Political Hay

Paul Ryan’s Homer Capehart Problem

Talk radio and Fox absent in 1962 battle over whether there were missiles in Cuba.  

By 4.5.11

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Can Paul Ryan avoid becoming the next Homer Capehart? And if so, how?

Homer Capehart, after all, was right.

Early.

The issue was in fact just as real as he said it was and every bit as dangerous.

He stood up when few were willing and said why it was dangerous -- over and over again. He called the President of the United States to task for not paying attention. There would be extremely serious consequences for ignoring the problem, he insisted. He spoke, he pleaded, he demanded. He did everything up to and including begging for something to be done. He even presented two different ways to deal with this problem. And still, he was brushed off. Dismissed by the so-called sophisticates of the day -- in the White House, the Congress and certainly in the dominant liberal media of the day -- the latter more than effectively the only media of the day.

Who was Homer Capehart? He was, in the summer of 1962, the conservative Republican who was serving as the senior Senator from Indiana. What was he so concerned about?

The Soviet Union, he insisted, was in the process of installing nuclear missiles in Cuba. Intermediate range nuclear missiles that could reach anywhere on the American East Coast. America, Capehart insisted, was on the verge of opening itself to nuclear blackmail. The U.S. government and John F. Kennedy's administration, he warned, should bring an immediate halt by either blockading the island -- or invading it.

And no one -- no one of any consequence -- listened. The President, assuredly not a hard left-winger as so many Democrats are today, was nonetheless scornful of Capehart. He rejected Capehart's demands, and made a point in a campaign speech in Indiana where Capehart was running for re-election to deride the Senator as one of "those self-appointed generals and admirals who want to send someone else's son to war."

Cuba had been a thorn in the Kennedy administration's side from the moment the new President had taken office. An inexperienced Kennedy White House had thoroughly botched the Bay of Pigs invasion, in which armed Cuban exiles were prepared to storm the imprisoned island and depose Castro. Instead of either vetoing the project outright or getting it done, the very-green president did the worst thing possible: he wavered, half-in (a covert promise of air support) and half-out (refusing the air support when the invasion actually launched). The incident sent a signal to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that Kennedy was weak -- an impression reinforced at a summit meeting shortly thereafter between the two men. In Vienna, now face-to-face, the Russian legendarily played the unchallenged bully, something Kennedy himself realized at the time. The Berlin Wall went up shortly thereafter in August of 1961 -- and again Kennedy gave the impression of weakness, allowing the Wall to stand. 

Capehart was convinced there was more to come.

By the summer of 1962, Capehart, a successful entrepreneur who had made a fortune in the jukebox industry, had used his time in the Senate to focus on Latin American affairs. He was alarmed at the information he was receiving. Not a shy man -- but alas in the day when everyone was worshipping the youth and style of the young president and his administration -- Capehart was a decidedly old-fashioned, style-less and older man from rural Indiana. Homer Capehart was worse than informed -- he was out of style. Mocked by the so-called "best and the brightest" on Kennedy's team as "the Indiana Neanderthal." So instead of being listened to, Homer Capehart was derided. Administration officials, ruefully recalled Kennedy's White House Counsel and close aide Theodore Sorensen, responded to Capehart and "flatly asserted that no offensive weapons were in Cuba." Period, end of story.

Months went by -- and then -- reality hit. And it hit hard. Frighteningly hard.

Air Force reconnaissance flights were authorized -- finally. And the results shocked Kennedy. The photos revealed in vivid detail that everything Homer Capehart had been saying for months was absolutely, positively true. In a blink, the Cuban Missile Crisis burst onto the public consciousness, precisely as Capehart said would happen. For thirteen dramatic days in October of 1962 America and the world would teeter on the brink of all-out nuclear war. To this day the episode is the subject of books and movies depicting the calm young president and his brother Bobby tensely working to defuse the crisis and save the world. Repeatedly downplayed when not ignored altogether (Kennedy aide and hagiographer, the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr., mentions Capehart but once in his massive Camelot memoir A Thousand Days -- in reference to the fact that Capehart served on the Senate Labor Committee. That was it.) The more forthright Sorensen noted that a shocked Robert Kennedy confessed his brother's stubborn refusal in not paying attention to Homer Capehart could mean "sixty million Americans killed and as many Russians or more."

