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Marion On August - 23 - 2011

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I admit, living in the UK has spoiled me rotten to the BBC’s political commentary. Their reporters and journalists are people who’ve covered the political scene since God was a boy, often working themselves onto the national stage by means of the provincial and local beat.

Granted, some are part of a political dynasty – in Britain, Richard Dimbleby’s sons,David and Jonathan, are inheritors of his mantle, but neither erupted on the national scene until they were mature men well past the age of thirty, and neither shouted out questions to a disgraced politician centering around a sports score, the way the scion of our greatest political commentator did.

The BBC employs real political journalists. It’s political “contributors” are seasoned strategists and ex-politicos, not socialites, social climbers and soccer moms, and certain not inarticulate sorority sisters.

And the historian whom they consult is Simon Schama, who is consistent, and who doesn’t spin against fact about which he’s written to score a point against a politician whom he thinks is “arrogant.”

I have read both Rick Perlstein‘s books – Before the Storm, which chronicles the rise of Barry Goldwater (and also how the Birchers infiltrated the Republican party) andNixonland.

This is why I was particularly shocked to see Perlstein wantonly revise history in this interview with Chris Matthews earlier this week. It was directly the opposite of what actually happened in the first debate of 1960.

Quite specifically, Kennedy didn’t blind Nixon with sweeping liberal confidence and rhetoric to the point that Nixon broke out into a sweat. The fact is, as Perlstein reports in pages 52-58 of Nixonland, Nixon was ill at the time of the debate and had a temperature of 101 degrees. To whit, the man was sweating before the debate even started, from fever, though it pains me to be seen as defending such an odious being as Richard Nixon.

But here are Perlstein’s own words from his own book – words that are not cherry-picked or spun:-

Nixon was knocking off states in the South at a handsome clip when he contracted a staph infection from banging his knee on a car door. His physicians counselled three weeks in the hospital. Newspaper journalists urged the honorable course on his opponent: to cease campaigning for those three weeks. The Democrat sent a get-well message instead. (And they called Dick Nixon the dirty one). Ill-advisedly, Nixon kept on knocking off states: Maryland and Indiana and Texas and California his first day out, Oregon and Idaho with a side trip up to Canada the second. The next day, between Grand Forks and Peoria, Richard Nixon caught a cold. Then as he crossed the tarmac in the rain, flew the red-eye to St Louis, and struggled to connect with a hostile Democratic crowd of union machinists on three hours’ sleep, the cold got worse. Then a scratchy-voiced peroration in New Jersey; then a hop to Roanoke for an open-air address that added another line to his crowded medical chart: a high fever, something to enjoy on the predawn flight back halfway across the continent to Omaha, Nebraska.

As the day of the debate approached, Nixon was swallowing drowsy-making antibiotics, but still losing sleep; fortifying himself against weight loss with several chocolate milk shakes a day, but still losing weight; losing color; adding choler. He looked pale, awful.

His staff offered practice sessions. Nixon barked that he already knew how to debate. He was underwhelmed by the event at any rate. “Television is not as effective as it was in 1952,” he had told a journalist. “The novelty has worn off.”

Kennedy prepared like a monk. The afternoon of the showdown, he capped off the last of the three intensified practice sessions with a fortifying nap, piles of index cards covering him like a security blanket.

While Kennedy slept, Nixon campaigned in front of another hostile union crowd. His TV advisers became increasingly frenzied as the appointed hour approached; they were kept away from him, and weren’t able to brief him on the debate format. Nixon took a single phone call of advice, from his vice-presidential candidate, Henry Cabot Lodge.

The hour arrived. For security, the candidates were driven directly inside the studio building. One wonders what distraction inspired Richard Nixon’s awkward egress that ended with his smashing his bad knee once more on the car door’s edge. His facial reaction was recorded for posterity: “white and pasty.”

Kennedy emerged from his car looking in a producer’s recollection like “a young Adonis.” (That the young Adonis, but for a dangerous schedule of pharmaceuticals, was sick as an old man was for future generations to find out.) He kept his suit fresh by slipping into a robe. He walked out onto a terrace, sunlight dancing on his skin, paced back and forth, all coiled energy, punching his palm with his fist: the challenger.

In the other corner, the reigning heavyweight debating champion, weihing in at –

(Eight pounds less than it took to fill the shirt he was wearing.)

