Nixonland, Part III: I Get It Now
December 15, 2013 [Posted from Gulf Shores, Alabama]
In describing Bobby Kennedy’s campaign after he decided to jump into the contest in 1968, Rick Perlstein, in Nixonland, wrote the following:
“In Nashville, then Georgia and Alabama and Kansas, Bobby Kennedy launched his campaign tacking right, condemning those who ‘burn and loot.’ He also opened a vein of astonishing vituperation at the president of the United States. He spoke of his proposed commission to settle Vietnam: ‘I wanted Senator Mansfield, Senator Fulbright, and Senator Morse….And the president … wanted to appoint General Westmoreland, John Wayne, and Martha Raye.’ He quoted Tacitus to describe Johnson’s war: ‘They made a desert and called it peace.’
“This was supposed to be the heartland, where disloyalty to the commander in chief in wartime was tantamount to treason. But the people were eating it up. They seemed to share with the tousle-haired charismatic a bracing sense of catharsis – finally free to release bottled-up anger at Vietnam.” [pp. 245-46]
But the rage here, allegedly felt by Kennedy and in the “heartland,” was not being directed at “Vietnam;” rather, it was being directed at Johnson. Note well the phrase here, “Johnson’s war.” Kennedy’s vituperation directed at Johnson made him, Johnson, the issue and not the war as a policy of the United States and what that policy meant for and about the United States. By doing this, Kennedy directed attention away from the war itself as a problematic phenomenon, as an illustration of, say, the imperialistic or hubristic character of US foreign policy following World War II. Hence, as the “problem” was Johnson and not imperialism, the “solution” was simple: Remove Johnson! And, further, there would be no need to question the character of the American political order as it existed and as it was acting after World War II.
What did I finally “get” here? Well, just that a politics of personal vituperation is quite consistent with preserving the status quo. And such a politics is of this character because it directs attention away from what may and should be called “political questions of the first order.” So, in fact, Kennedy was tacking to “the right” in both domestic and foreign affairs and quite consistently at that. Domestically, the “problem” was arsonists and looters. If they could be controlled, all would be well in the nation. With regard to Vietnam, the “problem” was Johnson and if he could be jettisoned, then all would be well in Vietnam. In fact, all we needed to “solve” the “Vietnam problem” was a commission! Why anyone did or could take this seriously as a policy is, for me, inconceivable. It even seems laughable. But it is what happens when people fail to address political questions of the first order.