Nixonland, Part II
December 13, 2013
Some more interesting stuff from Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein, is found in the places where Perlstein is considering the 1966 congressional elections. In those elections, Perlstein argues, Richard Nixon took on LBJ and he waxes eloquent over how Nixon “played” LBJ, got him to display anger when LBJ did not intend to. To wit: “All the needling, all that playing to Johnson’s deepest anxieties, had paid off: a providential loss of control, a huge strategic blunder.” [p. 161]
But Perlstein barely notes that throughout this time, there were virtually no differences of substance between LBJ and Nixon on the war itself and how it should be conducted. The one notice is as follows: “Both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon kept a careful eye on the polls, and they both knew that even where the war was the most unpopular, withdrawal was the most poisonous option you could mention. It made America look cowardly. The Times [by publishing Nixon’s critique of LBJ’s Manila Communiqué] had sacralized a Nixon con job.”
As if the Times wasn’t aware of this? As if LBJ wasn’t aware of Nixon’s game? This seems a bit more than implausible, although to present the events at Perlstein does make them very dramatic, exciting even. It has all the makings of a Hollywood script.
But consider an alternative. If LBJ knew his differences with Richard Nixon were miniscule or even non-existent; if he knew there were others seeking power who did have significant differences with him over the war; if these differences were such that were those others to gain power the politics of the nation would change significantly; if we make these assumptions, which are not implausible, then why shouldn’t LBJ play Nixon’s game?
Given that there were others, not including Richard Nixon, who had significant differences with LBJ over how the nation had been and should be governed, the debate over the war did not pit LBJ against Nixon; rather, it pitted the established political class against those who would overthrow that class, that “establishment.” In other words, the debate over the war masked another, more significant debate, a debate over what we would label today the desirability of “regime change.” And in this debate, LBJ and Nixon were on the same side.
So, yes, Perlstein’s description is correct: After LBJ’s “outburst” there was “fireworks.” [p.160] This is a very apt description. And it underlines, perhaps unintentionally, that there wasn’t any real debate between Johnson and Nixon about the war and what it meant. This conclusion is supported by the fact that after the “outburst,” Nixon made the issue “a referendum on President Johnson’s temperament as leader of a nation at war.” [p. 163, emphasis added] So, as framed by Nixon, the issue was Johnson, not the war itself, which of course allowed people to vote against Johnson and the Democrats without voting against the war. Even Johnson would like this.
And the results of those elections? “Twenty-seven of Johnson’s forty-eight Democratic freshmen were swept out – the class that had brought America the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, and federal aid to education.” Further: “By one estimate the power of the conservative coalition in Congress – including both Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans – doubled.” [p. 164]
Now, as opposition to the war was growing, and as the nation seemed at times to be in flames or beset by rioting – either phenomena that could lead to “regime change” – would such results be unwelcome by the predominant political class? Would such election results make it harder or easier for LBJ to continue his Vietnam policies? Would such election results make significant political change in the United States more or less likely? The answers are obvious.
So, it is worth speculating that LBJ knew what he was doing after all. Perhaps he even sensed that it would be unlikely that he would a candidate for president in 1968 and he was setting the table, so to speak, so that the election of 1968 would not be or become what would be called a “crucial election,” ala’ 1800, 1832, 1860, or 1932. Certainly, given a man with LBJ’s political instincts, such a possibility could plausibly be labeled a probability. Nixon may have “played” Johnson, but perhaps LBJ “played” everyone while doing what was, at least in his mind, a service to his country.