The American people didn’t know about any of this, but the Cuban government did. So no wonder they wanted nukes. But there are also outstanding arguments that JFK’s admittedly outstanding and mature diplomacy once the missiles were placed in Cuba did not save us from nuclear annihilation at all. The logic of deterrence rendered those missiles virtually useless. For if a Communist first strike was launched from the Soviet Union, America could destroy the Cuban missiles before they could be used during this long time window; if the missiles from Cuba struck first, the president would have time to push the proverbial button and annihilate the Soviet Union. The only thing those Cuban missiles were useful for, in fact, was preventing America from illegally overthrowing the Castro government. So if you think that’s a splendid thing, yes, celebrate Kennedy for the Cuban Missile Crisis. Otherwise: not so impressive.
* * *
Next up! “I’d love to read your take on Ira Stoll’s book arguing that JFK was actually a conservative.”
The book is JFK, Conservative. Here’s the blurb: “[B]y the standards of both his time and our own, John F. Kennedy was a conservative. His two great causes were anticommunism and economic growth. His tax cuts, which spurred one of the greatest economic booms in our history, were fiercely opposed by his more liberal advisers. He fought against unions. He pushed for free trade and a strong dollar. And above all, he pushed for a military buildup and an aggressive anticommunism around the world…. Not every Republican is a true heir to Kennedy, but hardly any Democrats deserve that mantle.”
I have, of course, heard such claims for ages. What to make of them? Granted, I haven’t read the book, and maybe Stoll’s supporting arguments are so subtly brilliant that he’s suddenly rendered them convincing. But he’d have to be smarter than Einstein to do so. It’s not a great start that the blurb advertising his book contains a basic logical error. One can’t be a conservative “by the standards of both his time and our own,” the space in between being some fifty years filled with massive social changes on virtually every front, any more than something can be simultaneously matter and anti-matter. What is considered “conservative,” and what is considered “liberal,” changes in any given era. Calling tax cuts “conservative,” as such, is shockingly historically ignorant: the idea of tax-cutting as a signature conservative gesture dates only to the late 1970s and the arguments of supply-siders like Jude Wanniski. When Wanniski made his arguments to Ronald Reagan’s very conservative adviser Peter Hannaford in 1976, Hannaford looked at Wanniski like he was crazy and walked away; the previous year, liberal Democrats were the ones pushing a $29.2 billion permanent tax cut as against President Ford’s wish for $16 billion in temporary tax cuts.
As for Kennedy’s tax cut specifically (which was actually Johnson’s tax cut: it went through early in 1964, and are conservatives now claiming Johnson as one of their own?), the historian David Greenberg niftily put paid to that in a piece Stoll must have missed when it came out ten years ago. Yes, the law that passed ended up lowering the top marginal tax rate from 91 to 70 percent, and if Stoll is willing to join the Kennedy-Johnson bandwagon by bringing back that top rate, I’m glad to join him. But the blunt fact of the matter was that the tax cut was designed to create a deficit, and designed to mostly put money into poorer consumers’ pockets: it was explicitly Kenyesian, through and through—the opposite of Reaganite “supply-side” thinking. Businessmen—conservatives—mostly hated it. Because, back then, it was “conservative” to favor fiscal probity even if it took higher taxes to do it.
OK: “He fought against unions.” Um, he fought against union corruption. If Stoll thinks liberals prefer corrupt unions, I don’t know what to say to him. That’s generally the conservative line. As Barry Goldwater said during the hearings Kennedy helped run in the late 1950s that took on Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters, “I’d rather have Jimmy Hoffa stealing my money than Walter Reuther stealing my freedom.”
What about Kennedy’s anticommunism? Was that “conservative”? Sure, if you’re stupid beyond stupid. Anticommunism in its modern form was invented by liberals like Harry Truman, the architect of the national security state. The proportion of the voting population that was not anticommunist in 1961 was miniscule. Here’s another, related, question from one of my Facebook friends, another five-thumbs-up popular favorite: “I’d love a perspective on his brand of liberal anticommunism and how it fit in to the era.” What did it mean to be a conservative anticommunist during that time? Mostly, it meant being idiotic. Barry Goldwater’s 1962 book on the subject, Why Not Victory?, built on the argument in the last chapter of Conscience of a Conservative that it should be America’s foreign policy to blithely welcome nuclear war if that was what it took to “advance the cause of freedom.” Yes, literally.
Conservatives like Goldwater (not to mention conservatives in the John Birch Society, who believed the most important thing to know about Communism was that its denizens had infiltrated the federal government all the way to the top, but maybe Ira Stoll agrees?) also believed it was futile to negotiate with the Soviet Union about anything. Why was this especially idiotic? Because historically, relaxation in tensions between the US and the USSR had always been the variable most likely to weaken the hold of totalitarianism with the Soviet Union, opening space for the dissidents whose courage eventually brought down the system. (Conservatives habitually travesty both historical fact and the courageous legacy of these dissidents when they argue otherwise.)
