January 30th, 2008

Presidential style: policy, press, and the pull of personality

Some people have said that if the Iraq War had been instituted by a Democratic administration, the Democrats would have remained behind it despite the setbacks encountered.

If history is any guide, that’s a false assumption. Once again, the history that guides us is that of Vietnam.

The first act of our most intense involvement in Vietnam—the sending of US advisers and then the wholesale commitment of US combat troops—was planned and executed by two successive Democratic administrations, Kennedy and Johnson. And yet the press and Congress, and then the American people (scroll down for the year-by-year Gallup Poll chart of public opinion on Vietnam), turned against that endeavor, most particularly in 1968 after Tet.

Not only was a Democratic President in office until January of 1969, but the Congress was heavily Democratic all those years (see this for the composition of the House and this for the Senate). And when I say heavily, I mean heavily.

It was a hugely Democratic Congress and MSM that turned on the war even during the years when Democrats were completely in charge of the show. I have a theory about what happened—although, like most theories about history and “what might have been,” it can never be tested. I believe it had at least partly to do with the fact that Lyndon Johnson was never a popular President.

You might ask what I’m talking about. Johnson must have been popular—after all, he was elected in 1964 by the greatest landslide in history, measured by the percentage he received of the popular vote.

But Johnson was very lucky in that his opponent in that race was one of the poorest Presidential nominees ever, Barry Goldwater. Johnson’s ad campaign against Goldwater was hugely successful in painting him as a trigger-happy fanatic (and if you think today’s campaign ads are unfair, get a load of this):

But Goldwater was also rejected by the public for bona fide reasons. He stood way to the right of where America was politically at the time, the composition of Congress being one indication of its liberal tendencies. The Civil Rights Act had just been passed, and Goldwater had voted against it because he felt it should have been left to the state governments instead. Johnson had a field day with this attitude.

Even Eisenhower, the respected recent Republican President, failed to endorse Goldwater—and his endorsement would have been far more important than Ted Kennedy’s today.

Johnson originally came to office as a result of John Kennedy’s assassination. My recollection is that Johnson was highly resented by the Northeast liberals, elites and otherwise, as well as the press corps, who had been charmed by the wit and style of Kennedy and felt the loss most poignantly.

For those who weren’t alive at the time, it’s hard to convey the charm JFK had; Obama can’t compare, nor could his brother RFK, who conveyed a certain tension and choppiness, as well as a darkness that JFK lacked. And even though charm is not the reason we, or the press, should be supporting Presidents or their policies, don’t underestimate its power.

I first heard the word “charisma” in connection with President Kennedy. He had more of it than any politician ever seen, before or since. He was quick, funny, urbane, smooth, handsome, elegant, and sharp. Johnson, on the other hand—despite a personality that was titanic in nature, and an ability to wheel and deal and manipulate on a grand scale—came across to many of the American people (especially outside of the South) as a cornpone bumpkin, slow and even stupid in contrast.

The media adored Kennedy and the camera loved him. You can see it in his press conferences; not just his own wit, but the ease and affability of the exchanges between the press and the President, and the lack of any sense of combat between them. Kennedy was their man:

I don’t have a clip of press conference give-and-take with Johnson. The following will have to do to express his vocal and gestural awkwardness and slowness:

President Bush is hated by some of the same people who disliked Johnson, and for some of the same reasons. In an earlier post on Bush-hatred, I wrote the following about Johnson:

I am old enough to remember the reaction among Democrats to Lyndon Johnson after Kennedy’s assassination. They detested him–his good ol’ boy accent, his picking up his dog by the ears, his showing off his surgical scars–man, they just hated him; he had no class.

The press and the public make decisions about Presidents and their policies on the basis of more than personal charisma. I am certainly not suggesting that the only reason that both press and public turned on Johnson’s Vietnam War policy was personal distaste for Johnson. It’s clear that Johnson was also out of his element in his role as Commander-in-Chief, and that General Westmoreland’s emphasis on body counts and attrition was misguided and wasteful. But the public and the press would probably have cut Johnson more slack if there had not been pre-existing personal antagonism towards him.

Johnson got a sympathy bump from the circumstances of his coming to power as a result of the trauma of Kennedy’s assassination, but he also earned resentment because of grief over that loss, and unflattering comparisons to his predecessor. Bush got a sympathy bump from 9/11, but the bitter residue of the contested 2000 election rankled.

Sympathy of that sort is bound to be temporary. It evaporates naturally over time, when the going gets tough.

