Others will have clearer memories. I was a wee lad when Gerald Ford was president. I remember one thing - Ford and his wife, Betty, descending from a tour bus in La Mesa, California for a campaign stop. I was with my hardline Republican parents. There was a large crowd and I remember only a blurry, distant figure waving to the crowd, and then a thankfully brief, echoing-microphone speech. My family has always treated Republican presidents and presidential candidates as minor deities. I was apparently supposed to feel this moment as... momentous.
In retrospect, Ford was decent and the most respectable Republican president in my lifetime. Perhaps he was wrong in terms of policy, but much of what he had to do was cleanup after the Nixon administration. Perhaps he was wrong to pardon Nixon. Frankly, however, my own view is that Nixon was much less of a moral disaster in light of the current Bush administration.
The comparison is apt and ought to be discussed more publicly. I don't mean this solely in terms of comparing the Iraq War to the Vietnam War and the multiplying scandals of the Bush administration with Watergate. I mean this in terms of examining ourselves. I just mentioned that Nixon seems less of a disaster - a "long, national nightmare," as Ford put the events - than the current administration. But wasn't there much more of an outcry in the early 1970s compared to today? Are we the public inured to presidential and partisan scandal, high crimes, and disastrous policy?
Think about this. The Vietnam War (or, as the Vietnamese say [and, likely, Iraqis], "the American War") has had lingering effects. Although debatable, it is widely perceived as the only American military loss. The American right has always had a difficult time examining Vietnam as a case study in hubris and fallibility. They've told themselves the story of an American citizenry that doesn't know what's good for the country, while they do. The unpopularity of the Vietnam War was based in ignorance, they think, just as is the Iraq War's unpopularity. The lesson they've learned from Vietnam, then, is not one about hubris. It is about how to quell discontent within a weak population when it comes to a war that they will carry out by nearly any means necessary. Loss is unacceptable, even if the planet goes down with their ship. The irony, of course, is that the loss becomes all the greater.
It was LBJ who carried out the policy of a "surge" in Vietnam. But wasn't the situation quite different? LBJ had no previous "Vietnam" with which to compare his own strained foreign policy. Bush does, of course. LBJ suffered not only politically, but personally, for a decision he eventually knew was the wrong one. Bush only knows suffering when others don't like him.
The lesson drawn by the current administration, however, is the wrong one. It says that the Vietnam War was lost because it didn't go far enough. Nixon, for all his faults, understood when the Vietnam War was lost. He attempted to save face for the US, and not for himself, at least in regard to the war.
Bush doesn't know what to do. He is about to make an LBJ decision. The difference is that he has the benefit of historical precedence in the Vietnam War itself. Some wars are simply lost. Vietnam was one; Iraq is another. What Bush doesn't have is a sense of what is good for the US and for the world, only himself. He reactively moves from one event to another with no logic except self-preservation and no plan. The "surge" itself may well be a response to coming Sunni unrest after the execution of Saddam Hussein.
Republican historians will say that Bush took the great risk of surging in Iraq. They will portray the act as a tragically flawed and unpopular but well-intentioned move to win a war. They will portray Bush as another LBJ - wracking his brains, examining his soul, falling into depression in the face of a huge and tragic moment in American history. That's already a false portrait, though. It's false because Bush has Vietnam, but has drawn the wrong lessons.
When we look back today at LBJ, Nixon, and Ford, we ought to be able to see that what we will now accept from our political leaders is wildly askew.
Well, there is the little matter of 200,000 deaths in East Timor.