Now, as I noted above, Kennedy’s anticommunism could be stupid, too. But it was most stupid when it was most conservative—see above.
So why is it accurate to say that Kennedy was affirmatively liberal—if too often, as we’ll examine next time, a timid one? For one, because he said he was, out and proud, for instance in this most useful of utterances: “If by a ‘liberal’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties—someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad—if that is what they mean by a ‘liberal’ then I’m proud to say I’m a liberal.”
The proof was in the pudding. His first debate with Richard Nixon in 1960, remembered now because Kennedy looked hale and ruddy and Nixon looked sweaty and haggard, should also be remembered for Kennedy’s central policy argument: free medical care for the aged, what would later come to pass as Medicare, as an affirmation and extension of the New Deal legacy:
“I want the individuals to meet their responsibilities. And I want the states to meet their responsibilities. But I think there is also a national responsibility. The argument has been used against every piece of social legislation in the last twenty-five years. The people of the United States individually could not have developed the Tennessee Valley; collectively they could have. A cotton farmer in Georgia or a peanut farmer or a dairy farmer in Wisconsin and Minnesota, he cannot protect himself against the forces of supply and demand in the market place; but working together in effective governmental programs he can do so. Seventeen million Americans, who live over sixty-five on an average Social Security check of about seventy-eight dollars a month, they’re not able to sustain themselves individually, but they can sustain themselves through the social security system.”
Kennedy went on, slapping Ira Stoll down from beyond the grave:
“[W]hat is the party record that we lead? I come out of the Democratic party, which in this century has produced Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, and which supported and sustained these programs which I’ve discussed tonight. Mr. Nixon comes out of the Republican party. He was nominated by it. And it is a fact that through most of these last twenty-five years the Republican leadership has opposed federal aid for education, medical care for the aged, development of the Tennessee Valley, development of our natural resources. I think Mr. Nixon is an effective leader of his party. I hope he would grant me the same. The question before us is: which point of view and which party do we want to lead the United States?”
That’s why John F. Kennedy was a liberal, which happens to be why I am a liberal too.
Wendell Berry commemorates the assassination of JFK in his poem “The Light of all His Last Days.”
At the close of the 1976 Republican convention in Kansas City, after President Gerald Ford barely squeaked out the nomination against Ronald Reagan, the Reagan aide David Keene gave a revealing interview to The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Drew.
Keene is a conservative movement lifer. In college he was national chairman of Young Americans for Freedom. He ran for public office only once, for Wisconsin state senate, in 1969, and lost, then worked for Spiro Agnew in the White House back when the loud-mouthed vice president was the conservatives’ Great White Horse for president (“Spiro of ’76”). He became an assistant to the conservative senator James Buckley (William F.’s brother). He was chairman of the American Conservative Union from 1984 until 2011. At the time Drew spoke with him, Keene had been the head of Reagan’s presidential campaign in the South. In my Nation cover story last week about the Tea Party’s continuities with conservatism past, when I wrote about the right’s “ideological entrepreneurs” who work to leverage grassroots outrage into conservative power, Keene is exactly the sort of figure I had in mind.
In Kansas City, Keene spoke to Drew of the anger against Reagan among conservatives for his last-minute gambit to save his failing presidential bid by choosing a liberal running mate, Senator Richard Shweiker of Pennsylvania, who had received a 100 percent rating from the AFL-CIO’s Committee on Political Education. Reagan had defended his decision by stressing Schweiker’s agreement with him on abortion and gun control. Carped Keene, “These are all window-dressing issues. What about the economy?” Keene insisted that it was “economic issues” that conservatives really cared about. He explained, “The picture of hardhats taking to the streets over abortion and gun control is misleading. Those issues aren’t what people care about. What it really comes down to is the economic system and the theory that the government is too big. The big things that thinking conservatives think about involve questions of economics and questions of freedom. They draw on the frustration in the country from the increasing feeling that people can’t do anything about anything.”
He was wrong—as the organizers of the nascent New Right would soon be concluding en masse. Yes, people were feeling plenty of frustration about not being able to do anything about anything when it came to their economic lives. But conservative leaders proved entirely ineffectual at “drawing on that” to get people to believe conservative solutions were the answer to their economic frustrations.
