Book review: American Maelstrom

1968:  Senator Robert Kennedy speaking at an election rally.  (Photo by Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images)

1968: Senator Robert Kennedy speaking at an election rally. (Photo by Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images)

1968 was a US presidential election year like no other, more violent, traumatic and divisive than any before or since.
The previous election in 1964 had seen President Lyndon B. Johnson defeat his rather alarming opponent Senator Barry Goldwater by a record margin. But this already seemed like a distant memory by the start of 1968, as the United States was reeling from a dramatic breakdown in law and order and mounting division over the increasingly bloody quagmire in Vietnam. LBJ seemed exhausted, his ambitious and admirable Great Society programme sidelined forever by the escalating war,
Despite this, the president (who was eligible for one more term, having served the fourteen remaining months of the assassinated John F. Kennedy’s remaining term, plus one of his own) was still generally expected to win.
But shock followed shock in 1968. First, the US suffered a major setback in Vietnam as the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive. Then, the little known senator Eugene McCarthy scored an impressive 41% in the New Hampshire primary: not a win but a major shock to the White House. This prompted Johnson’s hated rival Bobby Kennedy to enter the race. Like McCarthy, he ran on an anti-war ticket.
At this point, Johnson astonished the world by announcing his withdraw from the race declaring: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President,” in a televised address in March. Concerns that he might suffer another heart attack were a factor, something he confided to his Vice President Hubert Humphrey who effectively ran in his stead. He did indeed die following a heart attack on January 22nd 1973. Had he won and served another full term, his presidency would have ended just two days before.

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Michael A. Cohen’s book is especially effective in its portrayal of the hugely diverse range of characters who ran for president in 1968. President Johnson: a man so crude he would sometimes take his own “Johnson” out during meetings. Bobby Kennedy is also demystified. Tragic as his assassination was, Cohen dispels the myth that his victory would have been inevitable had he lived. In fact, he may well not have even won the Democratic Party nomination. McCarthy: an often irritating candidate who lost all heart in the 1968 contest following RFK’s death. George Wallace, the racist demagogue running as an independent. And Humphrey, the eventual Democratic nominee after a disastrous Chicago convention marred by the brutal police suppression of anti-war protests outside. Despite a terrible campaign, “Humph” came surprisingly close to winning.

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But he was narrowly beaten by Richard Nixon, ultimately a disastrous choice for presidency. Nixon had already seen off challenges from political newcomer Ronald Reagan and George Romney, (the father of Mitt Romney who was beaten by Obama in 2012). Romney Senior’s campaign was scarcely less inept than his son’s. Witnesses have described it as “like watching a duck try to make love to a football.”
There is no happy ending here. Nixon won after sabotaging Johnson’s attempts to secure peace in Vietnam before the election, despite publicly expressing support for them. Everything shifted to the Right. Nothing was ever the same again.

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Book review: American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division by Michael A Cohen. Published by: Oxford University Press.

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Why all Democrats love war and all Republicans are wet girly sissies

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We all know the stereotype. Republicans are tough, belligerent and war-like. Democrats are soft, peace loving and wet.
But, regardless of whether you think either of these positions is admirable or not, are they supported by the facts? Consider the last hundred years…
1917: Democrat Woodrow Wilson leads the US into the First World War.
1921-33: Republican presidents avoid involvement in global affairs as far as possible and keep the US out of the League of Nations.
1941-45: Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt leads the US into the Second World War.
1945-53: Roosevelt’s Democrat successor Harry S. Truman drops two atomic bombs on Japan, ending World War II. Truman leads the US into the Cold War and the Korean War (1950-53).
1953-61: Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower ends the Korean War and avoids wider entanglements e.g. In Vietnam. The US is widely perceived to lose ground to the Soviet Union in the Cold War during this period. Cuba goes Communist. Eisenhower warns of a “military industrial complex” on leaving office.
1961-63: Democrat John F. Kennedy attempts to invade Cuba and begins dramatic increase in US military support to South Vietnam. CIA launches repeated assassination attempts on Castro.
1963-69: Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson escalates Vietnam into a major war.
1969-74: Republican Richard M. Nixon ends US involvement in Vietnam, re-opens relations with China and signs the SALT arms reduction treaty with the Soviet Union.
1974-77: US defence spending reaches an all time low under Republican Gerald Ford.
1977-81: Democrat Jimmy Carter ends Détente and begins a dramatic increase in US military spending. Boycotts the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
1981-89: Republican Ronald Reagan oversees the end of the Cold War.
Admittedly, events since the Cold War make this argument harder to sustain…
Qualifications.
All of the above is true. However, bear in mind…
Wilson and Roosevelt were hardly warmongers. Wilson broke down and cried soon after officially declaring war and later attempted to forge the League of Nations.
Eisenhower oversaw a dramatic expansion in US defence spending. The perception that the USSR overtook the US at the time, proved to be utterly false.
Nixon sabotaged peace talks in Vietnam and only ended the war after first attempting to escalate it further and invading Cambodia. Most opposition to Vietnam came from the Left and support from the Right.
Carter initially adopted a far more liberal foreign policy approach turning far more conservative midway through his presidency under the influence of adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Reagan was hugely belligerent and oversaw a massive increase in US defence spending. The Cold War ended in spite of him, not because of him. Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev largely deserves the credit for this, not Reagan or anyone in the West.
Even so…

