Archive for the ‘Hatfield’ Category

Assessing LBJ

johnson200-62fbf6627cd90a3d7677dbcd0b201aa00477e8bb-s6-c30One of the best biographers of Lyndon Johnson, the presidential historian Robert Dallek, has often said that it takes a generation or more once a president has left office for us to truly begin to assess his presidency. Historians need access to the papers. Those in the presidential supporting cast, the aides, the associates, the enemies, need time to write and reflect on the man. Once those pieces start to come together, we can begin to form history’s judgment. LBJ’s time seems more and more at hand.

Dallek titled one of his volumes on Johnson – Flawed Giant. That, I suspect, will be the ultimate verdict of history. A big, passionate man with supremely developed political skills and instincts who was, at the same time, deeply, even tragically, flawed.

Frankly it is the juxtaposition of the greatness and the human failings that make the 36th president so endlessly fascinating and why contemporary and continual examination of his presidency – as well as his political career proceeding the White House – is so important.

All that Johnson accomplished as part of his domestic agenda from civil rights to Medicare is balanced – some would say dwarfed – by the tragedy of Vietnam. His deep compassion for those in the shadows of life is checked by the roughness of his personality. Johnson could both help pass the greatest piece of civil rights legislation since the Civil War and make crude jokes about blacks. He could turn on his Texas charm in cooing and sympathetic phone calls to the widow Jackie Kennedy and then issue orders to an underling while sitting on the toilet.

Johnson presents the ultimate challenge to those of us who like to handicap presidential greatness. Does it automatically follow that a great man must also be a good man? Few would measure up to such a reckoning. And just how do to assess greatness?

I think I’ve read every major biography of Lyndon Johnson: Dallek’s superb two volumes, Robert Caro’s monumental four volumes and counting and wonderful volumes by Randall B. Woods and Mark K. Updegrove. I’ve read Johnson’s memoir The Vantage Point and Lyndon Johnson & the American Dream by the young Doris Kearns before she was Godwin. Michael Beschloss has dug through the Johnson tapes and produced great insights into the man and his politics.

You can’t study LBJ without going deeply into the American experience in southeast Asia. Biographies of Senators Mike Mansfield, J. William Fulbright, Mark Hatfield and Frank Church, among much other material, helps flesh out Johnson’s great mistake. More recently I’ve gorged on the reporting of activities surrounding the 50th anniversary of passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, undoubtedly Johnson’s single greatest accomplishment.

Through all of this sifting of the big record of a controversial man I’m left to ponder how we fairly assess the Texan who dominated our politics for barely five years in the Oval Office and left in his wake both great accomplishments and the legacy of more than 58,000 dead Americans in a jungle war that a stronger, wiser man might – just might – have avoided.

The historian Mike Kazin wrote recently in The New Republic that LBJ doesn’t deserve any revisionist treatment for his “liberal” record because what really mattered was the war. “The great musical satirist Tom Lehrer once remarked,” Kazin writes, “that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger made political satire obsolete. The same might be said for those who would turn the President most responsible for ravaging Vietnam into a great liberal hero.”

Historian David Greenberg, also a contributing editor for The New Republic, takes a somewhat different and more nuanced view, a view more in tune with my own, when he wrote recently: “No one can overlook anymore (for example) Washington’s and Jefferson’s slave holding, Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies, Lincoln’s and Wilson’s wartime civil liberties records, or FDR’s internment of Japanese Americans. We know these men to be deeply flawed, in some cases to the point where celebrating them produces in us considerable unease. But, ultimately, we still recognize them as remarkable presidents whose finest feats transformed the nation for the good. So if in calling someone a hero it’s also possible to simultaneously acknowledge his failings, even terrible failings, then Lyndon Johnson deserves a place in the pantheon.”

Peter Baker, writing recently in the New York Times, asks perhaps the best question about the on-going reassessment of Lyndon Johnson. Given the state of our politics today, the small-minded partisanship, the blinding influence of too much money from too few sources and the lack of national consensus about anything, Baker asks “is it even possible for a president to do big things anymore?”

For better or worse, Baker correctly concludes, LBJ represented the “high water mark” for presidents pushing through a big and bold agenda and no one since has approached the political ability that Johnson mastered as he worked his will on both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. The reassessments of Lyndon Johnson will go on and I suspect the “flawed giant” will continue to challenge our notions of greatness for as long as we debate the accomplishments and the failings of American presidents.

