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As if in an answer to his dilemma, the two rounded the corner and came upon an exhibit of a modern American kitchen. Nixon tried to steer the conversation to washing machines. Khrushchev charged that only the rich in America could afford something like this kitchen. Not so, Nixon replied calmly. The cost of the kitchen was $14,000 and it was the kind many American veterans of World War II would now have in their homes. The answer infuriated the Russian and he let loose yet again, cameras clicking like crazy. He fulminated against capitalism, the rich, the hint of a suggestion that Russians could not have kitchens like the one they were seeing. He jammed his thumb into Nixon’s chest, ranting angrily, shouting now about rockets and generals.
Nixon, remembering his brief from Dulles, realized the moment had arrived. He had to act — right now.Writing in his first book Six Crises, he said later that as he listened to the translation of what was being said by the red-faced Khrushchev, “I knew that now was the time to strike back. Otherwise I would leave the impression to the press and through them to the world that I, the second-highest official of the United States, and the government I represented were dealing with Khrushchev from a position of weakness — militarily, economically and ideologically. I had to be firm without being belligerent, a most difficult posture to preserve.”
With that, Nixon stuck his own finger in Khrushchev’s chest. The Russian narrowed his eyes, jutting his chin forward. The cameras went crazy all over again. Nixon, finger in the Soviet leader’s chest, was leaning into his adversary, staring, unblinking. His voice rose. “No one should ever use his strength to put another in the position where he in effect has an ultimatum….If war comes, we both lose.” Nixon was off and running now, determined to make the American case. He hoped, he said, that Khrushchev understood the implications of what he, Khrushchev, had been saying. Forcing a powerful nation to fight was playing with “a very destructive thing.” Khrushchev’s words and actions were “very dangerous. When we sit down at a conference table it cannot be all one way. One side cannot put an ultimatum to another. It is impossible.”
Now the two men were “going at it” toe-to-toe. Some thought Nixon had lost his own temper, which he denied. He knew, to the contrary, it was critical to keep his temper. To stay cool. To think on his feet quickly and respond firmly. Remembering Dulles’ advice, he had no intention of letting the Russian think Nixon could somehow be pushed around. Suddenly, Khrushchev stopped, seemingly cooling off. Nixon smiled. Putting his hand on Khrushchev’s shoulder, only then did he say, “I’m afraid I haven’t been a good host.” The Russian turned to the American guide standing, astonished, in the model kitchen, and thanked him for his time. The guide, an American PR agent named William Safire, was so impressed with Nixon’s toughness he made the decision on the spot to work for him. A decade later Safire was ensconced in the White House as a Nixon speechwriter and later became a columnist for the New York Times. At the time, the picture of a no-nonsense Nixon jabbing his own finger right back at Khrushchev was captured by an AP photographer. The Russians, no fools, embargoed the photos and an inventive Safire smuggled the AP photographer’s negative out of the Soviet Union — in his socks. It became one of the most famous photos of the day.
The Nixon-Khrushchev “kitchen debate” was an iconic moment in the history of the Cold War.
What should Obama have learned from this episode before he placed himself in the same room with the bullying, boasting Chavez, the Venezuelan tyrant not so unlike Khrushchev?
That if you are an American leader, it is a mistake of magnitudes to let tyrants make a fool of you period, whether in private but especially in public. The photo of a grinning Obama yukking it up with Hugo Chavez, unchallenging as he accepts a book glorifying socialism, is surely being closely studied by less than scrupulous men from Tehran to Afghanistan, from Beijing to Moscow to Havana. Chavez self-evidently sought to publicly tweak the President, to pull his chain, and see what resulted. Just as Khrushchev tried the same with Nixon fifty years ago this July. Chavez got a notably different response from Obama than Khrushchev did from Nixon. For that there will, almost certainly, be repercussions.
As for Richard Nixon, for the rest of his active political life he was cast as the tough-as-nails anti-Communist, a perception that worked to America’s advantage. It gave totalitarians pause in dealing with him when he finally did become president, and Americans a feeling of reassurance that if Nixon was in charge it was a safer world for negotiations with the Russians or the Chinese or, for that matter, any would-be adversary. Khrushchev would later boast that he had done everything he could to undermine Nixon’s 1960 race against John F. Kennedy.
JFK, as it turned out, sent his own messages to Khrushchev with less success than Nixon. In 1961, he botched the Eisenhower-planned “Bay of Pigs” invasion of Cuba, choosing neither to cancel it nor to support it but rather to let it proceed without serious American backing. The resulting failure emboldened Khrushchev, who proceeded to assess Kennedy at their 1961 Summit as a weak president — and shortly began building the Berlin Wall. When Kennedy allowed the wall to stand, the next challenge was to put nuclear missiles in Cuba, which JFK, hardened finally by experience, managed to remove. Even so, the perception of weakness by Khrushchev almost brought about nuclear war.
If anything, the horrific results of Nixon successor Jimmy Carter confirmed the need in many minds of Nixon’s insistence on strength in dealing with tyrants. Carter took precisely the opposite approach of Nixon, and Nixon made himself known on the subject. While Nixon’s focus was on Carter’s dealings with the Soviet Union, his thoughts would be well taken when dealing with any tyrant. Like, say, Hugo Chavez:
[T]o apply the Golden Rule to our dealings with the Soviets is dangerously naïve. President Carter, with the best of intentions, tried unilateral restraint in the hopes the Soviets would follow suit. The result was disastrous.
President Obama, finding himself in a Nixon-Khrushchev-style match-up with Hugo Chavez, took the Carter route, ignoring the Nixon lesson. Time will tell just what the image of the Obama-Chavez encounter means to the bad guys of the world. Somewhere down the line, Americans will find out. But in 1959, a young American Vice President sent a different image altogether, up close and personal. It was the picture heard around the world.
America — and the world — were better for it.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?