“Nixonland” and Goldman
December 13, 2013
I have been reading two books of late, Eric Goldman’s The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson and Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland. Below are some passages from these books followed by some comments meant to illuminate our politics and politics in general.
Goldman was hired by LBJ to put together a group of scholars and other “thoughtful Americans” in order to help the president understand what was going on and what he might do about it. This was to be done covertly for reasons that are not clear and were not clear to Goldman. However, Goldman polled several “thoughtful Americans,” asking them what “the general thrust” of LBJ’s administration should be. Each of these people came back with pretty much the same recommendation: LBJ should seek to rejuvenate the nation morally, an argument that Goldman himself liked, as he had thought “the modern president [has] tremendous power in setting public standards, and it had long seemed to [him] that the White House has been using the power too little.” [p. 139]
Now, this led me to the following thoughts. First, although Goldman takes this consensus as a good thing and saw little need to question it, couldn’t it be argued that questions are precisely what are needed in the face of such a consensus? That is, where consensus appears, questions need to be raised and should be raised, especially when it comes to politics and political action.
Second, one of the respondents quoted Woodrow Wilson, on the possibility of the president being a visionary, one “who can speak what no man else knows.” [p. 141] Again, Goldman cites this approvingly but couldn’t one say that this understanding of the presidency accounts for some of the dissatisfaction these respondents were reacting to? Given that Wilson’s understanding of the presidency had been “operational” at least since the New Deal, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to wonder if it played any role in the dissatisfaction being experienced?
Thirdly, it is worth asking how these recommendations would work out in practice. That is, how does one appeal to moral or aesthetic standards while bombing in Vietnam or “tilting” toward Pakistan against East Pakistan despite a genocide being undertaken by Pakistan? These questions need addressing because we are talking about “government,” which as we know it was created by Machiavelli, among others, and Machiavelli was not known as a “moralist,” as one who took morality seriously. If “the prince” does not “learn how not to be good,” he will fail. Therefore, “the prince” must practice immorality, perhaps even inhumanity, in order to succeed. How is this to be reconciled with the idea that the government should lead a moral rejuvenation of a nation?
This aspect of government should be kept in mind when considering JFK’s “general thrust,” which Goldman approved of. “Kennedy made ‘leadership for the 60’s’ a slogan [and] preached future like a new religion. ‘The world is changing. The old ways will not do….If we stand still here at home, we stand still around the world….I promise no sure solutions, no easy life….’ Kennedy styled himself the very incarnation of youth: of action, of charisma, of passion, of risk-taking, stylishness and idealism and even heedlessness.” [Nixonland, Rick Perlstein, pp. 57-58]
Read with Machiavelli in mind, Kennedy’s rhetoric and “style” take on an interesting “tone” in that the purpose or one purpose of “government” was to free human beings, legitimize human beings, and encourage human beings to act immorally, even inhumanly. This is what we call “the vigorous exercise of power” or what Alexander Hamilton called “energetic government.” Those wielding power should do so with little restraint, for their immorality and inhumanity will be redeemed by the results. And this points to the modern understanding of redemption: It comes not from renouncing worldly power, but by seizing it and using it ruthlessly, passionately, dangerously, stylishly, and heedlessly. These are the “virtues” needed on the “New Frontier” as well as those needed to build the “Great Society.”
And yet…..we have to wonder how this all works out in practice. Here is an interesting passage from Nixonland: “The main character in Nixonland is not Richard Nixon. Its protagonist…has no name – but lives on every page. It is the voter who in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else…seemed to court civilizational chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason.” [p. xiii]
Exactly! The voters did what the political class wanted them to do, viz., support the status quo or, as it was grandiosely put then, protect “civilization.” And this helps to give the game away, that many, perhaps even all, of the reforms undertaken by LBJ were undertaken in order to preserve rather than overturn the status quo. And so, when some, e.g., the New Left or the Black Power types, did not buy into these reforms or the new, allegedly “reformed” social order, the political class, both liberals and conservatives, rallied round the flag to preserve the status quo or, as they put it, “civilization.”
And this new consensus of liberals and conservatives, who embraced such “thrusts” as “law and order,” illustrates that the reforms that were so highly touted did not go very deep. As Perlstein does a good job of pointing out, “white terror” preceded “black terror,” and was nothing new in the United States. When real attempts, which tried to cut deeper, were undertaken, for example, attempts to actually integrate schools or actually integrate neighborhoods, then the “backlash” began and was embraced across the political spectrum. It was as if to say, “Oh, no, that isn’t what we meant by ‘civil rights.’ Blacks are to have rights, yes. But they are to enjoy those rights in their own schools, in their own neighborhoods, not in ours. We only intended to replace ‘separate but equal’ with ‘equal but separate.’ Nothing more and nothing less.”