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Scholars Put Historical Frame Around Current Governmental Shift

Scholars discuss how history will view the events of the week, from the Democratic takeover of Congress to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's resignation in response to the administration's handling of the Iraq war.

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  • 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.

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