Tuesday, November 21, 2023

The Political: Good Guys v. Bad Guys


The Political: Good Guys v. Bad Guys

Peter Schultz


            Political persons are distinguished by their embrace of the dichotomy of “friends and enemies.” It is how they view the world and, hence, the basis of their behavior. Their goal is to defeat their “enemies,” i.e., those who are not their “friends.” To understand politics, it is necessary to keep these facts in mind.*


            Ken Hughes, in his book Chasing Shadows, considers closely the 1968 presidential election between Nixon, Humphrey, and LBJ, the latter of whom was intensely and intimately involved. Hughes describes it as a morality tale, where Nixon was the “bad guy” who sabotaged LBJ’s attempts to get peace talks started in Paris to end the Vietnam War, so he, Nixon, could win the election. For Hughes, LBJ was concerned about his “legacy,” and that meant he wanted to secure peace, finally, in Vietnam. As such, LBJ was a “good guy.”


            But it becomes pretty clear that it was no morality take, but simply three men being political animals, who wanted to defeat their “enemies.” LBJ wanted to defeat his “enemies,” Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, while Nixon wanted to defeat his “enemies,” LBJ and Humphrey. Finally, Humphrey wanted to defeat his “enemies,” both LBJ and Nixon. Each man schemed in order to emerge victorious; Nixon by having supporters encourage President Thieu of South Vietnam to resist peace talks; Humphrey by staking out policy positions that undercut LBJ’s attempts to get peace talks going; and LBJ by wiretapping the South Vietnamese ambassy and its ambassador, as well as others like Nixon’s vice presidential nominee, in order to discover what Nixon might be doing to undermine his “peace initiatives.” LBJ was no more a “good guy” than Nixon and Humphrey were “bad guys.” They were merely political animals seeking to defeat their “enemies.”


            Why does this sound cynical, and why does Hughes’ account seem truer, more acceptable, more appealing? Because we humans want to, perhaps even need to believe that the political arena is not a madhouse populated by egotistical, even sick persons who are most concerned with winning, needing to acquire and maintain their power and authority. So, we like hearing morality tales about our politics and our political elites because those tales allow us to make sense of the world, to think of the world not as a tale of sound and fury making little sense.


            If there are “good guys” and “bad guys,” and especially if – as Hughes likes to think about Nixon – the “bad guys” lose, then we can live confidently that our world makes sense. If wars create “heroes,” then we will not be overwhelmed by the madness and obscenities of war. If politics creates “good guys,” statesmen, great leaders, then we will not be overwhelmed by the madness of the political world. Insofar as Nixon was a “bad guy” and ended up being forced to resign his presidency because of his badness, then we can go on believing that not only does the political world make sense, but even that it can redeem the human condition. 

* From Ken Hughes book, Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes: Regarding the release of the Pentagon Papers and grand jury testimony regarding Ellsberg. Nixon: "You've got to really have a sophisticated assault on the Democrats. Humphrey must be destroyed. Muskie must be destroyed. Teddy Kennedy must be destroyed." [114] And then in conversation with Chuck Colson, regarding Ellsberg: Nixon: "He's our enemy. We need an enemy." Colson: "Agree completely, and he's a marvelous one. He's a perfect enemy to have." [115] 

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