It is, in fact, a truism, confirmed by nearly half a century of political polling, a fact brilliantly explained in a must-read article at Salon.com from Paul Rosenberg. It was true even after Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential victory, and his 1984 landslide reelection. Consider the statistics compiled in the perennially useful 1986 study Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics, by Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers. One poll they cite from Opinion Research Corporation asked voters in 1980 whether “too much” was being spent on the environment, health, education, welfare and urban aide programs. Only 21 percent thought so, the same percentage as in 1976, 1977 and 1978. The amount saying the amount spent was either “too little” or “about right” was never lower in those years than 72 percent. The number favoring keeping “taxes and services about where they are” was the same in 1975 and 1980—45 percent. The pattern continued well into Reagan’s presidency. In 1983 the Los Angeles Times found that only 5 percent of Americans found regulations “too strict,” while 42 percent called them “not strong enough.” Between 1978 and 1982, according to surveys from the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, the number of voters who wished to “expand” rather than “cut back” not just social spending in general but the dreaded “welfare” programs, increased by 26 percentage points. And finally, in 1984, when Reagan’s approval rating was 68 percent, only 35 percent favored cuts in social programs to reduce the deficit, which of course was their president’s strenuously stated preference on the matter. Sixty-five percent believed such cuts were imminent—and, of course, that November, well over 60 percent of them voted for Reagan instead of the Democrat Walter Mondale.
So how did the New Right ever manage to achieve its political thunder? How did they help elect Ronald Reagan when so few Americans, despite Keane’s confidence in 1976 they could be swayed, proved to be economic Reaganites? It was by selling what Keane called those “window dressing” issues—over which people suffering “the increasing feeling [they] can’t do anything about anything” were willing to follow conservatism’s lead.
Richard Viguerie once reflected on his and his New Right comrades’ frustration at their inability to get Christians to care about the Washington Marxists’ stealing their freedom—until Jimmy Carter’s IRS commissioner took away the tax deduction for Christian schools that served the cause of school segregation. “It kicked the sleeping dog…. it was the real spark that ignited the religious right’s involvement in politics.” (Then, incidentally, leaders like Viguerie lied so as not to make their constituency sound racist by retroactively claiming that it was Roe v. Wade that had done the trick.) An activated religious right helped put Reaganism over the top—after which Reaganites retroactively claimed a mandate to push economic conservatism.
It’s not that these conservative leaders didn’t care about about what were then called the “social issues”—in addition to abortion and gun control and keeping the IRS out of Christian schools, the ones that counted back then included the Equal Rights Amendment, gay rights and “secular humanism” in the public schools. It’s just that, in their heart of hearts, just like David Keene said, they cared about helping business more. I always found it revealing that, both times I sat in Richard Viguerie’s private office to interview him about the history of conservatism, the books that sat on his coffee tables were not about abortionists or secular humanists or other ungodly creatures, but about the evils of unions. Business, in turn, eagerly lapped up the help on offer.
This is the context we need to understand as we evaluate the question of whether the romance between the business lobby and the conservative movement, in its current Tea Party incarnation, can ever really cool. I don’t think it will. And it’s true that there are many different kinds of corporations, with all sorts of social agendas and interests. The sort of political division among capitalists I described in the first part of this series still obtains in various forms; Tom Frank writes, for example, about the “cool billionaires”—hedge fund folks, tech wizards—and “square billionaires”—resource extractors like the Kochs—the first preferred by corporate Democrats, the second by corporate Republicans. But you only need to consider the outrage of corporate executives over that one little time Obama used the phrase “fat cats” to know toward which side the ledger truly tips. And when it comes to business and conservatism, though some disciplining from the big-money boys might occur around the edges, they’re just too organically intertwined, in the ways I wrote about in my second part, to effect a divorce.
One of the most important things liberal don’t understand about conservatism, obscured by too much lazy talk about conservatism’s various “wings,” is that its tenets form a relatively organic base for its adherents, where “traditional morality” serves the interests of laissez-faire economics and vice-versa. This holds true whether the individual conservative in question is a sincere “traditionalist” or not. Howard Phillips, who died this year, was certainly a sincere traditionalist: he eventually became an outright Christian Reconstructionist, a fan of returning to the punishment of stoning for those who flout Leviticus’ codes. Both the thought of right-wing intellectual guru Leo Strauss and the neoconservative tradition itself as exemplified by a figure like William Kristol (“thinking conservatives,” in Keene’s revealing phrase) have a quiet tradition of allowing that religious orthodoxy is crucial to keeping society orderly and the masses in line, but something they’re far too smart to subscribe to themselves. (This tribute that the right paid to virtue was brilliantly flushed out eight years ago when The New Republic’s Ben Adler asked ten leading conservative intellectuals what they really thought about Genesis’ account of creation.) A similar perspective holds true for corporate masters of the universe as well: “tradition” keeps the worker bees tractable, after all. If you’re a capitalist, or just capitalism’s biggest fan, conservatism works.