The Middle Doesn’t Hold

howard-deanLots of Democrats like Howard Dean the former Vermont governor because he can almost always be counted on to be a full-throated partisan. Cable news loves the one-time Democratic presidential candidate because he’s always ready to launch an attack the other side. Nothing subtle or nuanced about Dean. In his world the Democrats – make that the most liberal Democrats – are always right and the Republicans are a bunch of knuckle-dragging throwbacks to the 19th Century. He has nearly as little use for a Democrat who wanders off the party reservation.

Lots of Republicans, particularly the Tea Party wing of the party, love the Club for Growth and its mouthpiece former Rep. Chris Chocola because the Club and the former Congressman can always be counted on to attack any Republican who dares to veer, even ever so slightly, from the group’s unyielding anti-tax, anti-government agenda. The Club for Growth has established itself as the enforcer of GOP orthodoxy on taxes and the scope of government. As a Republican you cross this crowd with full knowledge that they know how to buy television attack ads and have money to burn.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: consider Exhibits A and B in the sad and troubling case of who murdered moderation in American politics. The loud and often unreasonable voices of guys like Dean and Chocola  increasingly dominate political discussion and they are largely getting away with the political murder of moderation because we’re letting them. If you enjoy dysfunction in Washington, D.C. keep rewarding the Deans and Chocolas. Their political oxygen depends on squeezing the last breath out of anyone who even looks like a moderate.

Dean, of course, has his own political action committee and says he’s “open,” despite the legendary “scream from Iowa” heard round the world in 2004, to another run for president in 2016. He’ll undoubtedly run as a divider and not a uniter. Dean made news in Oregon this week, which he no doubt wanted to do, for launching a Twitter attack on a prominent Democratic state senator who had the gall to buck her party on a couple of high profile votes during the recently adjourned Oregon legislative session. Sen. Betsy Johnson did vote with Oregon Democrats 90% of the time during the recent legislative session, but in Dean’s “no room for moderates” world the senator, because she crossed her party on a couple of issues, needs to be challenged and replaced.

Chocola was out this week with an equally bizarre attack on Idaho Republican Congressman Mike Simpson. The Club for Growth announced it had endorsed a novice Republican from Idaho Falls, Bryan Smith, who is challenging the widely-respected eight-term chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee that just happens to be vital to Idaho. Club for Growth calls Simpson “one of the biggest liberals in the Republican Party,” which is nonsense bordering on political malpractice as anyone who really knows the Congressman can attest. Simpson is, by any realistic measure, a very conservative Republican. He’s gone down the line with the NRA, opposed Obamacare and has battled the EPA over budgets and regulation, among other things. What he is not is a knuckle-dragger always in lock step with the far right.

Challenger Smith, who the Club apparently recruited for a Simpson primary challenge by trolling the Internet, was endorsed because he opposed Idaho Falls city property tax increases and criticized the Supreme Court on its health care ruling. Quite a record. Sign him up. The guy sounds like he’ll dependably put his rock on the “no” button if, against all logic and likelihood, he should happen to make it to Congress.

Simpson, probably because he spent his formative political years in the Idaho House of Representatives, including a successful stint as Speaker, while a politically skillful and successful Democrat held the governor’s office, has never automatically assumed every person across the aisle is an opponent worthy of being savaged from Twin Falls to Twitter. Simpson actually thinks a legislator’s job is to try and make the government work. He knows his district’s economy depends on the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and that contrary to Club for Growth-like thinking maybe, just maybe, he needs from-time-to-time to be able to work with an ideological opposite  in order to keep the Department of Energy budget working for the nation and his district. We used to call that politics and it still amounts to governing.

Simpson’s real concern to Club for Growth is that he has dared to speak what every sensible person in Washington and the nation knows to be the truth about the federal budget: To secure a long-term and stable fiscal situation for the country Republicans and Democrats must come together and address spending, entitlements and – brace yourself – future revenues. In other words, Simpson has said what Simpson-Bowles have said and what Warren Buffett has said, in fact what every responsible person in the country has said about the nation’s fiscal and budget policies. In short, Mike Simpson is a conservative Republican who understands that finding common ground on major issues isn’t treason, but rather statesmanship.

Howard Dean and his like on the political left and Chris Chocola and his ilk on the right play only one political note: a high pitched squeal that can best be heard by the most partisan folks in both political parties. Such silliness has been at the heart of the near death of moderation in our politics and in Idaho in the past it has given the state such stellar Members of Congress as former Rep. Bill Sali, once championed and elected thanks to the million dollar largess of Club for Growth. Sali’s inept and embarrassing single term in Congress was highlighted by his introduction of legislation repealing the law of gravity. It’s true. You can look it up.