His people had begged Nixon to let them buy him a new one. He stubbornly refused. An aide had slathered a species of make-up over a portion of his face – a product called Lazy Shave, cadged at the last minute from a corner drugstore, to cover up his day’s beard growth. The concession was no doubt ascribable to Herblock’s infamous caricatures in the Washington Post. They’d rendered Nixon’s “five o’clock shadow” a national laughingstock.

The panel of reporters introduced themselves. And Howard K Smith of ABC intoned, “In this discussion, the first of a series of four joint appearances, the subject matter, it has been agreed, will be restricted to internal, or domestic, American matters.” He called the Democrat to begin with his opening statement; and the Democrat opened up, staring stalwartly into the camera, with a sucker punch.

And they called Dick Nixon the dirty one.

“We discuss tonight domestic issues. But I would not want that to be – any implication to be given that this does not involve directly our struggle with Mr Khrushshev for survival.” Kennedy was bending past the breaking point the spirit of the two campaigns’ formal agreement to focus the first debate on domestic issues and talking about what Nixon was not yet primed to discuss: foreign policy. The distraction was brilliant. It left Nixon with two immediate choices – calling the foul and looking as if he were ducking, or letting Kennedy get away with looking like he was controlling the debate.

So Kennedy essentially pulled the 1960 equivalent of Sarah Palin’s infamous “I’m not gonna answer any questions, I’m gonna talk right to the American people.” Nudge-nudge-wink-wink.

Last November, the BBC aired a documentary about the debate. Its host and researcher was Andrew Marr, the BBC’s chief political correspondent, a man who would put any of our political pundits and commentators to shame.

Marr prefaced the actual debate, with background about how Kennedy, essentially, ratfucked Hubert Humphrey in order to win the West Virginia primary, by getting his operatives to push the lie that Humphrey was a conscientious objector during the second World War. The story stuck, a precursor to Lee Atwater’s assertion that perception is reality.

But more important, this is what Marr found out about that iconic first debate:-

When I met some of those involved, including Kennedy’s TV adviser in 1960, I came away freshly awestruck by his presentational audacity.

For instance, in that first debate, Kennedy politely excused himself for a “comfort break” a minute before the two men were live on air. He did not come back.

As the studio manager was counting down the final seconds to going live, everyone – Nixon included – was aghast. Just as the count ended, there was Kennedy, smiling at the podium. “Psyching” an opponent doesn’t get smarter than that.

And yet… Kennedy beat Nixon not simply with his ads, his sound bites, his jingles, the carefully posed photographs and the downright lies he told about his health. He beat Nixon by not standing for anything beyond rousing banalities.

On the “missile gap” with the Russians, Kennedy knowingly hyped the danger. Nixon, as vice-president, knew the real facts but also for reasons of national security, could not reveal them. (And Kennedy probably knew that, too.)

On the other great issue – civil rights – the Kennedy team sent one message to black audiences and another to middle America.

Did it matter? I came away thinking the mix of big money, smearing, a feel-good blur where policy should have been, and the selling of the candidate like soap flakes, added up to a fairly shameful record.

Even then, he barely won. The younger Nixon, who was liberal on race and more economically mainstream than he became, could well have made a good earlier president.

In office Kennedy made some terrible overseas blunders (though kept his nerve over the Cuban missile crisis) and was slow on domestic policy, particularly civil rights. Had he lived longer, I think he would have had a lower presidential reputation.

The 1960 campaign is not the story I had expected. It’s a far more interesting one. It has been obliterated by those images of the handsome young father and husband, then the young king cut down in his prime.

But today we live in a world that has become profoundly cynical about politics. I think we owe it to ourselves to look past those images and ask: aren’t there better ways of doing democracy than Kennedy’s?

So all Perlstein’s rhetoric that Kennedy swept Nixon into a sweat with his soaring and confident liberal punches was pure spin, delivered to a hack posing as a viable political interviewer and strengthening the assertions of a girl reporter so tongue-tied she couldn’t articulate a sentence clearly. Why? To spin pejoratively the current Democratic President as ineffective and – in Harriet Christian’s words, “an inadequate black man.”

If you want to know there “historian” Rick Perlstein stands on Obama, check this out. Troll along the commentary enough and get past the adolescent “I am Spartacus” shite, and you’ll find that what he hates most about the President is that he’s “arrogant.”