The best writing about this ironic organic unity between “traditional morality” and tradition-wrecking capitalist creative destruction comes from the University of Georgia’s Bethany Moreton, in To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise, and, approaching the issue from the other side of the business-conservatism/Christian-conservatism divide, the University of West Georgia’s Daniel K. Williams. Williams argues that laissez-faire was a perfect fit for a figure like Jerry Falwell, too: after all, it was only natural for a Sun Belt entrepreneur like himself, the proprietor of a media network, to preach “that capitalism was a divinely ordained system and that hard work was the key to success, and he exemplified those virtues by logging ninety-hour workdays to turn his church into an ecclesiastical business empire.”
This marriage works so well (for them; not so much for us) because conservatism provides such a great way to manage the very anxieties capitalist creative destruction engenders: convince folks the true threat to families is “liberalism,” not licentious corporate greed, and you’ve worked a pretty neat trick—if you’re a capitalist. What’s more, it’s a great way to get scared victims of capitalism to the polls. The incomparable journalistic chronicler of the religious right and its corporate entanglements, Adele Stan, now of RH Reality Check, unearthed a luminescent recent example:
There is little doubt that the rash of anti-choice measures that flooded the legislative dockets in state capitols in 2013 was a coordinated effort by anti-choice groups and major right-wing donors lurking anonymously behind the facades of the non-profit “social welfare” organizations unleashed to tear up the political landscape, thanks to the high court’s decision in Citizens United….
Helping to drive the right-wing offensive in the states and in Congress is a network of deep-pocketed business titans convened by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, principals in Koch Industries, the second-largest privately held corporation in the United States. Like the Kochs themselves, many of the donors in the brothers’ networks signal disinterest in fighting against women’s rights or LGBTQ rights, yet anti-choice groups have seen their coffers swell with millions of the network’s dollars.
“If you want to promote a pro-corporate agenda, you’re only going to get so far,” Sue Sturgis, the Durham, North Carolina-based editorial director of the progressive website Facing South, told RH Reality Check. “But when you start weaving in these social issues like abortion and other reproductive rights issues, then you’re gonna appeal to a broader range of people, and a very motivated voting bloc. They will turn out. So it serves your larger cause.”
That explains why David Keene has finally come around. A past master at exploiting conservatism in the service of corporate cupidity—review if you dare the extraordinary story of how the American Conservative Union under his reign sold itself to the highest bidder in a trade dispute between FedEx and UPS—he’s now one “thinking conservative” who knows that social conservatism is no longer “window dressing.” Nope: he’s now president of the National Rifle Association—the poster-child organization (read our own Lee Fang) for the proposition that scaring people over culture is a splendid way to keep the capital flowing.
Social conservatism, business conservatism: the one side constitutes the other, like some infernal Mobius strip. Let’s not mistake the growls from the US Chamber of Commerce about taking on some Tea Partiers as signs of an imminent divorce. I suspect it’s more more like a lovers’ quarrel.
In the second part of this series, Rick Perlstein explains how conservatives came to embrace Wall Street in the 1970s.
Yesterday, for the first of three posts on the romance between business and the political right, I wrote about what some historians call “the golden age of capitalism,” which, as far as our governmental arrangements are concerned, was also a golden age of liberalism. In the years after World War II, coincident with America’s decades-long economic boom, even the nation’s top corporate executives seemed to buy into the Keynesian consensus that the best way to assure their own firms’ prosperity was to put money in the pockets of ordinary Americans.
Then, suddenly, they didn’t—my subject for today.
Here’s an irony of the history of conservatism’s relationship with business and business’s relationship with conservatism: “Wall Street” used to be the right-wing industrialists of the forties and fifties’ greatest term of derision. (Wall Street was the place that humiliated them by forcing them, hat in hand, to beg for capital.) Phyllis Schlafly wrote of the “Wall Street kingmakers” who controlled the Republican Party like dictators, forcing on it “liberal” nominees (like the financier Wendell Willkie), the kind of people who read the liberal Republican flagship organ the New York Herald-Tribune. Wall Street liked Lyndon Johnson. It tolerated unions. And, as long as the postwar boom was still booming, it accepted business’s relatively subordinate role in federal policy making. Which of course drove the 1950s and ’60s versions of Tea Partiers—I’ve called them “Manionites.”
Then, lo, the boom bust.
The 1970s was a time of falling rates of profit due largely to fallout from the Vietnam War, from the Arab oil embargo, and lots of successful labor militancy. A reaction was not long in following. And the leaders of the new business reaction now came from Wall Street and the blue-chip companies that had only a decade earlier formed the core of the postwar golden-age corporate-liberal bargain. The romance between business and conservatism entered a new phase: white-hot and smoldering.
