Hands clasped behind his back, he was a silent silhouette as he gazed out the window overlooking the Washington skyline.
Hearing our entrance, former President Richard Nixon turned and crossed the room to greet us. “You didn’t all go to Harvard, did you?” he asked with a smile. None of us had, something that clearly appealed to the graduate of Whittier College. Ironically, the only Harvard graduate in our midst was Hugh Hewitt, a Nixon aide (and ex-Reagan aide as well) who today is a radio talk show host.
It was July 1987. In a rare Washington visit to attend the funeral of Arthur Burns, a former Federal Reserve Board chairman who had also been the President’s friend and economic adviser, word reached the Reagan White House political staff that Nixon would like to meet with us.
Shuttled from the White House over to a nearby Washington hotel to avoid press attention, all of us in our early thirties, it would be a moment to remember. Scheduled for a half hour, the meeting went almost two. The topics ranged far and wide, with Nixon’s complex personality, keen political understanding and mastery of world affairs all on display. Topics included current events (the Iran-Contra affair was then unfolding on the nation’s television screens and Robert Bork had just been nominated to the Supreme Court) the upcoming 1988 presidential campaign, the 1960 election, and the U.S. relationship with the Soviet Union.
The conversation began with the just completed appearance before the Iran-Contra congressional committee of Admiral John Poindexter, Reagan’s fired ex-national security adviser. In the typically over-heated quest to get Reagan’s head, the committee had heard the startling confession from Poindexter that it was he who had authorized using the trading of arms for hostages as a way to fund the Nicaraguan contras. “The buck stops with me,” the fallen Admiral had confessed, instantly removing Reagan from the political noose Democrats were fitting for him. Nixon was delighted. He made a fist and jubilantly punched the air: “They were hanging crepe in the Washington Post newsroom when they heard that,” he said, clearly savoring the disappointment of the liberal newspaper that had played the central role in his own downfall. Discussing the difference between the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page and its news columns, it was apparent that Nixon was no fan of the Journal‘s then-Washington Bureau chief, reporter Al Hunt. Of Bork’s already controversial reception by the Democratic-controlled Senate, Nixon worried that White House chief of staff Howard Baker would not be tough enough to win the Bork fight. “Howard’s a man of the Senate,” Nixon said, saying Baker, a former Senator from Tennessee and Senate majority leader, would be reluctant to do what Nixon felt was necessary to win Bork’s confirmation fight. But should Bork win, he cautioned, the jurist could turn out to be more liberal than Reagan thought he was. For a moment his mind wandered to his own appointment of Harry Blackmun to the Court. By 1987 Blackmun had long since become the target of conservative ire because of his role in the Roe v. Wade abortion decision. “Poor Harry,” Nixon said shaking his head. “All he did was write the opinion,” he mused, unaware of the degree of Blackmun’s enthusiasm for Roe that would be revealed in later years.
Asked what Reagan’s role should be as an outgoing president in the 1988 fall election, Nixon recalled his own 1960 campaign. Republicans were clamoring for the hugely popular outgoing President Eisenhower to jump into the Kennedy-Nixon race for then Vice President Nixon. What the country didn’t know, recalled Nixon, was that First Lady Mamie Eisenhower had gone to Pat Nixon, tearfully telling Nixon’s wife that Eisenhower’s doctors had told her the President’s health (Ike had already suffered both a stroke and a heart attack during his two-terms) was so precarious that extensive campaigning could kill him. Nixon rolled his eyes at the memory. Eisenhower himself had quite deliberately not been told this, and there was considerable feeling on Mrs. Eisenhower’s part that he would ignore his doctors even if they told him. It would be up to Nixon to convince Ike there was a legitimate reason not to spend the fall campaign barnstorming on Nixon’s behalf. Nixon agreed to Mamie’s request, walking into the Oval Office and telling a clearly baffled and hurt Ike that he, Nixon, had to win the campaign as his own man. Eisenhower’s thoughts of extensive campaigning for his Vice President would be scrapped. Still affected by the memory and doubtless the thought that Eisenhower’s popularity could in fact have carried Nixon to victory over John F. Kennedy, Nixon made the point that the similarly popular President Reagan should not be a stranger on the campaign trail for the eventual Republican nominee to succeed him. Reagan wasn’t — and played no small role in electing his own Vice President, George H.W. Bush, as his successor.