Well, Yankee Boy, I’m a Southern girl, and where I come from, “arrogant” is Northern for “uppity.” You’ll also find that Marse Rick lives in the President’s old Chicago neighbourhood.

So for insightful commentary, good old reliable (not) Chris Matthews gets a slip of a lass off the rag of Her Serene Highness Queen Ratfucker Omnipotent of Medialand and someone who’s clandestinely (unless you look at his Facebook page) hostile (and maybe racially so) to the President.

And you use them to compare him to FDR and Kennedy. FDR, born into American aristocracy, born to lead and rule, the liberal icon whom today’s EmoProgs conveniently forget did jack-holy-shit for African Americans – indeed, who compromised with the Southern tranche of a 70 plus Democratic Senate majority in order to pass social welfare legislation which denied any coverage to that racial demographic. The same FDR, the Japanese-Caucasian Alex Wagner should note, interned the Nisei in concentration camps during the second World War.

And, yes, Chris Matthews is right to point out that Richard Nixon, as President, wanted to effect employer-based universal healthcare … but was scuppered from doing so by Ted Kennedy in the Senate, whom he’d approached to help craft the legislation.

The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said that a person is entitled to his own opinion, but he isn’t entitled to his own fact. It’s scurvy enough to spin current affairs to suit a particular agenda; it’s worse to spin the past to suit the same. Even worse, is when someone who touts himself as a historian does this, as a means to achieve an end.

It’s not clever. It’s scurvy. And it’s the secular version of what David Barton is doing on the right, but for the same purpose.

Politics certainly does turn up strange bedfellows.

Anyway, for anyone who’s interested, here’s the first debate from the 1960 election, in its entirety:-

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3KTSomm9QYo&feature=player_embedded[/youtube]

27 Responses so far.

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  1. ADONAI says:

    I got no excuses for the Japanese American internment camps though. A huge black eye on FDR’s legacy. A huge black eye on this country.

    But it’s tough to argue about rights since we’ve never really had any to begin with. Just look at American history. Plenty of examples of just how much your rights mean.

    And as far as North vs. South, I’ll always be a country boy but the sorry state the South is in has nothing to do with Washington and everything to do with arrogance and corruption.

    I’m from Eastern Kentucky. Poverty is a pass time back home. And I mean real poverty. Not the poor people FOX News bitches about. Many of these people have never seen a fucking TV or refrigerator let alone own one. And it’s seen Southern Presidents, Northern Presidents, Democrats, Republicans. Not much changes.

    Hell, the last person to really give a shit about us was Bobby Kennedy and you know what they did to him. That’s why I carry a chip on my shoulder about both Parties. That’s why I don’t fully adopt the Democratic Party. They haven’t done shit to improve my world. Better my people. But I don’t completely blame them either because state government has so much to do with it.

    Can’t really speak for Virginia. I did attend their public schools for several years. Decent. Better than the Kentucky schools I went to later. Our state government has been an endless parade of bullshit since I was born. Papaw(that’s what I call my grandpa) says that not much has changed. So it’s been fucked up for awhile.

    North didn’t do this to us. It wasn’t half-assed federal policy that keeps us poor. And still we degrade. My hometown is almost dead. No one wants to be there anymore. Kids leave as soon as they’re out of school.

    I watched coal companies destroy my mountains. Rape them for what little coal was left. No one forced this on us. we gleefully signed up for it. Took the money and built a new school, some new roads, and that’s it. We traded the beauty that was all around us for some horseshit that was ours by right.

    I don’t blame the North for a goddamn thing. I blame the South. I blame them for selling out their future for a quick payday. For selling my people down the road to add another floor to their mansions.

    • choicelady says:

      But you have Antsy McClain and the Trailerpark Troubadors. And he LOVES Kentucky precisely for what it is. Extols it in “Falling in Love in America”. Give it a listen. I don’t know KY well, but what I do know is not much different from TN where I did live -- hardscrabble life, stupid ass politics, poverty up the wazoo. Maybe it’s not so much north and south, urban and rural as it is hill and holler. Makes a difference by inches whether you have access to “stuff” or you don’t. Jobs, health care, education -- you have access, you survive. You don’t -- you stay poor.