And the going will always get tough in a distant and lengthy war fought for poorly-understood reasons, against an enemy smart enough and patient enough to use our own political turmoil and lack of staying power against us.

29 Responses to “Presidential style: policy, press, and the pull of personality”

  1. Teri Pittman Says:

    You are spot on with your analysis. The Kennedy folks despised Johnson too, and unfortunately for him, he kept most of them on for his administration. Add to that that he’d made more than one or two enemies during his time in the Senate and it’s easy to see why the press hated him. Keep in mind too that the Kennedy supporters blamed Texas for Kennedy’s death too.

  2. Dave Moelling Says:

    Part of Kennedy’s appeal was his youth (enhanced by selective media coverage). If Vietnam was important, he was trusted in part because he was looking forward. He could get away with a lot (bay of pigs, no real civil rights program) because of this presumption of youthful progress. This also contributed to a sense of easy jobs. Drop a few advisors in, use the CIA but avoid the WWII/Korea slugging matches.

    Johnson got stuck with the Vietnam slugging match. He knew from past experience that war did not usually go easily, although he was not cut out to be commander and chief. Had Kennedy lived, I’m not sure he would have been as resolute as Johnson.

    If we look at a President Obama, he certainly would wear the Kennedy Mantle. He also has absolutely no experience with tough problems, but would be able to spend some good will in trying.

    A President McCain would look old and feel old to the public. His angry man personality would not engender support from other politicians or civil servants. He would be able to take fast, decisive action but would not be able to count on long term support.

    The hope was Fred Thompson would use his acting skills to bring that to the table, but he didn’t have the desire to take it all on.

  3. Karen Says:

    Excellent post. Well written and thoughtful. I couldn’t agree more.

  4. DonS Says:

    JFK was also a lightweight who couldn’t push his agenda–unfortunatly something that can’t be said of LBJ. JFKs lack of executive experience no doubt played a part in this.

  5. Danny Lemieux Says:

    Your post reminds me of a comment I received about GW Bush during his first presidential campaign from a Northeast Darien, CT multi-millionaire – an old family trust-fund baby who inherited everything he had. When asked why he didn’t like George Bush, his comment was “I just don’t like the way he prances around in jeans”. That was it. Idiot!

  6. Thomas Says:

    “The Civil Rights Act had just been passed, and Goldwater had voted against it because he felt it should have been left to the state governments instead.”

    That and he said it would be another expansion of the role of the federal government… Re: camel’s nose in the tent. I’d say he was vindicated on that point. The feds used racial discrimination as an argument to roll back the notion of a right to privacy in business affairs. Recognition of such a right hardly exists today / it worked this third time. Similar progressive pushes were made during WWI and the depression / New Deal but the public pushed back after the crises were over… Whereas today, we mostly just accept any federal / administrative law interference in private business.

  7. stu Says:

    Notwithstanding his charisma and the adoration of the press, Kennedy was a pretty conventional politician without any great liberal agenda. His timely reduction of tax rates was his greatest accomplishment, as it sparked economic growth. He also nominated an outstanding conservative to the Supreme Court, Byron “Whizzer” White.

  8. expat Says:

    Kennedy was also helped by Jackie. She was cosmopolitan and stylish, but she devoted herself to restoring the White House. This was the couple that accompanied the boomers through high school. Their Harvard connections appealed to the college bound. The Peace Corps appealed to the altruism of a pampered generation. Johnson just didn’t have this dream factor, and then he started sending our classmates to a war we didn’t understand.

  9. harry9000 Says:

    I’m sorry for the OT guys, but you gotta get a load of this:

    http://www.brattleboro.com/

    Is this a case of BDS or what?

  10. Tim P Says:

    While the BDS crowd still claims that Bush stole the 2000 election, look at the 1960 election for a case study in a real stolen election. Furthermore, Nixon, of all people had enough class to not take it to court or make an issue out of it because it would have been divisive for the country. Contrast with Gore.

    The bottom line seems to be that unless you’re east coast & ivy league educated elite, you can’t possibly measure up. That sentiment seems to be as strong today as it was then, and as absurd.

    As for brattleboro, who cares? Mean little people making a mean little gesture. It’s more indicative of their lack of character and class than anything else.

  11. Perfected democrat Says:

    And note this from Atlas Shrugs site:

    City Calls Marines “Unwelcome Intruders”

    SAN FRANCISCO – The City of Berkeley, California has passed two resolutions attacking the United States Marine Corps, calling the Marines, “uninvited and unwelcome intruders in the city.”