Its leaders were people like William Simon, who made a pile of money lending money to New York as senior partner in charge of government and municipal bonds at Solomon Brothers. Then, when New York needed a federal bailout to pay back those loans when banks like Solomon Brothers greedily called them in (they could make more money now loaning to the same resource-rich Third World and Middle East nations who crushed the boom by using oil as a weapon), he did everything he could, as Gerald Ford’s secretary of the Treasury, to block it, making liberalism out to be the only reason for the nation’s every problem. As he wrote in a book modestly titled A Time for Truth, published by Reader’s Digest Press, “The philosophy that had ruled our nation for over forty years had emerged in large measure from that very city which was America’s intellectual headquarters, and inevitably, it was carried to its fullest expression in that city. In the collapse of New York those who choose to understand it could see a terrifying dress rehearsal of the state that lies ahead for this country if it continues to be guided by the same philosophy of government…. Nothing has destroyed New York’s finances but the liberal political formula…. Liberal politics, endlessly glorifying its own ‘humanism,’ has in fact been annihilating the very conditions for human survival.”
And they were people like Bryce Harlow, who became a confidant of both Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon while on leave from Procter & Gamble’s pioneeringly aggressive Washington lobbying shop, which he himself established in 1961. Now back in harness at P&G, he drafted himself as field general for just the kind of organizing called for in the now-famous Lewis Powell memo. Powell, another establishment mandarin who a decade earlier might have been counted on to buy into corporate liberalism, instead became a leading activist against it in his role as a top lawyer for the tobacco industry. Tobacco companies were still smarting from Congress’ passage of the Public Health Smoking Act in 1970, banning cigarette advertising on TV and mandating health warnings on cigarette packs—the kind of regulation big business had previously learned to take in stride. In 1971, Powell, as chair of the “education” committee of the National Chamber of Commerce, argued “the American economic system is under broad attack,” that business had to learn the lesson “that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary it must be used aggressively and with determination… Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”
And so Harlow went into battle as one of the new movement’s generals. Alarmed at the election of an apparently overwhelmingly liberal Congress following Watergate in 1974, he recalled: “We had to prevent business from being rolled up and put in the trash can by that Congress.” Even though that Congress was not all that economically liberal, actually, just Democratic. In actual fact the number of Senate votes the AFL-CIO said they could count on in that Congress decreased from thirty-eight to thirty; “The Freshman Democrat today is likely to be an upper-income type,” a labor lobbyist said. “I think a lot of them are more concerned with inflation than unemployment.”
Another of the establishment-cum-insurgents was a dude named Charls Walker, a former Treasury undersecretary. In 1975 he took over a foundering organization for estate tax recipients and turned it into a turbocharged lobbying shop dedicated to the proposition that the American economy was foundering for a lack of “capital formation”—that business literally did not have enough money, largely because the government extracted too much from it in taxes, which it then distributed downwardly to Americans who were not capitalists. This was precisely the opposite of Keynesiansm—and a proposition that proved attractive enough to several formerly Keynesian Fortune 500 corporations that they each contributed $200,000 to make Walker’s “American Council for Capital Formation” a juggernaut.
Groups that had always done this kind of work became more explicitly political during this period. The National Association of Manufacturers had been aggressively fighting liberalism for decades, but from New York; in 1972 the group (and their political arm, the Business and Industry Political Action Committee, or BIPAC) moved house to Washington, DC—because, a spokesman said, “the thing that effects business most today is government.” The budget of the United States Chamber of Commerce doubled in size between 1974 and 1980.
Here’s why figures like Harlow and Walker were so important. Corporate lobbyists had plied the halls of Congress since forever. But they did so exclusively as representatives of their companies’ own interests, seeking advantage over other companies. Now, they lobbied for capitalists as a class. Capitalists, in other words, were forming unions, with a solidarity unmatched in the labor movement they opposed. They foreswore competition in the name of defending competition.
Consider the formation of a group like the Business Roundtable, formed in 1972: its membership is literally the CEOs of America’s biggest corporations, meeting around a round table. Wikipedia: “The Business Roundtable played a key role in defeating an anti-trust bill in 1975 and a Ralph Nader plan for a Consumer Protection Agency in 1977. And it helped dilute the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act. But the Roundtables most significant victory was in blocking labor law reform that sought to strengthen labor law to make it more difficult for companies to intimidate workers who wanted to form unions. The AFL-CIO produced a bill in 1977 that passed the House. But the Roundtable voted to oppose the bill, and through its aggressive lobbying, it prevented the bill’s Senate supporters from rounding up the 60 votes in the Senate necessary to withstand a filibuster.”
Wikipedia is precisely correct. For more detail you can read great books like Fluctuating Fortunes: The Political Power of Business in America, by David Vogel; Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson; The Paradox of American Democracy: Elites, Special Interests, and the Betrayal of Public Trust, by John Judis; or The New Politics of Inequality, by Thomas Byrne Edsall, which is my favorite.
Next time: what all this history means for the Tea Party here and now.
Part 1 of Rick Perlstein’s series traces the origins of the cozy relationship between conservatives and big business.