      We’ve changed nothing for most of the folks who have nothing. I remember a wonderful Black former miner who said as a kid in the 30s in his ramshackle tar-paper house in a mining town, there were three pictures put up by his mother, all of them cut out of the newspaper: Jesus, FDR, John L. Lewis. He said they did not know there was a Depression -- they had nothing and nothing about that changed. He got out and got access to stuff only by joining the military during Korea.

      The more things change, the more the same people get left behind.

    • KQuark says:

      Agreed on Japanese American internment camps.

      On the causes and the perpetuation of the Civil War I’m with you too. That South was definitely to blame

      On the reconstruction not so much you Radical Republican. 😉

      Remember I’m talking about the way the North treated the Southern people more than the leaders. I’m not even saying we should not have been tougher on some of the South’s leaders like Jefferson Davis, but not the military or the people. I do blame some of what happened in the South post Civil War on the way the North treated people. Ultimately the South should have gotten “over it”. Just giving one of the reasons they did not.

      Compare the aftermaths of the treaty of Versailles to the Bradly Plan. We treated the Japanese and German people and most of the military very well after the latter and the world was better for it.

      • bito says:

        Yes now we rightfully condemn the Japanese internments, but during the same era the CCC camps, schools and the military were segregated for millions of AA’s. During WWII blacks were the laborers, cooks, munition handlers no matter how many generations their families had been in the country.
        Japan had declared war on the US and they were Japanese. Was it wrong, was it unconstitutional? Absolutely. We’re people in the US frightened of the Japanese? Absolutely!
        My great-grand mother, a good German woman, went to her grave saying she was Dutch because of 2 world wars so she could get a job and not be discriminated against where she lived because she was German.

        Discrimination comes in many colors and it is wrong.

          • bito says:

            Well, now Em, I am concerned about you with a “spot on.” 😉 . Seriously, I have had family members ‘investigated’ for their German/Union/’Socialist’ leanings. We always like to think of us as the “melting pot” and we are for the most part, but just as now and the discrimination of Mexicans, Muslims….We can find the lowest denominator, as a country, at times. Some can understood as primal--” I’m threatened” most times it’s unfounded.

        • KQuark says:

          Absolutely bito and believe me the fact that Japanese did get reparations and African Americans never did is a sore spot with many in the African American community.

  2. agrippa says:

    Good article.
    Historians are not supposed to lie. Historians are supposed to rely upon evidence -- documentation and testimony. Then draw inferences, analyze and write a narrative.
    It is not that simple, as we have cultural truths and myths that hard, if not impssible, to dispell. And, those sources are supposed to open and available for double checking.

    And, there is peer review, before and after. If a historian misses documents, makes errors in inference/analysis, that will be pointed out to him.

    Perlman blotted his copybook!

  3. KQuark says:

    I appreciate the history lesson but I don’t think what Mathews did was an egregious as you are saying. Add Kennedy only won because of his father’s mob connections as well especially in the Midwest.

    No Keith Olberman when he talked about the aftermath of the Civil War said African Americans were persecuted longer because Johnson did not convict Southerners of War Crimes was absolutely revising history. (Olberman was making his hyperbolic “special comment” in response to Obama not prosecuting Bush.)

    The fact was after the Civil War “radical Republicans” penalized the white Southern people far too much. It allowed corruption to run rampant down south as white Northerners and Southern African Americans dominated Southern politics and industry. The white Southerners responded by forming the infamous KKK. Most reconstruction laws were repealed eventually as Southern whites took back power but that was the reason Southerners resent the North to this day and it took so long for African Americans to get protected rights in the South and the rest of the country for that matter.

    For KO to imply that radical republicans did not punish Southern whites was a much more egregious revision of history in my opinion.

    I always point out that FDR would be called a war criminal by the purists progressives for what he did fighting a secret war with the Germans and interning Japanese Americans. Of course Truman would be hanged by today’s left by dropping the two atomic bombs on Japan and starting what they would call the illegal Korean War even though it was a UN police action.

    • Marion says:

      I agree about Kennedy. He was ratfucking Hubert Humphrey in West Virginia before Nixon was even aware of the term.