    The Berkeley City Council voted to condemn the Marines on Tuesday night (January 29th) as part of a campaign by anti-war activists to shut down a U.S. Marine Recruiting Center located in the city of Berkeley.

  12. Recruiting Animal Says:

    Kennedy was always cheerful and smiling. This would seem to be a great part of his appeal. Obama is young as well but earnest. So he isn’t really like JFK. Caroline Kennedy was a young child when her father died so she might not be that qualified to make a comparison

  13. harry9000 Says:

    Oh, here’s the money quote:

  14. harry9000 Says:

    Sorry, here it is:

    If Hitler were still alive and walked through Brattleboro, I think the local police would arrest him for war crimes,

    –Kurt Daims, petition organizer

    http://www.tehrantimes.com/index_View.asp?code=162186

  15. Jimmy J. Says:

    Your blog, with it’s posts on the 60s & 70s, is often like a tip toe through the tulips for me.

    I didn’t vote for Kennedy, but thought him to be a charming and reasonable President and C-in-C. Like most people, I was shocked and saddened by his assassination. I still remember where I was when I heard the news.

    I’ve often thought that the strategy that was used by the Kennedy Administration in the Cuban Missile Crisis was responsible for the failure of Vietnam. And that was a strategy of gradually raising the ante until Gorbachev blinked.

    Johnson kept most of Kennedy’s advisors on, particularly SECDEF McNamara. The idea of gradually putting more pressure on Ho Chi Minh until he agreed to leave the South alone didn’t work, but was pursued with extreme single mindedness. I believe that was because it had worked in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Johnson was a hard ball politician but he was a softball C-in-C.

    The other fear was that the Chinese would be drawn into the war if we hit the North too hard. We now know that China at that time was in no shape to get into the war or would have done so only as a last resort. We also know now that the Chinese and Vietnamese weren’t exactly on cordial terms.

    The JCS wanted to hit the North hard; cut all rail lines, mine Hai Phong Harbor, breech the Red River irrigation dams, bomb politburo headquarters in Hanoi, and other important targets. This could all have been accomplished in a month of intense bombing, but was not accepted by LBJ. Instead, he proceeded to direct the air war personally by picking unimportant targets, promulgating target attack lines to minimize collateral damage, pausing the bombing occasionally, and other self defeating tactics. Would Kennedy have done things differently? Probably not. However, his charisma may have kept people on board with his policies much longer.

    As the war dragged on with no seeming resolution in sight, the Communist propaganda emanating from the colleges began to be picked up by the press. Simple slogans such as : It was an Unjust War, it was an Illegal War, it was a Civil War, the North Vietnamese were Agrarian Reformers, the Viet Cong were Freedom Fighters, the U.S. was after Oil, etc. etc soon began to be accepted as truth by many in society and the press.

    We were defeated by clever propaganda and an unwillingness to use real force against the North Vietnamese.

    As for Berkeley and Brattleboro: They were hard left in the 60s and nothing much has changed since. They’re in a kind of time warp.

  16. Truth Says:

    the Iraq War had been instituted by a Democratic administration
    Neoeno this is metaphysical talk as who was first the Egg or the Chicken?

    Whoever was the instituted this war all we know after five years of invasion of a sovereign country according to recent ORB Survey Confirms 1 Million Iraq TollConfirms 1 Million Iraq Toll.

    Neoneo what’s your fellings about this human disaster?

  17. Tom Grey - Liberty Dad Says:

    Sorry Neo, when you say heavily Democratic, you’re not quite right in the following way: a huge number of “Democrats” were actually racist anti-Republican (party of Lincoln, the Occupier of the South) pro-America, pro-gun, pro-Christian, pro-victory rednecks.

    Remember, it was racist Dems voting Wallace in 1968 that allowed Nixon to beat Humphrey.

    LBJ’s unwillingness to “fight to win” was a huge problem.

    But the generals who, every month, argued that “victory was near” were also a problem, because it couldn’t be near without the closer to Total War that Jimmy J mentions above. Keeping collateral damage down lengthens the fight.

    The real choice in war: keep fighting or stop fighting and lose. There is no choice “to win”.
    If the choice to keep fighting is taken, how hard to fight becomes a second choice.

    I actually think McCain is a little wrong, and Rumsfeld was right, in the need for a “light footprint”.

    Only Iraqis can win in Iraq — and only S. Vietnamese could win in S. Vietnam (given the unwillingness of the US to destroy the North). Nixon saw this, and “won” in the ’73 Peace Accords, which were then thrown out by the anti-Nixon Dems.