The Kennedys rallied and saved the day -- by taking Capehart's exact suggestion of a blockade and re-making it into a clever piece of iconography for RFK. Bobby Kennedy opposed an invasion of Cuba, Capehart's other suggestion, and in adapting the blockade as his own less aggressive alternative to invasion Bobby was portrayed by an all-too-unquestioning media of the day as the young "wise man" who saved the world from nuclear war. Much later historical quibbles developed about secret pledges to remove American missiles in Turkey and a promise never to invade Cuba. But in the day and time the Kennedy White House, caught asleep at the switch again in Cuba, hastily did exactly what Capehart had long demanded -- a naval blockade of Cuba. And took credit for it. And got away with it.

What frequently gets lost in the Kennedy-crazed media of today is the role of Homer Capehart -- then 65 and in the last year of his third term. Described by Time magazine in the day as a "codger," Capehart's alarms were dismissed as so much right-wing grandstanding.

The irony, of course, is that Capehart turned out to be 100% correct with his alarms of what lay ahead. A bitter JFK muttered in astonishment that Capehart was going to be known as a Midwestern Churchill for his accurate warnings. Having written a book as a college senior called Why England Slept, an account of Churchill's futile efforts to arouse his countrymen to the danger of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis before it was too late to avoid war, Kennedy was particularly stung that he himself was now in danger of being portrayed as some sort of American version of the appeasing British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain -- ignoring Capehart's Churchillian warnings about missiles in Cuba. JFK resolved not to let this image stick -- and it didn't.

And this is where Paul Ryan confronts a modern version of Capehart's problem.

By the end of those thirteen days in 1962, there being no talk radio or Fox News to suggest otherwise or raise questions about how the Kennedys and the Democrats could have gotten such a basic reality so terribly, almost tragically wrong, literally leading the nation and the world to the edge of a nuclear holocaust, JFK was seen instead as a tough, skillful and Churchillian hero for his resolution of the crisis.

And Homer Capehart?

With the liberal media of the day unchallenged in their determined effort to make JFK a hero, Capehart's "I-told-you-so's" were swept aside -- and he lost his Senate seat that fall of 1962 to a young Indiana Democrat state legislator named Birch Bayh, the father of today's now-former Senator Evan Bayh.

THERE'S A LESSON HERE in this usually forgotten episode of American history -- the Homer Capehart story.

A lesson especially for Congressman Ryan and his House GOP colleagues as Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, today presents his much awaited 2012 budget. According to the Wall Street Journal , Ryan's budget "would cut more than $4 trillion from federal spending projected over the next decade and transform the Medicare health program for the elderly" -- the latter move's political effect perhaps understated by the WSJ when it says Ryan's audacious plan "will dramatically reshape the budget debate in Washington."

This is a serious, real-time effort to awaken the country even further than it was in 2010. An effort, as Thomas Jefferson once said of the growing political struggle over slavery, to ring a "firebell in the night."

Paul Ryan, like Homer Capehart, is a soothsayer. Someone who accurately, cleanly and crisply can survey the landscape of the moment and understand the meaning of events. It is a role for which one is rarely if ever appreciated at the time.

Winston Churchill is perhaps the all-time champion when it comes to this almost-never appreciated-except-in-hindsight talent. It is said that on the night in September of 1938 that the news of Chamberlain's "peace-in-our-time" Munich pact with Hitler reached London, Churchill passed the open door of a bustling restaurant in the exclusive Savoy Hotel. Hearing the sounds of clinking glasses and laughter from the oblivious crowd of upper class Brits, many of whom had spent the 1930s ignoring Churchill's repeated warnings, Churchill paused for a moment to gloomily take in the scene.

Many in the British upper class agreed with Britain's Lord Maugham, who haughtily dismissed Churchill as an "agitator" who needed to be "shot or hanged" for his obstreperous opposition to Chamberlain's repeated appeasement of Hitler in the lead-up to Munich. Watching the diners drink fine liquor and eat expensive, plentiful food Churchill quietly brooded aloud to a colleague: "Those poor people. They little know what they will have to face." When the horror Churchill foresaw finally came -- World War II and specifically the Blitz, the bombing of London by the Nazis -- over 20,000 Londoners were ruthlessly slaughtered over 76 nights of bombing, with a million homes destroyed or damaged. Whether that number included anyone dining in the Savoy that September night of 1938 will never be known. That those Londoners who managed to survive the war later deeply regretted not paying attention to Churchill is now well-recorded if deeply, disturbing history.

