December 29th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

The Big Things

I really didn't think of what I was writing about Gerald Ford yesterday as a eulogy. I concede the point, I suppose. Mostly I was thinking out loud about a certain paradox. When you're in a highly visible, very important job like President of the US, then no matter who you are, you're going to screw some things up. And no matter who you are, unless you're George W. Bush, you're going to do some things well. And for the most part, you go to your grave with people quibbling, with little emotion involved, over whether the things you got right are more important than the things that you got wrong, or vice versa. However ...

It is possible that during your Presidency you will get something so right, especially something so important right, that nobody cares what else you did. When people complain about Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus, most people treat them as bickering quibblers. And do you even know, or care, what Lincoln's economic policies were or who his judicial nominees were? The man saved the country, for crying out loud, and saved it so well and so thoroughly that nobody will ever even ask about anything else he did. Gerald Ford's handling of the legacy of Vietnam, Watergate, draft riots, and civil rights riots comes close to that level, at the very least. You almost don't want to ask what he did wrong, having gotten that right. It is too easy to imagine, instead, an alternate universe in which Richard Nixon, who could have chosen anybody to be his Vice President after Agnew had to resign in disgrace, had picked (for example) California governor Ronald Reagan to be his successor. Reagan would have tried to ram his right-wing social-conservative (and, at the time, very racist) ideology down the throats of a nation already exploding in random violence, and our cities would have erupted in flames. This could very easily have been followed by an attempt at martial law. And I very carefully said that, and I mean "attempt," because it is not clear that the 1975 US military could have conquered and ruled an America that had slid into anarchy and chaos. Gerald Ford saved us from all of that, so who even wants to keep asking questions about Watergate or the Warren Commission or East Timor or anything else?

You know, Oskar Schindler was a bad man. And he knew it. He was a monster, who'd done many selfish things in his life and not a few monstrous ones. He stole his original factory, earned a fortune off of slave labor, abused his position as a slave master to provide himself with a steady stream of young sex slaves, cheated on his taxes, and worst of all, he'd been a loyal Nazi -- the monstrous things that the Nazi government did were things that they had, in a sense, done at his request and on his behalf. But at the end, for reasons still themselves at least partly tainted by selfishness, he saved twelve hundred lives. It disturbed him greatly, we're told, to the end of his life, that that was enough to earn him forgiveness for his many sins. He didn't want forgiveness, because he felt that the life he'd lived was completely unforgivable. The world forgave him anyway, on behalf of those 1200. Which, I guess, makes Gerald Ford the Oskar Schindler of the American Presidency.

But, on the other hand, it is also possible for your Presidency to do a million things right, to do almost everything right, but then screw up one thing so badly that nobody wants to hear about it. Your name becomes synonymous with "evil," you become caricatured as a monster. Which, oddly enough, is how Gerald Ford got the job in the first place.

It has taken me a lot of years, obviously, to get to the point where I could see this, but here it goes. Judging him only on the actual functions of his office, only on his Presidency, for a Republican Richard Nixon wasn't actually all that bad. His own party's right wing, the faction that governs it now, hated him because unlike almost every Republican since Nixon, Nixon understood that the while free market entrepreneurial capitalism is a tremendously good thing for the country, it is something that we enjoy only at the public's sufferance. That if the vast majority of the American people were to stop believing that free market entrepreneurial capitalism was capable of delivering a modicum of economic security to those who do what they're told and a high probability of social and economic advancement for the next generation of those who follow the rules of the American Dream the most scrupulously, they will take free market entrepreneurial capitalism away from us.