    The Surge is only working today because of the 2006 Anbar Awakening, initially led by the Sheik who was murdered. With or without the Surge, if the US stays in Iraq as an ally, the anti-terrorist Iraqis will win — the Surge makes that win much sooner, like within the Bush term.

    It’s possible, even likely, but NOT certain, that more troops earlier with a counter-insurgency strategy from the beginning would have avoided much of the Iraqi vs Iraqi murder that has been happening up to know.

    But it is VERY likely that with more US troops earlier, the Iraqi Surge would NOT have been happening. The Light Footprint means the Iraqis have to accept their own responsibility, and have to change their own ‘neutrality to anti-American terrorists’.

    I do wish McCain would remind folks how the Dem Party voted to lose in Vietnam, after Nixon won in Paris in 1973.

  18. Sgt. Mom Says:

    I do remember the Johnson-loathing on the part of the press and so-called intelligentsia; I was just old enough to begin reading the newspapers and news magazines when he was in office. It was so incredibly far over the top,so hateful and irrational, that I – and I wasn’t any particular fan of him, then or now – that I wound up feeling rather sorry for him.
    My parents were rather mildly Nixon Republicans, so they were pretty immune to the Kennedy charisma. In retrospect now, it seems like everything about the Kennedy administration was a fake, except for Jackie’s aesthetic sense.

  19. Electile Dysfunction « Obi’s Sister Says:

    [...] my, has politics changed at [...]

  20. harry9000 Says:

    “I do wish McCain would remind folks how the Dem Party voted to lose in Vietnam, after Nixon won in Paris in 1973.”

    Nah. The “maverick” is too busy distorting his opponents stance on the issues.

  21. expat Says:

    Tom,

    I’m with you on the light footprint. At least, one has to entertain it as a possibility, rather than dismiss it as proof of one’s infallibility as a strategist. The more McCain harps on this, the more I worry about his ability to listen to anything that challenges his set ideas. We really need a quick thinker who can process new information and correct course.

    I notice the same thinking with regard to global warming. Just yesterday, I read a Reuters report that Putin is preparing to clean up on carbon credits. I’m afraid of the way McCain has settled on cap and trade because I think all these economic incentives could be the next subprime disaster.

  22. Ike Says:

    There are several types of intelligence, and journalists are obviously more inclined to excel in verbal skills.

    That’s why it’s easy for them to ridicule Bush, LBJ, or anyone else that doesn’t meet their lofty impressions of what “smart” means.

    I went into journalism with a background in hard science and math… and as a group they seem to revel in their ignorance of things that would make them “geeky.”

    Looking ahead at personality, here’s what I told my wife this morning:

    “Obama seems more palatable, because he wraps his socialism in a candy-coated shell of personal responsibility. Hillary wants to hold your nostrils and jam the spoon down your throat.”

  23. ad Says:

    We were defeated by clever propaganda and an unwillingness to use real force against the North Vietnamese.

    Jimmy, I don’t think that insufficient “real force”, that is, violence, was really the problem. To continue the fight an army needs resupplies of three things: men, money, and munitions. Cut off any of those, and it will eventually die. Grant it all three, and it can eventually recover from any adversity, even the complete destruction of its field army.

    The North Vietnamese Army’s men came from North Vietnam, which the US was not prepared to occupy, and the money and munitions came from the USSR and China, which the US certainly was not going to attack.

    In such circumstances all you can do is try to hold the line until the attacker despairs of victory and gives up.

    It is not impossible. If the US got to the point when all it had to do was throw equipment and the odd advisor to the South Vietnamese, it would simply be a question of who got tired of burning money first, America or Russia. And the US had more money.

    But the Administration implicitly believed that it could quickly win the war simply by attacking the NVA, bombing the North etc. (To be fair, the North Vietnamese might have chosen to give up after this. But there was no way for the US to force them to.) Having pledged to do the impossible, it failed and naturally lost all credibility.

    If you keep saying that you can see that the end of the tunnel is within reach, and keep being proven wrong, people will stop believing you, whatever propaganda your enemies use.

    You must be right eventually, but by that time people will have long ago stopped listening.

  24. Ymarsakar Says:

    Jimmy, I don’t think that insufficient “real force”, that is, violence, was really the problem. To continue the fight an army needs resupplies of three things: men, money, and munitions. Cut off any of those, and it will eventually die.

    Back when Johnson had the funds and the munitions, he still didn’t intend to use the requisite violence, probably due to Johnson’s belief, just like McClellan’s, that you could “make a deal’ with the North Vietnamese like you would any other politician.