Five worst US presidential candidates ever

Okay! So it’s becoming horrendously clear Mitt Romney is an unusually poor presidential candidate. But he’s not the first disaster area to be nominated by a major US political party. Here are a few others:

5. Richard M. Nixon (Rep. Lost 1960, won 1968, 1972). It might seem odd to choose a candidate who was victorious twice to go in a list of bad presidential candidates. But Nixon’s success if anything exposes the flaws in the system. In 1968, with Nixon’s poll lead narrowing, the Nixon team used an insider to actively sabotage Vietnam peace talks fearing a sudden breakthrough would give his opponent Hubert Humphrey a last minute boost. Interestingly, the Humphrey campaign learned of Nixon’s chicanery at the time but chose not to expose him as they expected to beat him anyway. They were wrong. Four years later, the Nixon team again used all manner of dirty tricks to crush their most feared Democratic opponent Ed Muskie in the primaries releasing mice into a Muskie press conference and smearing Muskie’s wife as an alcoholic. Break-ins later in the campaign ultimately led to the Watergate scandal. Nixon would win heavily in 1972 but his victory would be short lived. He must rank amongst the most corrupt post-war presidential candidates.

4. Michael Dukakis (Dem. Lost 1988). What went wrong for Duke? In the summer of 1988, having beaten seven rivals to the nomination, his soaring Kennedy-esque rhetoric gave him a 15% lead over his Republican opponent Vice President George HW Bush. But in the last months of the campaign, Dukakis, who like Romney was a Governor of Massachusetts barely put a foot right. He unwisely refused to respond to any attacks the Bush campaign launched upon him and was soon irretrievably tainted as a tax and spend liberal (a bad thing in the US). Even his principled opposition to the death penalty in the TV debates went against him.  Despite being quite a bland candidate himself, Bush ended up romping home to a forty state victory.

3. John McCain (Rep. Lost 2008) An ex-Vietnam POW, McCain may have been a fine candidate in, say, 1992, but by 2008, he was much too old and grumpy for the task. His repeated attempts to distract attention from his opponent’s superior campaign by repeated references to “Joe the plumber” proved a failure. His worst decision, however, was undeniably his poorly researched choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as running mate. Initially boosting the flagging McCain effort, the decision backfired horribly once Palin’s many shortcomings became all too apparent. McCain soon had his chips.

2. Barry Goldwater (Rep. Lost 1964). Although the GOP occasionally flirts with extremism, they rarely embrace it. The moderate Senator Bob Dole saw off Pat Buchanan in 1996 for example while Mitt Romney beat the even more odious and unprincipled Rick Santorum earlier this year. 1964 was different however. In the year after President Kennedy’s assassination, they rejected the moderate future Vice President Nelson Rockefeller in favour of the alarmingly pro-nuclear Senator Goldwater. “Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice,” Goldwater (sometimes nicknamed Au H2O by science geeks) would opine. He also advocated a form of racial apartheid. The result? The Johnson team produced one of the best campaign ads ever (showing a little girl being blown to smithereens by a nuclear attack). Ex-actor Ronald Reagan was moved to defect from the Democrats to the Republicans. Everyone else went the other way. President Johnson beat Goldwater by a record margin.

1. Mitt Romney (Rep. 2012). Okay! So it’s not over yet. Things may improve for the hapless Mr Romney. But as it stands, this looks like the only poll Romney’s going to come top of this autumn…