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Scholars Put Historical Frame Around Current Governmental Shift

November 9, 2006 at 6:45 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now how history might judge the events of this week. Our trio of NewsHour regulars is here: presidential historian Michael Beschloss; Ellen Fitzpatrick, professor of American history at the University of New Hampshire; and Richard Norton Smith, presidential historian, scholar in residence at George Mason University.

Michael, first, are there parallels to the Rumsfeld situation in history, where a cabinet officer became such a lightning rod the way this man did?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, maybe not a cabinet officer, Jim, but here’s what it reminded me of. In the spring of 1961, John Kennedy tried this invasion of Cuba, the Bay of Pigs, to depose Fidel Castro, which was run by the CIA. It didn’t work, some of them were killed, the invaders, some were locked up. It was a huge humiliation for Kennedy.

And Kennedy, it is said, called in the CIA director, Allen Dulles, who approved the plan, and also Dulles’ deputy, a guy named Dick Bissell, and Kennedy is said to have said to them, “Under a parliamentary system, I would be the one to go, but we don’t a parliamentary system in America, and therefore you two have to go.”

And, in a way, that’s what happened with George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld yesterday.

JIM LEHRER: Richard, what would you add to that?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: Well, I would look for a historical parallel of sorts. Michael would know much more about this than I, but let me take a stab at this.

At the beginning of 1968, Robert McNamara, whose name we’ve already heard this evening, was a man who had become in the public mind synonymous with an increasingly unpopular war, a man who, by most accounts, was burned out, physically and otherwise.

And he left his job. He was replaced by Clark Clifford, who in some ways is sort of the Jim Baker of his day, you know, the quintessential establishment type, but used to be called the wise man. And the very first thing that confronted Clark Clifford was a debate over whether we should increase troops in Vietnam by 205,000. That was quickly decided — that was vetoed.

And then Clark Clifford orchestrated — there’s still a debate over to what extend with LBJ’s connivance — a whole change of policy in Vietnam, including direct talks with the North Vietnamese, the bombing halt. And within a month, of course, LBJ declared that he would not be a candidate for re-election.

JIM LEHRER: So you smell the same thing might be happening here?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I think it’s possible. I think it’s worth looking for. And clearly, the Baker commission is being brought out by all sides now almost as a panacea, and that’s dangerous.

Rumsfeld's resignation

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Ellen, how do you see this, the Rumsfeld situation specifically?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK, University of New Hampshire: I think that the discussion that you just had on the program about trying to evaluate Rumsfeld's legacy really strikes me as deja vu all over again.

This is very, to me, reminiscent of the situation that Robert McNamara was in, late in 1967, when the war in Vietnam was going badly, the anti-war sentiment was growing at home. There was an active anti-war movement by that point, demonstrations. Many, many more casualties, of course, and one shouldn't overdraw the parallel with Vietnam.

But still, I think that many people thought, when LBJ fired McNamara, who was having his own doubts about the war by that point, and a fissure had developed between him and LBJ over the conduct of the war, that I think the anti-war movement thought, "Good, McNamara's gone. We will soon see an end to the war."

And Clifford came in, much discussion about, "Is he a hawk or a dove?" He said he rejected all comparisons to birds of any kind. And, in point of fact, what happened was that, despite the replacement of the secretary of defense, the war continued for another five years.

And so I think, in the whole discussion that you just played or had about Rumsfeld, you're seeing an attempt to assign responsibility already for a war that is not going very well, looking to the secretary of defense. There were five secretary of defense that served during the Vietnam War, from the time that combat troops arrived in 1965 until the fall of Saigon. And it's a position that draws fire in times of war, and that's what we're seeing, I believe.

Parallels in politics

JIM LEHRER: Michael, on this same thing, LBJ versus George W. Bush, McNamara in one case, Rumsfeld in the other, the other thing that's been suggested, that both LBJ and George W. Bush kept their lightning rod on the job longer than he should have. Do you see a parallel there?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think that's right. And in Johnson's case, he had this very close relationship with McNamara that went to the beginning of his presidency. When Johnson came in, he felt, "Here is Robert McNamara, one of John Kennedy's brilliant whiz kids. He must know things about foreign and defense policy that I, a former Texas senator who tended to specialize oftentimes in domestic programs, do not have."

So he was enchanted by McNamara. But by 1967, as Ellen said, McNamara was agonizing over the Vietnam War. His children were against it. Many of his friends were telling him, you know, "How can you be a part of this?" And Johnson said to friends, "I don't want another James Forrestal." He was referring to the first secretary of defense in the late 1940s who had killed himself because of the pressures of the job.

So he canned McNamara and hired Clark Clifford, thinking that Clifford would be a great hawk who would help him renew the energy behind the Vietnam War. So when Clifford did the opposite, it was a big surprise.

One other thing, if I might mention. Another parallel here is it's not often remembered, but in the winter of 1967 and 1968, Johnson's nemesis, Robert Kennedy, was thinking about running for president. Johnson wanted to do almost anything to head Kennedy off.

Kennedy came to Johnson and said, "I will not run if you will appoint a commission independently to look at the Vietnam War and suggest what to do." Johnson felt so strongly that he was worried that a commission would tell him to get out of Vietnam that he didn't take the deal, and Robert Kennedy ran.