    This is a totally separate issue from when Congress cut off the logistics to the South Vietnamese and American armies.

    Grant it all three, and it can eventually recover from any adversity, even the complete destruction of its field army.

    That only applies to the Vietnamese, who actually “cared”. The only three things that determine objectively who wins and who loses, are will, resources, and logistics. America had the last two for most of the war, while the Vietnamese had the first one in abundance but was lacking in the last 2.

    In such circumstances all you can do is try to hold the line until the attacker despairs of victory and gives up.

    Trying to hold a line in the sand is what causes people to lose wars. Once an opponent has conceded that all he can do is defend at this “line”, then they are going down in the end. Regardless of whether they are France with their Maginot Line or Hitler defending Berlin.

    And the US had more money.

    None of that matters when the money isn’t going to get there, and the money won’t get there unless you can get not just the resources but the means to move those resources combined with the will to move those resources.

    To continue the fight an army needs resupplies of three things: men, money, and munitions.

    Vietnam outran the needs of any single army.

    Jimmy, I don’t think that insufficient “real force”, that is, violence, was really the problem.

    In the end, the causality chain is that once you refuse to attack beyond a certain point, you start to lose the will to fight because you have already admitted that you can’t win. Once the will is lost, congress starts to cut funds and logistics. Once the resources and the logistics of the South Vietnamese were disabled, their will to fight became lost as well.

    So insufficient use of force against one’s enemies really is the lynchpin of the entire disaster called Vietnam. Once America stopped using violence because they no longer wanted to, and once Vietnam stopped using violence because they were no longer able to, the game was over.

  25. Jimmy J. Says:

    ad said:
    “To continue the fight an army needs resupplies of three things: men, money, and munitions. Cut off any of those, and it will eventually die. ” and: “The North Vietnamese Army’s men came from North Vietnam, which the US was not prepared to occupy, and the money and munitions came from the USSR and China, which the US certainly was not going to attack.”

    That was why the JCS wanted to cut the rail lines, mine Hai Phong harbor, blast the irrigation dams, and crater all the airport runways. To deny them resupply. You do know that Hai Phong was never closed during the war? There were French, German, Russian, and even American ships resupplying the North the entire time. Had we effectively made resupply very difficult (There could have been rudimentary supply by land from China, but it would not have been sufficient to sustain them.) and ruined the irrigation for the rice crops, the North Vietnamese would have had to reconsider their aims. Our goal was only to partition the country as had been done in Korea. We were willing to live with a free South and a Communist North. IMHO, it could have been achieved if Johnson had been bold and accepted the JCS recommendations.

  26. Oldflyer Says:

    Since 1960 was the first election in which I could vote (you had to be 21) and I was already on active duty, I followed the events of the JFK era with some interest. Clearly, the decisions that he made, or didn’t make, could very directly and most seriously impact my life.

    It was pretty clear then, and is abundantly clear now, that very few people in the country could know the real JFK; nor could we accurately assess
    his effectiveness. Between his formidable spin machine, the adoring press and his pet historians it has been extremely hard to separate fact from fiction.

    Of one thing we can be reasonably certain; just as there was no Camelot in Mediveal England there was assuredly no Camelot on the Potomac. But, legends die hard.

  27. Xanthippas Says:

    And the going will always get tough in a distant and lengthy war fought for poor reasons…

    Fixed.

  28. Ymarsakar Says:

    The Kennedy folks despised Johnson too, and unfortunately for him, he kept most of them on for his administration.

    This again proves Andrew Jackson right when Jackson set into American politics the “winner takes all system”. Once in office, you get rid of anything that even smacked of the former regime.

    This can have problems in peace time, when you get rid of experienced people solely for allegiance or affiliation issues, but it is critical in warfare when you are more worried about internal sabotage than enemy actions. Or when internal sabotage can do far more damage than any enemy action.

    On another note, there is no reason behind a war. The reasons for the war are written down and set in stone after the war is over.

    There may be motivations for war or peace, but there are never any definite reasons for it until after the war is won or lost.

    In the end, war is not really an Ivy League intellectual challenge. It is a thing of spirit, will, heart, and determination. Not a thing of bean counting and political scoring.

  29. ad Says:

    Trying to hold a line in the sand is what causes people to lose wars. Once an opponent has conceded that all he can do is defend at this “line”, then they are going down in the end.

    Not in the Korean War. And during the Afgan War no one attempted to attack Soviet forces in the USSR – it was enough to discourage them from sending forces south of that border.

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About Me

Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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