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.