One by one, the man in American history who had been on more national tickets than any other man excepting Franklin Roosevelt (both ran for vice president or president five times) assessed the Democratic candidates of the day. Delaware Senator Joseph Biden, soon to gain prominence as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee presiding over Bork’s confirmation, was viewed as “dangerous” because of his rhetorical abilities. Amazingly, within two months of Nixon’s warning some of Biden’s rhetoric — found to be plagiarized from British Labour leader Neil Kinnock and the late Senator Robert Kennedy — exploded into the 1988 campaign’s early scandal, dealing a fatal political blow not to a Biden opponent but to Biden’s own campaign. New York’s Governor Mario Cuomo would never run, Nixon predicted, his voice dropping at the hint of some dark secret, “for reasons we won’t go into here.” Surprisingly, he predicted the rise of Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, a long-shot prediction in the summer of 1987 that would in fact become accurate with the Bay Stater’s eventual nomination.
On the subject of the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev and American foreign policy, Nixon spent considerable time. Gorbachev was a “master” when it came to the subject of arms control, Nixon said, recalling his own meeting with the new Russian leader. He paused, leaning in and smiling slightly as he lowered his voice. “And you know, I know a thing or two about arms control myself,” said the man who had debated or negotiated with Soviet leaders Khrushchev and Brezhnev.
THE MEETING, ONCE BEGUN, was surprisingly free and easy. Yet for me there was one unanswered question. Why, really, were we having this meeting in the first place? For the five of us on Reagan’s political staff it was a moment not to be missed. Richard Milhous Nixon, love him or hate him, was a living, breathing monument of American history. Controversial Congressman, Senator and Vice President, the Al Gore of the 1960 campaign against JFK whose supporters still believed in 1987 that Nixon had been cheated out of the presidency by stolen votes in Mayor Richard Daley’s Chicago and Senator Lyndon Johnson’s Texas, the only man to resign the presidency — what young political activist would not have been thrilled for private time with this legend? But what was in it for Nixon?
In person he was extraordinarily gracious, a gentleman to the core. Signing our copies of his memoirs, he quickly took charge of a mid-meeting photo opportunity. When it was my turn he placed an arm around my shoulder and clasped my hand, smiling into the camera. For the second picture we faced each other, both smiling. “Thank you for doing this,” I said, still amazed at the opportunity. He nodded and smiled back. It was quite apparent that he was devoting all of his considerable focused attention on the young people who were charged with handling Ronald Reagan’s White House political strategy. I was so struck by the occasion that on my return to my office I immediately sat down and wrote a memorandum to myself, recalling every last detail of the meeting for the record, from his clothes (a navy pinstriped suit) to his words to his looks (appearing tired at first — doubtless from the emotional tug of saying goodbye to Burns a day earlier — as the meeting moved on he became totally involved in the discussion and gained considerable steam.)
For almost two weeks afterwards I found myself wondering about Nixon’s reason for spending time with us. Out of the blue, the answer arrived in the mail.
The title of the book in the package was No More Vietnams. The author was Richard Nixon. After his abrupt departure from the White House on that hot, historic August day in 1974, Nixon began what was frequently termed his last “comeback” in politics by writing books. By 1987 he had written four. First, of course, were his bestselling memoirs, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. In quick succession Nixon had followed with The Real War, published in 1980, Leaders, a penetrating look at leaders he had met in his career (1982), and Real Peace (1984), the bookend to his foreign policy musings on war. But he sent none of these books. What he chose to send — with a personally autographed salutation — was something else. And in reading that something else that Nixon had, unasked, deliberately chosen for me to read I understood at once the reason for our meeting.