      Your points make a great illustration for linear history. One of the lasting punishments meted the South was that, although the Northern industrialists stripped its natural resources, any investment in infrastructure was nil until FDR’s New Deal. My people come from Fauquier County, on the cusp of NoVA. My grandparents were one of a very few families in that (then) rural area who had running water, electricity and indoor plumbing in the 1920s and 30s. They were considerably well-off; but the majority of folk didn’t have those luxuries and most of the modern roads were not laid until the CC Corps were brought in.

      • bito says:

        I am a bit confused, exactly who stopped Virginia from building modern roads and furnishing their residents running water before FDR? The Northerners,the Federal Government? Did the Federal Government build the roads, water and sewage in Chicago, Toledo, Gary and Boston?
        “Northern industrialists stripped its natural resources”? What “natural resources” are you speaking of exactly that the industrialists stripped exclusively from the south? They stripped any and every state they were discovered, from coal in W. Virginia, Southern Illinois/ PA., KY…. to copper and iron and timber in the U.P. of Michigan/ Minn.
        Should we blame the banking crises on N. Carolina National Bank and the all of the South?

        • KQuark says:

          FDR did allot for the South with the TVA and such so I would not count him.

          After Johnson was voted out of office in 1866 the Radical Republican got into power and disposed of most governments in the South and installed first military rule which was rife with corruption. Carpetbaggers getting sweetheart deals for cheap land and it’s resources was part of that corruption. The reaction by the South fostered by resentment and I’m not condoning it was to create organizations like the KKK which resulted in the Jim Crow laws. My original post was how KO said that Jim Crow laws were the result of not punishing the South but there’s more evidence the opposite was true.

          Of course you are right about the industrialist but they also concentrated the wealth more up North which did help give the North a higher standard of living.

          There are always many reasons things happen and every time I talk about general concepts I never mean to imply these are the only reasons. The South was never going to accept the end of slavery and would continue to try and oppress African Americans no matter what. The way Radical Republicans acted just help them foster their resentment that much more. I’m just saying if the North had taken a more nation building approach like we did post WWII things down South would have progressed faster.

      • KQuark says:

        Oh and not saying it was a bad thing JFK won or that he was a bad president. But the margin of his victory was so tight that his Machiavellian campaign tactics worked.

        • Marion says:

          Yep. Chicago was the hanging chad of 1960, thanks to Richard Daley. The result was that close, that Richard Nixon was encouraged to demand a recount. He didn’t, and the rest is history.

        • Khirad says:

          It’s okay, I still don’t fully get what JFK was all about anyway. I’m of course glad he won.

          But he was way before my time. I know him as the icon, as the man who my parents recount when they recall the day he was shot, the guy who stood off the Cubans and talked about going to the moon and banged Marilyn Monroe, but his record as president itself remains rather foggy to me.

      • KQuark says:

        I knew you would understand the Southern perspective after the Civil War and to even imply the North was “too easy” on the South is totally misconstrued revisionist history by someone who put blinders on about the Southern perspective, like KO. But part of being a purist is looking at one side of an argument or in this case history. Not to let conservative ideologues off the hook they do the same thing viewing history. Like calling Hitler a left wing socialist.

        Bottom line after the Civil War the North punished the wrong people too harshly and the South’s cause to fight the Civil War was cynically amoral and based on economics.

    • Caru says:

      I agree on most counts there. Except that I strongly disagree with the both internment and the atomic bombings.

      The Korean War was justified -- as in: getting involved was justified -- for many reasons.

      • KQuark says:

        I did not mean to imply I approve of the Japanese American internment camps or the atomic bombings per se.

        The Japanese American internment camps was a horrible idea.

        I think the atomic bombings is a more complex issue and I’m still ambivalent considering because it was likely that 10 fold or probably many more people would have been killed on both sides (mostly civilians) if America and the Soviets would have had to invade Japan to achieve victory.

        You simply can’t look at history in a vacuum because the mores of the times do matter.

        I would not call any of these events war crimes given the greater context of the time but some purists don’t care about context.

        Other decisions presidents made in the 1800’s would definitely be considered war crimes today and some even considered war crimes back then like the conditions at the Civil War prison of Andersonville.

        • ADONAI says:

          We dropped the first bomb. Fine. Whatever. Your point about avoiding mass casualties on all sides is somewhat valid.

          Not so much with the second bomb though. It was unnecessary. Only dropped to prove a point to Russia.