Ruling from the middle

JIM LEHRER: Richard, let's move on to the other huge thing, of course, this week, that led, of course, possibly, to Rumsfeld's departure, and that is that we now have divided government again in the United States of America. What can we learn from looking back, as to what we now have again?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, each party, in a sense, one is licking its wounds and one is celebrating its triumph. Each of them has been given an opportunity. I mean, the Democrats clearly have an opportunity to demonstrate that they're the Bill Clinton party. You know, historically, I think the real winner this week is Bill Clinton.

JIM LEHRER: Bill Clinton? Why?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, because we often talk on this program about presidential legacies and how they get determined, how fluid they are, and how sometimes it may be years and years before you can get a real fix. The real issue when Bill Clinton left office was whether the Democratic Party in a permanent way had been transformed by the Clinton presidency, the so-called New Democrat with fiscal responsibility and a kind of muscular foreign policy...

JIM LEHRER: Ruling from the middle, rather than from the extreme or the left?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think we saw the Democrats veer off perhaps more to the way their instincts were, toward the left, and George W. Bush and those around him were able to exploit that, particularly after 9/11.

I think what this election does for the Democrats -- first of all, for the Democrats, it gives them an opportunity, particularly with a new crop of moderate and relative conservatives, to reclaim plausibly the middle of the road. And if they succeed at that, I'm telling you, Bill Clinton looks like a prophet with honor.

JIM LEHRER: Ellen, do you see it the same way?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I guess I -- it's an interesting point that Richard is making, well-taken. But I see so much of this in terms of the Iraq war.

If you remember, two years ago, President Bush was telling us that he had political capital and he intended to spend it. Two years have gone by, and most of that capital has been spent on the Iraq war.

And I think one of the things that surfaced in this election, really quite different, I think, from the war in Vietnam, is that relatively early -- it has been three years, but the casualties are less and, of course, the scope of the war is much different -- the American people have expressed discomfort with the direction that the war is moving in.

And the Democratic Party will now be in a position to investigate the conduct of the war, look into waste and corruption. This is happening in a compressed time frame that I think is going to be a very salient feature of the politics of the next two years.

Divided government

JIM LEHRER: But when you look back, Ellen, at what at times -- comparing it -- we've had all-Republican governments. We just finished that, as of Tuesday. We've had all-Democratic governments in the past. I mean, now we have divided government again. Is there any simple record to fall back on that divided governments tend to get more things done or less or whatever?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Again, I think that the analogy sort of falls flat, in the sense that we could look to 1966, for example, when, in that midterm election, the Democrats lost many, many seats in the House and some in the Senate, as well.

And in a lot of ways, what happened at that moment was that a lot of the steam went out of the "Great Society." Johnson really faced at that point a significant reversal. That was psychological victory for the Republican Party. And the discomfort with the direction of his administration, of LBJ's administration, with the war in Vietnam became very clear at that point.

JIM LEHRER: So it depends on what your perspective is politically as to whether that was a good thing or a bad thing, though, right?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Correct. Not weighing in on that question, it does put the administration in power off-center.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Michael? How would you assess divided government versus one-party government, just as a matter of history?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Yes, I guess I would see it differently. Because if you look at history, two times since World War II where we've seen a change like this, the Republicans took Congress in 1946 after 16 years and then, in 1994, of course, the Republicans retook Congress after 40 years. Each time what happened was the Republicans overreached.

There's something that happens to someone who's a senator or member of Congress when you're frozen out of power for a decade or more. You get frustrated. You wake up at 2:00 a.m., you know, thinking, "Gee, if I were in the majority, this is what I would do on day one," and those don't tend to be rather modest things.

So if the Democrats are able to restrain themselves and be a disciplined, moderate party, it might happen, but history certainly doesn't suggest that it will.

JIM LEHRER: Richard, before we go, I have to ask you, you know, George Allen conceded this afternoon. And because of that, there's now a majority of -- the Democrats now have the majority control of the Senate. Somebody suggested to me this afternoon that one word changed this whole thing, when he used that word, "macaca." If he hadn't used that word and the way he used it during the campaign, he probably would have been re-elected, and we probably would still have a Republican Senate.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: You know, 130 years ago, James G. Blaine was tired at the end of a campaign and listened as a bigoted Protestant clergymen said that he didn't have to worry, they weren't going to vote for the party of rum, Romanism and rebellion. And it got picked up in the press literally the next day. It cost Blaine the state of New York; it cost him the presidency.

But I think Allen might have gotten away with saying the word. What's different now is the blogosphere, because there's no such thing as privacy or relative privacy. There's a camera there, and there is, you know, universal wired-for-sound system that, within minutes of anyone saying or mis-saying anything, it enters the political bloodstream.

That's transformed our politics in ways that I think we are only beginning to come to terms with. Certainly, George Allen is only beginning to come to terms with it.

JIM LEHRER: That's right. And eventually, historians like you all are going to have to come to grips with what happened with this word and this end result. And thank you all three for sharing your thoughts as of now. I know it's difficult to do this early the game, but thank you all three.