No More Vietnams was Richard Nixon’s memo to the future, his fifth post-presidency book published in 1985. Looking at a group of young thirty-somethings who were already working in the White House, he clearly wanted us to learn and benefit from his experience in global politics. Not because we were young staffers in the current White House but because he knew from his own experience that in some form or other we represented a future in which he knew he would not, could not, live. A future in which, he obviously believed, the principles he had learned in a career culminating with the presidency would still be every bit as operable as they were when he sat in the Oval Office.
In the aftermath of the heated reaction by liberals such as Senator John Kerry and others to President Bush’s recent speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, in which Bush took up the inevitable and repeated liberal comparison of Iraq to Vietnam and turned it back on itself, Nixon’s book is a reminder that George W. Bush is not the only president to have done so. The very first chapter in No More Vietnams bluntly challenges what Nixon calls “The Myths of Vietnam.” He lists 22 myths, ending with myth 22 that “life is better in Indochina now that the United States is gone.” Says the former president in a single, succinct follow-up sentence: “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
“The antiwar movement did not have a decisive effect on the outcome of the war from a military standpoint, but it had a decisive impact on the political battles that have been waged ever since,” says Nixon. “The intellectual and psychological damage…still poisons our foreign policy debates. Ten years later the same distortions about the war that made antiwar activists into heroes on the campuses are still accepted as fact on television, in newspapers, and in college classrooms. Before we can cure ourselves of the Vietnam syndrome, we must purge our diet of the intellectual junk food that helped make us sick to begin with.”
Nixon accurately fingered the real problem Americans had already faced in the aftermath of Vietnam and still face today, over twenty years after the publication of his book. He not only knew what that problem was but wanted to make certain that I knew it and did not partake of the “intellectual junk food” that Vietnam was an inevitable defeat and that the consequences of that defeat were somehow anything less than a bloodbath for the people of Southeast Asia. That intellectual junk food is today not only the source for the liberal template of Vietnam. It is the stark objective of liberals sentimental for the 1960s and early 1970s to use the same kind of intellectual junk food to create a Vietnam-like template for Iraq. In the minds of modern liberals — and as a college student anti-Nixon protester in 1970 I was briefly one of them — the Vietnam War era is viewed as a romanticized time of an immoral war led by amoral men that was ended by idealistic college kids as a lot of great music played in the background. And everyone lived happily ever after.
THIS FAIRY TALE IS, as George Bush was too polite to say, not just intellectual junk food. It was — and remains — a lie. In point of fact, the now romanticized McGovern campaign to defeat Nixon over Vietnam ended in a brutal 49-state defeat. Nixon, as he later admitted, did himself in by giving his enemies the sword of Watergate. Only then did Democrats gain the power in Congress to undercut the peace that Nixon had negotiated, resulting in the bloodbath that Nixon as president was scorned for predicting. The very core of today’s Democratic foreign policy ideas on Iraq have already been tried in Vietnam — and millions died as a result. A new group dedicated to the liberal Vietnam myth, billing themselves “Recreate ’68,” is so enamored of the fairy tale of “revolution” that it is using the violence surrounding the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968 as a rallying cry to bring the same ideas to the 2008 Democratic Convention in Denver. Heedless of history, they would implement the bloody failure of liberal Vietnam policy in Iraq. Intellectual junk food as foreign policy.
Richard Nixon’s No More Vietnams is today just as important a read as it was when he sent me the book in 1987. While it has many lessons about Vietnam and foreign policy in general that should be taken to heart, there is one that Nixon sought above all to make clear as he passed it down to the next generation.
“In Vietnam,” he writes, “we tried and failed in a just cause. No More Vietnams can mean we will not try again. It should mean we will not fail again.”
As Americans consider the upcoming report of General David Petraeus on the state of the American effort in Iraq, they could do worse than to remember what President Nixon had to say in this book, not to mention the essence of what he was communicating to Ronald Reagan’s young staff. Iraq or Vietnam, intellectual junk food is still intellectual junk food. And in some cases, it’s the same people serving it.
Message received, Mr. President. Thank you. You were right.
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