Historical Perspectives: Secretary Rumsfeld
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
RAY SUAREZ: We get that long view from presidential historians Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith, the director of the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
Well, gentlemen, many times before in American history, there have been great events and public passions and concerns that find their expression in congressional hearings. And suddenly the spotlight turns and big stuff happens. Any come to mind as a parallel to today, Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, I think maybe the key point here, Ray, is that you’ve got a president’s person, Donald Rumsfeld, who is essentially being asked how high up did the responsibility for this go. And he essentially fell on his sword, which is usually what these people do.
For instance, in 1960, a U-2 spy plane was sent by the U.S. into the Soviet Union and crashed, caused a big international incident. Christian Herter at the time, the secretary of state was asked in sworn testimony. Who sent the plane; was it the president? Herter said no. He could have been sent to jail for perjury so great was his eagerness to protect the president from involvement. No hint of that here, but there was very much that sense that Donald Rumsfeld wants to make sure that blame goes no higher and the president’s protected.
RAY SUAREZ: Richard.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: You know, it’s interesting. I actually thought a little further back, back in 1951 when Harry Truman relieved Douglas MacArthur of command in Korea.
MacArthur came home to a hero’s welcome, and the parades in the street and talks of impeachment and then there were hearings conducted on Capitol Hill and they were thoughtful hearings, serious hearings conducted by serious and thoughtful people and they were about something important and that was the relationship of basically civilian control of the military, and in that sense today, in miniature, was an opportunity to strip away some of the cover to look at the military culture.
What happened, of course, in MacArthur’s case, he testified for three days, laid out his rationale for his conduct. He was followed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, led by the formidable General George Marshal. And before those hearings were over, could you already sense the air was going out of MacArthur’s balloon. The talk about impeaching the president was over and 50 years later there’s really not much debate over who was right and who was wrong.
RAY SUAREZ: You name a case, Richard, where the hearings, in effect, doused flames on what could be a runaway political problem for a sitting president. Are there times when a case can do the opposite and feed the fire and not end the speculation and keep an issue going?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Sure can.
RAY SUAREZ: Richard, finish up and we’ll go to Michael.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Certainly Watergate, which led in turn to the impeachment of President Nixon. And I also thought it is interesting. Listening to Senator Gramm today if you closed your eyes and I thought maybe he was channeling Sam Irvin, the same kind of folksy ferocity in his questions — questions that were not legalistic, questions that I thought in many cases you or I or anyone on the street might want to ask of Secretary Rumsfeld and others, I thought there was some very thoughtful exchanges, which also were called the Watergate hearings at their best.
RAY SUAREZ: And Senator Graham’s line of questioning got out on the floor what will likely lead a lot of newspaper stories and broadcast stories today and tomorrow that more pictures and possibly videos yet to come. Michael you wanted to say?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Could very well and Richard is right. The reason why Watergate flared is that unlike the other cases where you usually have the president’s man or woman come in and say it was my fault; the president was not involved. You had John Dean, Richard Nixon’s White House counsel saying for the first time Richard Nixon was at the center of the cover-up of the Watergate affair.
RAY SUAREZ: Let’s talk a little bit about the art and the craft of apologies, Michael. There have been a lot of them coming from the administration this week. At other similar times in history they have been either forth coming or not.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And usually not. The sounds like a distinction without a difference to outsider but presidents are very careful in the language they use. For instance, even in 2001, remember the affair when an American plane had a near collision with a Chinese jet or a very difficult problem that led to a big diplomatic problem with the Chinese.
The Chinese asked George W. Bush to apologize. He wouldn’t. When they finally settled it, he said he would only express regret. Usually presidents are very loathe to say to another country “I apologize to you.” For instance even Nixon and Watergate we were talking about a moment ago, to another country. After he was thrown out of office, resigned to avoid impeachment, accepted a pardon, he never apologized for Watergate. Just said he was sorry about his mistakes. That’s how deep the culture really is.
RAY SUAREZ: Richard, why is that term “apologize” so radioactive? It’s an expression of regret. If you use those words, it’s not considered an apology. Why is that?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, first of all, Presidents are much more likely to apologize for acts of other presidents than they are for their own. Bill Clinton was an apologist in chief. He went to Africa to apologize for American slavery and American complicity in apartheid. He apologized I think, quite rightly, to the victims of the ghastly medical experiments at Tuskegee. He went to Central America and expressed regrets about CIA actions in the cold war. But as we all know, he thought it much harder to put into words his regret or his apology of wrongdoing vis-à-vis Monica Lewinsky.
He is by no means alone in that. Ronald Reagan was famously stubborn. It often served him well. It didn’t serve him well in Iran-Contra. It got to the point where in the spring of 1987 a White House speechwriter named Landon Parvin came up with a crafted formula where Reagan told the nation in television that in his heart, his intentions, he believed we never traded arms for hostages. The facts proved otherwise. So it was an apology of sorts but thread through the needle of self-justification.
One reason presidents do not apologize is they’re not acting as individuals. They’re acting as the personification of a state. If Dwight Eisenhower had apologized for the U2 flights over the soviet union or American surveillance, that might have started a whole chain of events that might have undone that surveillance. A president is not under at liberty as the rest of us are for something we’ve done wrong, to apologize.
RAY SUAREZ: And Michael another motif of these kinds of historical events, there is an expectation that somebody pays the price by losing their job in many cases, in this particular case, the Bush administration is saying that is not going to be part of this. Have there been times where that does end the controversy? Some heads roll and we move on?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely. Presidents try to do that. Nixon tried to keep on stemming the flood of Watergate, for instance, he fired his top aides, Halderman and Ehrlichman. That did not work. Ronald Reagan fired his chief of staff, Don Regan. That to some extent stopped the antagonism of people against Reagan over Iran-contra. So there is that temptation. But at the same time if you have got someone essentially out there saying the president is not involved, spare him, it is very hard for the president to say this guy should be canned.
RAY SUAREZ: Is there a virtue in sticking with your people, Richard?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I guess it depends on your people. I think lesson of all this is confession is good for the soul everywhere except in Washington.
RAY SUAREZ: Michael, Richard, thank you both.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Thank you.