Come election day here’s betting that Rep. Simpson in Idaho and State Sen. Johnson in Oregon will be returned to office. Their constituents like them and know them. Both of them seem willing to defend common sense, which thankfully some voters still appreciate. Others elsewhere who practice the once celebrated political art of moderation may not fare as well and what former Sen. Al Simpson of Wyoming calls “the 100% crowd” – those who insist on unbending fidelity to their way of thinking – will have won yet another battle against realistic government.

Once upon a time pragmatic voters in places like Oregon and Idaho rewarded stubbornly independent moderates like the late, great Republican governor and senator Mark O. Hatfield and the former Democratic governor and Secretary of the Interior Cecil D. Andrus. Hatfield built a career around charting his own course for Oregon in the Senate, often tilting against Republican presidents, and Andrus often publicly disowned the excesses of national Democrats and delighted in doing so while his Idaho constituents sent him to the Statehouse four times over three decades. Today such political heresy would spur a social media attack followed by a primary challenge.

Our national history tells us clearly that political independence and moderation really should be cause for celebration, but the political ayathollahs of the American left and right are as determined to slay the last visages of moderation as are the political absolutists who rule in Teheran.

Americans are united in condemning one group of fundamentalist crazies. We ought also unite in condemning those who fuliminate to kill moderation closer to home.

 

Mark Hatfield

Not Likely to See His Kind Again

I’ve always thought of Mark Hatfield, the Oregon Republican who died on Sunday, as looking and acting exactly as a United States Senator should. If Hollywood were casting a role for a wise, reasoned fellow to be a U.S. Senator, Hatfield could have played the part. Heck, he did play the part for 30 years.

Most of the obits describe Mark Hatfield as “a liberal Republican,” and that is probably a fine description, as far as it goes. I think of him in the great tradition of Senate independents and independence is way more important in politics than being a Republican, a Democrat, a liberal or a conservative. Hatfield was an independent.

My old friend Joel Connelly correctly calls Hatfield one of the political “giants” of the Pacific Northwest and in his remembrance notes the range of things Hatfield touched, including appropriations, opposition to the Vietnam War, northwest salmon, nuclear disarmament and civil rights. Joel also remembers him, as I do, as one of the most dignified and best dressed guys in politics. Central casting again. Suits don’t make the man, but they don’t hurt, either.

The Oregonian’s Steve Duin remembers, as all who have been close to real politics know, that even the greatest of men walk on feet of clay. Hatfield was complex, could hold a grudge and he relished the perks of power displaying a blind eye to the propriety of accepting gifts from admirers and those whom had benefited from his power.

“Hatfield never lost an election, and rarely campaigned.” Duin writes, quoting the five-term senator as saying, “I am the Senator. I never yield that advantage by becoming a candidate.”

Hatfield was also highly religious and wise in how he applied the lessons he learned as a Baptist who – here is complex again – loved movies and learned early to enjoy dancing. An extensive interview he did in 1982 with Christianity Today introduced Hatfield this way:

“He is a Republican, but is known as a liberal in politics. He is against nuclear war, but he is not a pacifist. He supports all sorts of programs to aid the poor, but he is a diehard fiscal conservative. He is a friend of Billy Graham, and he cosponsors a resolution with Sen. Edward Kennedy. He has never been a “wheel” of the Senate’s power structure, but he has become chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee. He antagonizes his Oregon constituency by voting flatly against a measure 90 percent of them badly want, and they turn right around and reelect him to office. He is a devout evangelical and an active member of Georgetown Baptist Church, but no fundamentalist or evangelical organization has him in its pocket.”

When the role is called for United States Senators from the 1960’s to the 1990’s, I’m betting that the higher power that Mark Hatfield believed in and thought deeply about will want to know how those senators came down on a few issues that define their generation – Vietnam, civil rights, nuclear weapons and treatment of the most vulnerable among us. Flaws and all, Mark Hatfield, the independent, the complex man of faith, was on the right side of history and, who knows, perhaps his God.

Either way, the Northwest has lost one of the true political giants of the 20th Century.

 

Obama’s War

afghanistanWar is the unfolding of miscalculations - Barbara Tuchman

I have a clear memory of an old basketball coach from high school who preached a simple strategy. Coach would say when someone was trying to make a particularly difficult play, for example, a flashy, behind the back pass when simple and straightforward would do, “Don’t try to do too much.”

I have been thinking about that old coach this week as I’ve watched President Obama ensure that America’s longest war – our eight years and counting in the graveyard of empires, Afghanistan – will last a good deal longer. Afghanistan is Obama’s war now and I cannot escape the feeling that the president has made the decision – for good or bad – that will define all the rest of his historic presidency. We all hope he got it right. There is a good chance he has made the mistake of trying to do too much.

