Times of Illusion
April 5, 2013
As noted in an earlier post, I have been reading The Time of Illusion by Jonathan Schell, which is an account of the Nixon administration and which should be required reading for all those who wish to understand American politics and how its government “works.”
As the title indicates, Schell argues that Nixon practiced a politics of perception, where images replaced deeds and those images Nixon created were almost always at cross-purposes with his deeds. For example, while Nixon said during his campaign for president in 1968 that he wanted to unify the nation, once he became president, his actions were calculated to divide the nation in ways that were meant to enhance his power.
I have little objection to Schell’s presentation of Nixon in this way. However, the most significant shortcoming of the book is that Schell argues that Nixon and his administration were the first to practice such a politics of illusions, making Nixon’s years in the White House The Time of Illusion. This is a difficult argument to maintain as may be illustrated by the following example.
Of course, that LBJ practiced such a politics is hard to dispute and to do so requires some willful blinders on Schell’s part. For example, in describing the domestic “unrest” that Johnson’s Vietnam policies created, Schell links this to the short-sightedness of “the theorists or practitioners of limited war” who failed to foresee “the domestic implications of their policy” and not to any deception on Johnson’s part. As a result, like Nixon, LBJ “attempted to cope with his domestic difficulties in a loose and improvisatory – and often a repressive – way, such as when he sent out the FBI, the CIA, and the military to spy on and harass the opposition.”
Hence, LBJ, in Schell’s accounting, comes across not as the practitioner of a politics of illusion like Nixon, but as someone who was blind-sided by domestic unrest and who responded “in a loose and improvisatory way.” And, according to Schell, LBJ “remained devoted to the domestic well-being of the nation, even to the extent of being willing to risk reverses in foreign policy.” Schell reaches this conclusion despite the fact that LBJ engaged in “repression” by arguing that Johnson“resisted the temptation to turn and an election  into a contest between the representatives of order in the White House and disloyal anarchists in the street” because he saw “his war policy was threatening the fundamental health of the body politic….” [pp. 370-71]
Well, perhaps this is an accurate description of LBJ but it isn’t the only one. If one assumes for a few moments that Nixon was not the first president to practice the politics of illusion and that Johnson also did – not a difficult assumption to make given how LBJ ran for president in 1964 regarding Vietnam – it is all too easy to argue that Johnson, by refusing to stand for re-election because of Vietnam and its accompanying domestic “unrest” accomplished exactly what Schell claims he avoided: He guaranteed by playing the victim, forced to “abdicate” the presidency that those in the streets would be seen as “disloyal anarchists” and that the war would go on and in all likelihood would go on under the guidance of Richard Nixon.
As is commonly said, Johnson was “forced” or “driven” from office by civil unrest, the implication being that he did so because it was his only option and the best option for achieving “peace” in Vietnam. But why was this his only option or the best option for achieving such peace? Why not stay in office and make peace and win re-election, as he surely would have done had he achieved peace or even moved quickly in that direction? Well, perhaps because, as Schell himself says, LBJ “remained convinced up to the end that his Vietnam policy was correct.” And he further realized that the best hope for that policy to be continued rested not with him but with Nixon or even Humphrey. [And the impact of Johnson’s “forced” resignation on the candidacy of Bobby Kennedy, who was building his campaign on appeals to said “anarchists,” ought not be forgotten, along with the hatred LBJ felt toward him.]
In other words, it was not Johnson’s devotion “to the domestic well-being of the nation” that led to his refusal to seek re-election but rather his desires to, first, see that the war in Vietnam was continued because he thought it was “correct;” second, because as “a man of great cunning, vanity, and pride, who had no love for the rebels opposing him,” he wanted to have these “rebels” labeled “disloyal” and subversive of the constitutional order; and third because he wanted do all he could to squash Bobby Kennedy’s campaign for president.
Now this is an explanation worthy of “a man of great cunning, vanity, and pride,” as Schell describes LBJ and one which comports with the facts as well as the more common explanation that paints Johnson as one who “withdrew from politics and altered his course when he saw that, somehow, his policy was leading the nation toward a ruinous political crisis.” [p. 371] Johnson may have perceived he was facing “a ruinous political crisis” but it was not one that Johnson dealt with by being willing to jettison his Vietnam policy or by resisting the temptation to further divide the nation. Like Nixon, Johnson was all too willing to pretend to seek unity while promoting division and to do so for the purpose of continuing to wage a war that had no national security justification and that required terroristic means to wage.
As argued above, Schell’s book should be read but it should be read as being descriptive of how our politicians, and precisely our most capable politicians behave and how our government “works” rather than as an indictment of Nixon and his administration. Nixon should be indicted; but so should other politicians as well.