Allow me a further deepening of my Nation article, reposing now on newsstands, on the continuities between conservatives of decades past and today. It concerns the historic entanglement of big-business and conservatism. A recent media narrative suggests signs of a divorce between the these longtime lovers. “Business Groups See Loss of Sway Over House G.O.P.,” reports The New York Times—so they’re thinking about primaries against Tea Party congressmembers. “We’re looking at ways to counter the rise of an ideological brand of conservatism that, for lack of a better word, is more anti-establishment than it has been in the past,” says a lobbyist at the National Retail Federation. “We have come to the conclusion that sitting on the sidelines is not good enough.” ThinkProgress broke out the champagne: “GOP CIVIL WAR ERUPTS!!!!”
Just kidding. No all-caps, and no exclamation points. But still: calm down. The Nation’s magnificent Lee Fang has ably debunked the growls of these paper tigers: the big-money boys said the same thing in 2011 during the first debt-ceiling standoff, and did nothing except spend untold millions electing and reelecting Tea Partiers, and there’s no evidence that anything different will happen in 2016. And yet our media elites, ever scanning the horizon for sensible, moderate “adults in the room,” have alighted this time on the pirates running the United States Chamber of Commerce—yet one more frightening indication of how far to the right America’s ideological center has become.
The fact of the matter is that the relationship between business and the modern right has never been simple—and yet, despite some stutter steps backward, it has always advanced in the exact same basic direction: toward romance.
Let’s go back to the Progressive Era, when industrial capitalism was entering its period of maturation. What were once known as “robber barons” were making their accommodations with an increasingly liberal, activist state, but in a way that historians on the left taught us to distrust. Books like the late historian and publisher James Weinstein’s The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State, 1900-1918 (1969) and Martin Sklar’s The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890-1916: The Market, the Law, and Politics (1988) argued that corporate owners and managers and high government officials cooperated more than they clashed. Rather than despising regulation as such, business “captured” the regulators, creating a smoothly functioning integrated economy relatively free of ideological conflict.
Thus, even the baseline condition for a business community out of sync with the laissez-faire right is still pretty conservative. At the same time, these historians missed or exaggerated the extent to which large pockets of business were outright reactionary.
Consider the former president of the US Chamber of Commerce who wrote in The Nation’s Business in 1928 that “a thoroughly first-rate man in public service is corrosive…. He eats holes in our liberties. The better he is and the longer he stays the greater the danger.” Not a big fan of state power, that guy—and his type never went away, even after the Great Depression ushered in the New Deal with major buy-in from the biggest American corporations, first in the National Recovery Act, which appointed businessmen as active partners in a “corporatist” scheme of regulation before it was outlawed by the Supreme Court, then in any number of state initiatives after that. But as the political scientist Thomas Ferguson has argued for decades, generally speaking, it was certain kinds of businesses—big capital intensive multinational corporations and the investment bankers who financed them—who bought into the new liberal center. Another type—smaller, more labor-intensive, less cosmopolitan, often family-owned companies—never did. As I wrote in Before the Storm, imagining the world from the perspective of one of these latter sort of businessmen,
the New Deal threw money at everyone and everything—everyone and everything, that is except you and your plants. You thought it was a godsend to industrialists who managed thousands of workers, instead of hundreds, and their friends on Wall Street. Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration authorized executives in every industry to regulate their own. The men he picked were inevitably from the biggest companies, no one you knew. You had no say when they set floors so high that they destroyed the only edge you had over in accessing the market—you could no longer undercut their prices. You had no say when your taxes ballooned to pay for Roosevelt’s deficits, which you knew would only bring inflation.
Bigger companies licked at your heels all through the Depression. Government regulations—whose application was the same for large and small firms, but which invariably fell heavier on the small—began to feel more burdensome to you…. You felt like a victim.
By no means were these whiners the wretched of the earth. Many had towns named after them—like Kohler, Wisconsin, where the famous bathroom fixtures manufacturer fought a 1950s organizing drive so viciously the Senate Labor Committee sent a team of investigators. It wasn’t about money but, as it were, dignity. Men of great possessions who feel dispossessed, powerful men feeling suddenly less powerful, can generate some pretty wing-nutty resentments—Tea Party–level resentment. Like this imperishable quote in a fundraising pitch from their political mastermind, radio broadcaster and former Notre Dame law dean Clarence Manion: “Many gigantic fortunes, built by virtue of private enterprise under the Constitution, have fallen under the direction of Internationalists, One-Worlders, Socialists and Communists. Much of this vast horde of money is being used to ‘socialize’ the United States.” Remember that, because it will be important when we get to the 2008–09 bank-bailout part of the story.