A nagging sense of deja vu hangs over his decision. We have seen this movie before and, as one of the president’s critics from the right – George Will - suggests, we won’t like the way it ends. As an Idaho and Northwest history buff, I am also struck by a realization of something missing from the political debate aimed at defining the correct policy approach in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The missing element, it seems to me, is hard headed consideration of the limits of American power and influence. Deja vu all over again. We have seen this movie before, as well, and the end is not very satisfying.

An Idaho Perspective on Limits

Idaho has had two remarkable United States Senators who played major national and international roles in formulating our country’s foreign policy in the 20th Century. William Borah, a progressive Republican, served 33 years in the Senate and chaired the once-powerful Foreign Relations Committee in the 1920’s. Frank Church, a liberal Democrat, served 24 years in the Senate and chaired the same committee in the 1970’s.

The Idahoans wielded political power in vastly different times and a half century apart. In the broad sweep of history, we have to say both lost their fundamental battles to shape American attitudes about the limits of our power and influence. There is a direct link from that failure to the president standing in front of the cadet corps at West Point earlier this week.

Borah’s influence was at its zenith in the interval between the two great wars of the 20th Century when he served as chief spokesman of the non-interventionist approach to foreign affairs. Church’s time on the world stage coincided with the post-war period when international Communism dominated our concerns and Vietnam provided all the proof we should ever need about the limits of American power.

It can only be conjecture, but I would bet that neither of the men from Idaho, who once exercised real influence in the Senate, would be comfortable with the president’s course in Afghanistan. The reason is pretty simple. Both Borah and Church, passionately committed to American ideals and to representative democracy, believed that even given the awesome power of the country’s military, there are real limits to what America power can accomplish in the world. Historically, both felt America had repeatedly embraced the errands of a fool by believing that we could impose our will on people and places far removed and far different from us. Their approach to foreign policy and identifying American interests was defined by limits and certainly not by the belief that we can do it all.

In his day, Borah opposed sending the Marines to Nicaragua to police a revolution. It simply wasn’t our fight or responsibility, he argued, and the effort would prove to be beyond the limits of American influence. Church never believed that American air power and 500,000 combat troops could help the Vietnamese sort out a civil war. Both were guided by the notion that Americans often make tragic mistakes when we try to do too much.

Other Northwesterners of the past – the Senate’s greatest Majority Leader, Mike Mansfield of Montana, Oregon’s pugnacious maverick Wayne Morse and the elegant, thoughtful Mark Hatfield – counseled presidents of both parties to understand our limits. Those reminders hover over our history and this moment in time.

None of this is to say that there are not real and compelling American interests in shutting down the 21st Century phenomenon of Jihadist terrorism. We do have legitimate interests and we must keep after this strategic imperative. But, the foundation of any successful strategy is correctly defining the problem and understanding the limitations.

Is projecting an additional 30,000 American troops into one of the world’s most historically difficult places, in the midst of tribal, religious and cultural complexity, the right approach? And, does it address the right problem? We’ll find out. The British and Russians found out before us.

As Barbara Tuchman made clear in her classic book The Guns of August – the book centers on the miscalculations and unintended consequences that helped precipitate the First World War – wars never unfold as planned. Miscalculations and faulty assumptions always get in the way of grand strategy.

Assuming progress on a tight timeline, assuming better behavior from a stunningly corrupt Afghan government, assuming our brave and talented troops can “nation build,” where others have failed time and again, are calculations and assumptions that may just not go as planned.

Grant the president this: he inherited a mess and no good option. Also, like Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam and Harry Truman in Korea, he faces great political pressure not to display weakness or signal American retreat. It has never been in the presidential playbook to candidly discuss the limits of our power and influence. The American way is to believe we can do it all.

One of the great “what ifs” of 20th Century American history, particularly the history of presidential decision-making, is the question of what John Kennedy, had he lived and been elected to a second term in 1964, would have done with American involvement in Vietnam.

Many historians now believe, with a second term secure and political pressure reduced, JFK would have gotten out. We’ll never know. We do know what Johnson did, and his inability to confront the limits of national power and define precise American interests destroyed his presidency. History may well record that George W. Bush and Barack Obama failed to confront the same limits and correctly define precise interests.

Kennedy once said this: “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie: deliberate, continued, and dishonest; but the myth: persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.”

As we head into the cold and gray of another long winter in the rugged, deadly mountains of Afghanistan, we may again – I hope I’m wrong – confront the persistent, persuasive and unrealistic myth that America’s military – motivated, trained and determined as it is – can do everything.

As I said, I hope I’m wrong.