Like clockwork Ryan is being attacked for his stark attention to the facts on the ground regarding the deficit and the American economy. Although much younger than Homer Capehart, this fellow Midwesterner's vision about what lies ahead is just as sharp and clear as was Capehart's about what was brewing in Cuba. "There is nobody," Ryan said on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace, who is "saying that Medicare can stay in its current path. We should not be measuring ourselves against some mythical future of Medicare that isn't sustainable." Already Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen, a key architect of the Democrat's 2010 defeat as the then-head of the Democrats Congressional Campaign Committee, thinks the way to recoup the Democrats' losses is by going after his House Republican colleague for "shifting the risk and burden of rising health-care costs to seniors on Medicare….you're on your own with the insurance industry."

This, of course, is the standard "Republicans want to throw grandma in the snow" argument. It is the domestic version of the "warmonger" argument that was hurled at Homer Capehart in 1962. Not to mention Winston Churchill before him and Ronald Reagan after him.

Make no mistake, Paul Ryan has this argument dead to rights. So, alas, did Capehart on missiles in Cuba. But there is a huge difference between being right and being able to get the right thing done -- and particularly getting the right thing done in time to avert calamity. Homer Capehart was right. But he was unable to prevent what exploded into the Cuban Missile Crisis. Winston Churchill was right. But having spent the last five years futilely warning his countrymen of what lay ahead unless they changed course, he would not hold events in his hands until almost two years after that fateful night at the Savoy Hotel. By then Churchill was there to rescue his country from an all-out war that was already terrifyingly well-in-progress.

America is now sniffing at the edges of economic calamity. States teeter on the edge of bankruptcy, and the ruin of both Medicare and Social Security loom. Inflation is on the march. Paul Ryan's "missiles in Cuba" is precisely a sharply accurate view of what will happen if the Obama White House and its left-wing allies carry the day. He may well wind up being the most honored man of say, 2075 -- but in 2011 Obama and company are prepared to come down on him -- and anyone who stands with him -- like a political ton of bricks.

WHICH IS PRECISELY WHY the importance of conservative media. In 1962, not only was there no media infrastructure to look into Capehart's allegations in any serious way. There simply was no intent whatsoever to give him the time of day. There was no Fox, no talk radio and William F. Buckley's National Review was still in its infancy. Worse, Capehart was viewed disdainfully by the Republican power structure of the day -- he had been a vocal opponent of Dwight Eisenhower's "Modern Republicanism" (what might be called RINO-ism today) -- surfacing issues of class, money, and power that would erupt two years later in the Goldwater-Rockefeller fight not just for the GOP presidential nomination but for control of the GOP itself.

Ryan is in a different position altogether today. The talk radio circuit is not only there to support Ryan -- to examine what he's doing and give him a platform -- if anything it is carefully scrutinizing his House Republican colleagues for signs that they are going "wobbly," as Margaret Thatcher once famously said to then President George H.W. Bush on the eve of the Gulf War. Ryan's baselines and his numbers and his budget ideas are already being given time on Fox -- tested, talked about, and debated.

In other words, this time around, facing yet another issue that is unmistakably black-and-white, another issue that has extremely dangerous implications for the country, reinforcements in the media are here as Ryan takes his budget issue public and demands that it be dealt with.

"We can't keep kicking this can down the road," Ryan said in his Fox interview, a remark that was noted here yesterday by my colleague James Antle. "The president has punted. We're not going to follow suit."

Will the GOP let the government shut down? All of it? Part of it? Just last night as this went to Internet print an agreement was said to be reached between House Republicans that was bannered as "more aggressive." Rumored: $12 billion cuts in a week per a hasty Fox News "Breaking News" bulletin. Will Ryan and House Republicans not just stand their ground but move out front and boldly reshape what has effectively been the major domestic debate of the last eight decades?

We will see.

But this issue is in reality about a war to save the American economy -- if not America itself. It is not simply about the humdrum my-eyes-glaze-over routine of a budget battle. Those missiles that Capehart correctly warned about as a looming disaster for America have been replaced by the incoming of a $14 trillion deficit that is every bit as dangerous and deadly in its own way as an incoming nuclear missile from Cuba would have been.

This is a very, very big deal. And 2011 is not 1962.

In spite of all the chop-licking by the Howard Deans and Chuck Schumers of the world, Paul Ryan is not going to become Homer Capehart.

There's too much at stake.

This time, the American people know too much.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.