Folks like these got even more resentful as the culture, and the masters of the political economy, came to see them as less and less relevant to the main direction of American economic development—as big business began to accept negotiating with big unions as a matter of course, as a good way to keep their workforces disciplined and efficient. They more and more bought into the Keynesian consensus that government social spending goosed the consumer economy in ways that redounded to their own bottom line. But the other guys, the conservative industrialists (I call them “Manionites” in my book), only got madder—and formed the core of the coalition that nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964. Even as big business formed a crucial part of the coalition that crushed Barry Goldwater in the general election. (If you’re interested in hearing just how copacetic the relationship was, listen to Lyndon Johnson’s conversations that year with Robert B. Anderson, the former Eisenhower Treasury secretary from Texas who was the president’s political liaison to big business.) They loved Johnson, even with his War on Poverty and Great Society, and feared Goldwater; at a LBJ speech to the US Chamber of Commerce, he was interrupted by applause sixty times. Can you imagine that happening to Barack Obama?
But plenty of big businessmen never got aboard the Great Society-Keynesian bandwagon and never would. The finance chairman of Goldwater’s campaign, for example, Ralph Cordiner, was the recently retired CEO of General Motors.
Soon enough, though, by the 1970s, the liberal center in corporate America no longer held, and most multinational executives started feeling and acting like Manionites. It followed a period of extraordinary liberal hegemony in the federal government, even, famously, under President Nixon. A bill he signed in 1969 increased the tax burden on businesses, and not just by a little bit; The New Republic called it “far and away the most ‘anti-rich’ tax reform proposal ever proposed by a Republican president in the fifty-six years of the existence of the income tax.” One of the things the new government revenue was being spent on was new regulatory agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety Commission, the National Transportation Safety Board, and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (created by the most stringent federal mining legislation in US history) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Aggressive Naderite advocates—whose “brilliant young staff members who mistrust or totally disbelieve the attributes of the enterprise system,” Barry Goldwater said in 1974—shuttled up and down Capitol Hill, testifying before congressional committees, as often as not tying up their business adversaries in knots. They were winning.
Tomorrow I’ll write about what happened next with business’s relationship with the right: flaming hot romance, accompanied by public displays of affection unlike any Americans had ever seen.
Rick Perlstein notes the parallels between today's Tea Partiers and conservatives of decades past.
A friend pointed me to a letter to the editor published in the Badger Herald, an independent newspaper published at the University of Wisconsin , widely tweeted with such comments as “Motherfucker, what the fuck” and “how do people like this actually exist?” It argues that rape culture is, in the writer’s words, “non-existent.” I provide the link for documentation purposes only; you should most decidedly not click on it, especially if you are a woman vulnerable to rape-trauma triggers, or a woman, or, actually, if you are a human being. The letter, from a junior majoring in political science, goes on to say that the term “rape culture” merely “aggressively paints men as dangerous and as the root of evil,” and complains “women feel the need to exploit anything that may be rape for publicity.”
I’ll say no more about this “argument.” I bring it up to make a broader point about right-wing rhetoric. It is this: Have you ever noticed how conservatives who say the most controversial things imaginable consistently frame such utterances as self-evident, as simple “truth,” explaining with unshakable confidence that anyone who disagrees with them… no, scratch that. Start over:
Have you ever noticed how conservatives who say the most controversial things imaginable think no one actually disagrees with them?
They will admit that, yes, people might claim to disagree. But they will explain, if pressed, that those who do so are lying, or nuts, or utter the non-truths they utter out of a totalitarian will to power, or are poor benighted folks cowed or confused by those aforementioned totalitarians. (Which, of course, makes the person “finally” telling “the truth” a hero of bottomless courage.) Or the people who disagree are simply stupid as a tree stump. This is why “agree to disagree” is not a acceptable trope in the conservative lexicon. A genuine right-winger will be so lacking in intellectual imagination—in cognitive empathy—that imagining how anyone could sincerely reason differently from them is virtually impossible.
Here’s what that kid from Wisconsin, whom I won’t even dignify with more publicity by typing his name, writes of what he’s about to argue: “I know that people are out there on the fringe of reality who are going to criticize me for what I’m about to explain—but somebody has to explain this.” He also says, “if you put a spotlight on rape, you don’t understand the real issue.”
You could disagree. But that would place you on the fringe of reality. Someone who doesn’t understand the real issue.
Put aside what he thinks that “real issue” actually might be (he’s a sufficiently crappy writer that a coherent explanation of what that might be never arrives). Forget that we’re talking about some 20-year-old intellectual brat. Focus on the rhetoric, which I find merely a convenient iteration of a consistent right-wing style, from the grassroots all the way up to the commanding heights.
When in 1978 the right-wing former Ford administration Treasury Secretary William Simon published a book arguing—no, asserting—that liberalism was responsible for all of America’s problems, he called it, naturally, A Time for Truth. That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about. The book was actually full of, ahem, untruths. He wrote, of the New York fiscal crisis, “those who choose to understand it”—note the language—“could see a terrifying dress rehearsal of the state that lies ahead for this country if it continues to be guided by…the liberal political formula…. Liberal politics, endlessly glorifying its own ‘humanism,’ has in fact been annihilating the very conditions for human survival.” He went on to offer, as an example, the extravagant pensions its public employees enjoyed even though those were about half or less than those in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Detroit and a third less than in Chicago, and lower than those provided by such blue-chip corporations as GM and Citibank.