          The day after the first bomb was dropped Russia declared war on Japan. Had we AND Russia invaded Japan the casualties on our side would have been greatly reduced.

          Japan knew this too. They were actually close to surrendering. Sent a letter to Washington and everything. Didn’t matter. Japan could have waved a giant white flag over their country and we were still dropping that bomb.

          If people want to call it a war crime, I have no trouble with it. It was unnecessary and overkill at it’s finest. What right did we have to unleash that on another city? Japan was dead. They were going to surrender.

          But we won. So we get to write the history books.

          • KQuark says:

            I think that was one reason, maybe even the main reason we dropped it. But after reading accounts on the Japanese side I’m not entirely sure that’s true. It’s not like the Japanese surrendered unconditionally right after the bomb’s devastation was known.

            I also don’t believe dropping both bombs was the reason Japan capitulated anyway. Add Russia declaring war on Japan and invading Manchuria to the mix and I think that’s when the Japanese Emperor decided to end the war. Again accounts of the time say Japanese military establishment and leadership though they could hold out longer for at least a surrender somewhat on their terms, which even meant keeping some parts of China they captured. They knew the US wanted no part of invading Japan because we were war weary as well.

            The irony was back then even though many scientists knew how the atomic bomb would change history, political leaders like Truman just viewed them as another weapon in the US arsenal, albeit the most powerful weapon.

            There is great uncertainty looking back in history especially when you are examining causes. Because you just never know what was in the minds of everyone who were involved.

            • KQuark says:

              Yup I agree the second one was probably unnecessary especially for the reasons I said and accounts of how the Japanese would of reacted are highly conflicting. I have to admit I really haven’t studied Truman that much.

            • ADONAI says:

              That is a good point KQ. We can’t really know for sure.

              Japanese accounts are conflicting. Even if the Emperor had surrendered whose to say a hardline faction wouldn’t have taken the capitol and continued to resist.

              I;m just of the mindset that the second bomb was unnecessary and I;m definitely convinced from what Ive read that Truman dropped it to prove a point.

              All that talk about “preventing casualties” is a good cover but the truth is they wanted to assert dominance. What better way than to completely rim the country that attacked us?

        • Caru says:

          Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that you did. My phrasing was horrible.

          As to the Atomic bombings, even if you accept the mass casualties argument that many make -- which I don’t -- you do not need to destroy a city to demonstrate the sheer power of an atomic bomb, let alone two.

          I agree, that the mores of the times do matter, but then again, so do the mores of the present. Applying a moral framework to the past is part of how we decide what to do and what not to do in the future. I don’t necessarily believe in condemnation, but something more like recognition.

          I say this, because when speaking of the past many seem to prefer to gloss over certain “events”, because they won’t look good. Rather than considering the mores of the time, as you suggest, they ignore the “events”. This is why I advocate recognition, without necessarily condemning anything.

          I agree with you that there are many who don’t care about context, and that usually they’re ignorant of the context.

          Sorry, but I know little about the American Civil War. Early 20th century Irish history, WW2 history and American history from 1940 to 1970/1980 are the areas of which I know the most. But, I hope that’ll change. :)

          • KQuark says:

            No doubt past mistakes should be a template used to progress and measure progress. I’m just saying we should just understand the actions of past leaders based on the context of the times as well. We can call Hitler a war criminal because even based on the context of the times he acted consistently worse than what the world’s moral standards where at the time. Sure on an absolute scale even the way the Allies bombed civilians during WWII was a crime but I also understand their are different and equally valid baselines for viewing history.

            I think you can say FDR was not a war criminal and the human condition during WWII enabled war crimes as a valid tactic to fight wars at the same time.

            Of course I hope that eventually that any war will be seen as a crime but virtually every human needs to see that before it happens.

  4. ADONAI says:

    Yeah! Fuck you JFK!

    • AdLib says:

      😆

      Maybe it’s the new vogue, post-hating all Dems.

      Man, FDR was a total asshole! And don’t even get me started on Truman, he was a right bastard! And Johnson, a total SOB!

      Sincerely,

      A Loyal Dem

      • KQuark says:

        It certainly is among the GOP to them FDR was a communist. I find it very distasteful on the Dem side though. Not that Dem presidents were always right or successful but we don’t need to revise history like the right does.


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