December 16, 1998
An historical perspective on the military attack on Iraq ordered by President Clinton. Phil Ponce leads the discussion with four experts.
PHIL PONCE: Some context now to a day when foreign policy realities overtook domestic political considerations here in Washington. We're joined by NewsHour regulars presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss and journalist and author Haynes Johnson. With them tonight is John Dean, President Nixon's White House counsel. He's now an investment banker in Los Angeles. Welcome all. Michael, the president is under siege at home; he makes a foreign policy decision of this magnitude. Seen anything like this before?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: We saw it in October of 1973. That was a time when John Dean's old boss, Richard Nixon, was in the middle of the Mideast war between the Israelis and the Arabs. The Soviets were threatening to inject themselves with nuclear weapons, and at the same time, Nixon committed the Saturday Night Massacre, firing the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, and there was an absolutely loaded atmosphere in Washington. Nixon went into a press conference the next week and was battered with questions from reporters. Were you doing this to save your political skin? Were you able to function? Nixon tried to divert them by saying I inherited a quality from my old Ohio father - the tougher it gets, the cooler I get. For the next year, there was a great suspicion that Nixon was going to in some way exploit foreign policy or military action to save himself from Watergate. And in August of 1974, just before Nixon resigned, there was a story that his Secretary of Defense had issued an order that if Nixon should order the use of some kind of military force, those in the Pentagon concerned with this should check with the Secretary of Defense first. That shows you the degree of suspicion about Nixon. This went on later in history, the best example, 1980, the alleged October surprise, the suggestion that Ronald Reagan had made a deal with Khomeini to win the 1980 election.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Dean, take us inside the White House. How does the president sort of weigh these competing considerations and the questions that that inevitably can follow when a decision of controversy was made?
JOHN DEAN: I think that's one of the most striking things that were seeing right now. Back pre-Watergate if you remember, the burden used to be on those outside to show the president was doing something wrong. And he was really given the benefit of the doubt. So his internal workings weren't even questioned. Post Watergate we have been very much present today in the statements, we have the assumption that president's is behaving. We have the "Wag the Dog" assumption from a popular movie, and really the doubt has changed, so I think that's one of the real significant changes. I wasn't involved directly with the National Security Council, but I certainly saw the processes work. And it just doesn't happen the president can one day decided he was to start hurling hardware across the globe and start the military conflict without really it being processed through real bureaucracy that visit work.
PHIL PONCE: Haynes, how about that, has the equation changed? As the landscape change now, where president, his motives are subject with something like this is taken --
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, totally. You go back to just what Michael and Mr. Dean are talking about. This is a difference time in which were operating. It's much more partisan. It's much more suspicious. It's much more hostile. There is assumption of wrong on the part of the executive to start with. That's venture almost for generation in and go back to -- I remember when Mr. Nixon said the truths in Cambodia, remember, to get the enclaves. In the right away the actions your home, the peace demonstrations, there were rallies at Kent State, and the shootings occurred at Kent State. See Sunday's two things coming together. In the old saying about trust is the point of the realm -- and that's what's been broken, and it's a heart of the situation facing this president. I don't think we've seen anything comparable to this though on the eve of the impeachment of a president of the United States when you have this -- all of a sudden the airwaves are being dominated -- world talking about -- even as we speak, there's military action going on. That's something that is in the history books.
PHIL PONCE: Doris, any instances where high-ranking member of Congress, I mean today Sen. Lott came out with the statement of opposition regarding the timing, any precedent for something like that?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, you've had sometimes congressmen are senators questioning of president's policy. Indeed, Abraham Lincoln, as a congressman, questioned whether President Polk in sending troops into Mexico had actually provoked a war, but he lost his congressional seat is a result of that. So usually there is this tendency that when the troops are in harm's way as everyone has said today, to somehow rally around the flag. It was interesting, I think, is when you look at this cliché that presidents like to somehow insight foreign adventures to cover up domestic and problems, that's happened very early their history. I mean, is very few cases were you can see that. On the contrary, presidents domestic dreams have usually been undone by foreign adventures. World War I ended the progressive dreams of the Democratic presidents. The Korean War ended the fair deal for Harry Truman. Vietnam certainly destroyed Lyndon Johnson's dreams for the great society. So it's usually goes the other way, but what you do see happening sometimes when there's a collision, history may regard it badly, even if people of the time do, look at the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Now people question whether or not President Johnson, because he wanted to be a peace candidate, somehow incited an incident to make him look at the strong at the same time he was peaceful. Look at FDR, when he promised never to send voice into a foreign war in the 1940 election, people questioned whether he was just holding on his peace thing, even as he knew he was moving into World War II.
PHIL PONCE: Michael, even though this may not happen very often are, whether instances where it's where President has worked, successfully "used" for an incident to "take the heat off" was happening domestically?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: The only one they're really comes close that -- and I think it does speak to how noble, amazingly enough in these times - I think presidents really have been in history. His 1983 -- there was some question that Ronald Reagan -- after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon -- were there were upwards of 240 Marines killed -- within 48 hours there was an invasion of Grenada that attention away; there was some suspicion that the timing was not coincidentally. But, in general, the paranoid's idea that presidents are always sort investigated -- there's a number of people still think that Franklin Roosevelt deliberately instigated Pearl Harbor said she can drag United States into World War II. Some people believe that Ronald Reagan, as I was saying earlier, had people make a deal with Khomeni to delay the release of American hostages in Tehran to defeat Jimmy Carter. One of those stories has, I think, George Bush flying over in an SR-71 to Paris for a secret meeting. So, there's always been this strain. But if you look at history, it really has not happened much in reality.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Dean, how aware are presidents of history, of how their motives, how their actions are going to be perceived or interpreted.
JOHN DEAN: Well, I think certainly the President I know best, Richard Nixon, was very aware of history, very well read, as everyone at this table those, and prided himself on that knowledge and his sense of history. In fact, he did things with history in mind often down to last day of his resignation when he brings a photographer into the worst scene of his life. So I think presidents are. I think this President is very aware of his history as well and has a sense of what all this means.
PHIL PONCE: Haynes, we just heard the President's statement earlier explaining, attempting to explain what the goals were, why he was doing it -- the importance of statements like this in a time of crisis -
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, usually, almost always, the country rallies behind the president. He goes under the Oval Office, he speaks the country, and instantly Americans rally behind them. This has been diminishing, however, in a time in which we are so cynical about public life and particularly in this era. With the last time the president did this. It was on the eve of Monica Lewinsky's testimony before the grand jury. And then the Rockets were flying at terrorist camps, and there was a great deal of suspicion at the time. And I'm not suggesting that either one was ignoble, or it was mendacious. But there is that doubt, and this is the trouble, this is why we find ourselves in this extraordinary situation.
PHIL PONCE: Doris, have presidential statements in a time of crisis diminished in significance or in their aura?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: You know, that's an interesting point. I think in some ways the ability of a president to rally in entire nation to the collective sense of what he is doing has diminished. We see them so often speaking -- it's not an unusual event, as it used to be. Roosevelt only gave 30 fireside chats, so that when he went on the radio, everybody gathered around and listened. We've seen President Clinton a lot. We see him on the news; we see him running around. So I think that loses some of the power. But, interestingly, think the last part of his speech when he addressed the timing issue showed that he felt compelled to explain -- even though he didn't say it -- that this timing wasn't because of impeachment.
PHIL PONCE: And speaking of time, were out of time. Doris, gentlemen, thank you all.