Stephen Colbert has usefully labeled this sort of stuff “truthiness.” Indeed Simon’s ghostwriter, a forgotten right-wing hack named Edith Efron, had a well-established gift for truthiness by the time he hired her. Her book The News Twisters purported to be an objective study proving the networks followed “the elitist-liberal-left line in all controversies”—or actually 80 percent of the time, according to her scientific-sounding methodology, which, to give one example of her rigor, counted the time Hubert Humphrey excoriated “extremists of the left and of the right” on the 80 percent side of the ledger.
A time for truth indeed.
How characteristic is this of the right-wing mind? Consider that it was the entire point of Barry Goldwater’s election slogan “In your heart you know he’s right.” And consider a 1956 circular for Human Events: it read, “conservatives are already in the majority—in your state, in almost every state.” The third-party candidate Human Events backed that year, T. Coleman Andrews, who was campaigning to ban the federal income tax, got only 6.1 percent in his best state. But that must have been because the liberals were just that perfidious. Such was the argument, in 1964, of Phyllis Schlafly’s A Choice, Not An Echo, about why a conservative had never won Republican presidential nominations. In their heart, everyone knew conservatism was right. If Gallup polls said otherwise, that was only because, Schlafly wrote, Gallup “asked a lot of questions of a very few people” in order to “come up with answers that pleased the New York kingmakers.” (Her insight has proven an imperishable one on the right, as Mitt Romney learned to his detriment.)
I witnessed the radicalism of conservatives’ lack of cognitive empathy firsthand in, of all places, William F. Buckley’s dining room. Not from Buckley himself, he of relatively blessed memory, considering the conservative competition these days—he was one of the few conservative thought leaders with a history of treating liberals, including me, with intellectual respect. From another of Buckley’s guests, a National Review donor who honestly looked a little bit like this guy. I had been invited to dine (I was served by a butler!) at one of Buckley’s fortnightly “stag” dinner parties, and hold forth on my book about Barry Goldwater. Old Moneybags buttonholed me on the way out. The dialogue honestly went like this:
“So—you’ve read Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative?”
“Yes. I have a whole chapter about it in my book.”
He looked at me searchingly. The sincerity, really, was aching. “And it didn’t make you a conservative?” He honestly couldn’t believe it could be so. It was beyond his poor powers of epistemological empathy to comprehend.
Indeed such epistemology had its own philosopher—proving “epistemology” is no mere metaphor here. It is Ayn Rand, who wrote, in Atlas Shrugged:
A is A. A thing is itself. You have never grasped the meaning of his statement. I am here to complete it….Whatever you choose to consider, be it an object, an attribute or an action, the law of identity remains the same. A leaf cannot be a stone at the same time, it cannot be all red and all green at the same time, it cannot freeze and burn at the same time. A is A. Or, if you wish it stated in simpler language: You cannot have your cake and eat it, too….All the disasters that have wrecked your world, came from your leaders’ attempt to evade the fact that A is A. All the secret evil you dread to face within you and all the pain you have ever endured, came from your own attempt to evade the fact that A is A. The purpose of those who taught you to evade it, was to make you forget that Man is Man.
The blogger and political theorist Corey Robin recently unearthed a rebuttal to such a proposition from none other than the great Ludwig Wittgenstein, who wrote in Philosophical Investigations (which, to be fair, came out in 1953, before Atlas Shrugged, which arrived in 1957, thus Wittgenstein did not have the benefit of Rand’s superior intellect to set him straight), “‘A thing is identical with itself.’—There is no finer example of a useless proposition.”
But it’s hardly useless if you’re a truly hard-shell right-winger. For it is fundamental to maintaining your psychological sense of yourself. It keeps you healthy and sane.
Or at least sane enough to write insane things. To take the example of another text from our friend at the University of Wisconsin who’s arrogated himself the responsibility to truth-shower us on the subject of the nonexistence of rape culture, here is an astonishing example of the existence of rape culture: a tweet that he identifies as the “funniest pickup line I’ve ever heard,” “How do I know we’re going to have sex tonight? I’m stronger than you.”
And how do I know about that tweet? Because it turns out the kid is no ordinary anonymous undergraduate. He’s the publisher of the right-leaning gossip site UW Madison Confessions, which, The Daily Beast reported, made enough of a stir to get noticed by The New York Times. I predict big things for this guy in modern conservatism’s literary firmament. He got exactly what it takes—from the epistemology to the misogyny to the stupidity. The whole package, all the way down.
Dave Zirin on the links between rape culture and jock culture.