Lyndon Johnson waged a "war on poverty" for the usual muddy-headed liberal reason that "poverty is bad," and his "war on poverty" was so incompetently managed and so poorly sold to the American public that it tore the country up almost as bad as his equally incompetently managed, and even less democratically defensible, conduct of the war in Vietnam. But just as FDR came from a very right wing laissez faire pro-wealthy wing of the Democratic Party, was motivated by the drive to stave off a populist revolution, Nixon's staunch anti-communist Republican values brought him to the same place: the need to pick and choose which would be the most effective concessions to make, which ones actually make sense on the face of it and can actually deliver enough to the public to stave off a socialist revolution in America. And so you can point to an incredibly long list of very, very good choices by Nixon, things that made a big difference for the country. The Earned Income Tax Credit, a brilliant re-packaging of the far-left's "negative income tax" proposals that has turned out to be one of the most effective anti-poverty tools we've ever come up with. The founding of the Environmental Protection Agency. The automatic indexing of Social Security to inflation via the Cost Of Living Adjustment, COLA, which de-politicized our most important relief program. The first creation of Supplemental Security Income, the program that makes it possible for disabled workers to survive long enough to process a Social Security permanent disability claim. And then there's his contribution to the Cold War, where he walked an incredibly fine line ... and thereby did all of the actual work that Ronald Reagan's partisans would actually lay claim to when the Soviet Union finally lost 15 years later. The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, the first actual de-escalation of nuclear threat since the invention of the nuclear bomb. Triangulation, the process of playing China off against Russia, which took a lot of pressure off of us and put it on our worst enemy. And detenté, his signature achievement, a slow steady peace process that took the wind out of the Soviet empire's expansionist sails and began the long, slow, steady process of rolling back their empire so gradually that it never occurred to them to fire off a few thousand nuclear warheads.

But while we're on the subject of foreign policy, we come to one of his mistakes, and it's one that I wish would give the current administration pause. Nixon inherited a war that we were clearly losing in Vietnam. Any prospect of South Vietnam actually conquering North Vietnam and eradicating the communist government there had vanished before Nixon even declared his candidacy, and pro-war Democrats like Nixon's opponent, Humphrey, were just painfully slow to realize that the famous "light at the end of the tunnel" was, as the joke went, not daylight but the headlight of an oncoming train. But Nixon was determined not to go down in history as the man who lost Vietnam, so he sought to achieve the same compromise that Truman achieved in Korea: return to the status quo ante, permanent partition. But he had no Inchon Landing up his sleeve, and what he did have didn't work nearly as well. Nor was it legal, what he had, which was to invade and attack three nearby countries that we weren't officially at war with in an attempt to cut off North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong supply lines. But that was only a garden-variety mistake. Reagan never faced serious demonization for his similarly illegal and even more monstrous wars on countries we were technically at peace with in Latin America, and Nixon could probably have skated on his illegal attacks on Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. But unfortunately for Nixon, he had a fundamental character flaw, a personal trait so repulsive that even he knew to try to keep it hidden in public. And as the press began to poke into his wars in Cambodia and Laos, in particular, he unraveled in such a public and inexcusable and monstrous-looking way as to tarnish his reputation for all time, to completely eclipse any good that he had done.

You see, what only Nixon's closest friends knew was that Nixon, who had had several political setbacks in his career, knew with unshakable certainty why he had lost several prior elections and had failed to get his way on several issues. He "knew" that there was a World-Wide Jewish Conspiracy, and that the World-Wide Jewish Conspiracy knew that he knew about them, and that they were therefore his mortal enemies, and that they (and their helpless pawns, the liberal media and the world-wide Communist conspiracy) would stop at nothing to destroy him. Richard Nixon spent his WWII time in the Pacific campaign, not the European campaign; he wasn't one of the military officers who toured Hitler's extermination camps. Perhaps as a result, he was one of the last politicians in America not to be sufficiently revolted by the Holocaust to question his own anti-semitism. And so, when in the middle of his second term in office he was facing the prospect of a third major defeat at (he suspected) the hands of the evil World-Wide Jewish Conspiracy, he concluded that unlike before, now he had all the tools of the most powerful office in the world at his hands, his own little conspiracy of people who would do anything to help him. And he turned them loose on everybody he suspect of being a tool of the World-Wide Jewish Conspiracy. And when he was caught at this, the public's revulsion that a man who had done so much good before was visibly turning into our own little Hitler in front of us, erased all the good he had ever done.

I don't really know what the lesson to be learned from this is. But it reminds me of an old joke, about a bitter old drunk in a bar, who says, "You spend 40 years farming, but do they call you Farmer John? No. You build a stone bridge with your own hands that the whole county admires and that they all use every day, but do they call you John the Bridge Builder? No. But you fuck one sheep ...." People make mistakes. And it's not like they know that they're mistakes in advance, or they wouldn't make them. So it's hardly as if they can know, when they're screwing up something really big, that this will be the one big screwup that they'll be known for for the rest of eternity. Perhaps the only lesson to be learned from these examples is a certain amount of humility and modesty.
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