Somehow, many people are still under the impression that character is not important when it comes to politicians and leaders.
But of course it is.
Exhibit A in explaining why it is important is Tricky Dick himself, Richard Nixon. When Nixon was forced to resign, my father gave this reason for why conservatives turned on him: “Everyone knew that he was a lying SOB that was out to screw over people–and that was why we voted for him. But we thought he would lie to and screw over the other guy, the Soviets. No one ever thought that he would lie to and screw over the American people.” This encapsulates the whole problem when it comes to character. A man who will lie to advance his personal ambition will lie to everyone. A man who will cheat on his wife will cheat on his friends and his constituents. (Note that serial adulterer JFK committed the greatest fraud of all, when he won the 1960 election with votes manufactured in Chicago and South Texas. Yes, adultery matters.)
But getting back to our story, it turns out that LBJ had his own taping system, and the now-declassified tapes have been coming out in drips and drabs. The latest batch of tapes covers the 1968 election, and there are some doozies in it. On tape, there are discussions wherein LBJ was seriously considering flying to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and getting renominated for a second term (and he probably would have succeeded, as well).
There is one other juicy tidbit. As reported by the BBC,
It begins in the summer of 1968. Nixon feared a breakthrough at the Paris Peace talks designed to find a negotiated settlement to the Vietnam war, and he knew this would derail his campaign.
He therefore set up a clandestine back-channel involving Anna Chennault, a senior campaign adviser.
At a July meeting in Nixon’s New York apartment, the South Vietnamese ambassador was told Chennault represented Nixon and spoke for the campaign. If any message needed to be passed to the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, it would come via Chennault.
In late October 1968 there were major concessions from Hanoi which promised to allow meaningful talks to get underway in Paris – concessions that would justify Johnson calling for a complete bombing halt of North Vietnam. This was exactly what Nixon feared.
Chennault was despatched to the South Vietnamese embassy with a clear message: the South Vietnamese government should withdraw from the talks, refuse to deal with Johnson, and if Nixon was elected, they would get a much better deal.
So on the eve of his planned announcement of a halt to the bombing, Johnson learned the South Vietnamese were pulling out.
He was also told why. The FBI had bugged the ambassador’s phone and a transcripts of Anna Chennault’s calls were sent to the White House. In one conversation she tells the ambassador to “just hang on through election”.
Johnson was told by Defence Secretary Clifford that the interference was illegal and threatened the chance for peace.
In a series of remarkable White House recordings we can hear Johnson’s reaction to the news.
In one call to Senator Richard Russell he says: “We have found that our friend, the Republican nominee, our California friend, has been playing on the outskirts with our enemies and our friends both, he has been doing it through rather subterranean sources. Mrs Chennault is warning the South Vietnamese not to get pulled into this Johnson move.”
He orders the Nixon campaign to be placed under FBI surveillance and demands to know if Nixon is personally involved.
When he became convinced it was being orchestrated by the Republican candidate, the president called Senator Everett Dirksen, the Republican leader in the Senate to get a message to Nixon.
The president knew what was going on, Nixon should back off and the subterfuge amounted to treason.Publicly Nixon was suggesting he had no idea why the South Vietnamese withdrew from the talks. He even offered to travel to Saigon to get them back to the negotiating table.
Johnson felt it was the ultimate expression of political hypocrisy but in calls recorded with Clifford they express the fear that going public would require revealing the FBI were bugging the ambassador’s phone and the National Security Agency (NSA) was intercepting his communications with Saigon.
So they decided to say nothing.
The president did let Humphrey know and gave him enough information to sink his opponent. But by then, a few days from the election, Humphrey had been told he had closed the gap with Nixon and would win the presidency. So Humphrey decided it would be too disruptive to the country to accuse the Republicans of treason, if the Democrats were going to win anyway.
Nixon ended his campaign by suggesting the administration war policy was in shambles. They couldn’t even get the South Vietnamese to the negotiating table.
He won by less than 1% of the popular vote.
Once in office he escalated the war into Laos and Cambodia, with the loss of an additional 22,000 American lives, before finally settling for a peace agreement in 1973 that was within grasp in 1968.
It has been widely rumored that the 1973 peace accords contained a secret side agreement between the US and North Vietnam which stated that 18 months after the US withdrawal of ground forces, the North Vietnamese would be free to invade South Vietnam. The 18-month delay was made part of the deal because Nixon did not want to go down in history as the man who lost the Vietnam War.
Whether such a secret side agreement existed or not, North Vietnam did invade 18 months later, with barely a squeak of protest from the US. While one could claim that this was on Gerald Ford’s watch, as Nixon was no longer president by then, in fact Ford came into office pledging a continuation of Nixon’s policies, and he had the exact same staff of advisers for defense and international affairs that Nixon had. In short, Nixon knew that there would be an invasion at some point, and planned to do nothing. Ford was just following through with what Nixon had already decided.
Let’s go back to 1968. When Nixon ran for president, his main claim was that he had a secret plan to end the Vietnam War, and to do so with America’s national honor intact.
This was his plan.
Was it worth an extra 22,000 American lives and untold civilian casualties?
The word “treason” should not be thrown around lightly, and people have become inured (in large part because of Nixon and his ilk) to the idea of politicians using men as cannon fodder to advance their own political careers, but LBJ was right–Nixon was being treasonous, and his actions were wrong. Just ask the men he sent out to die.
The US was not completely devoid of alternatives when it came to presidential material in 1968. Ronald Reagan actually out-polled Nixon in the GOP primaries that year, and he turned out to be fine president 12 years later. And Humphrey, for all of his squishy, liberal faults was as decent a man and politician as one could have ever hoped for–even he would have been a better president than Nixon. Yes, he would probably have ended the war much earlier, but one wonders if Nixon’s personal ambitions were really worth 22,000 American lives, especially when we ended up back at exactly the same place we started from in 1968.
We settled for a lesser man, devoid of character in 1968, and paid the price in blood.
Just something to chew on.