An interesting article by Robert Fulford in the National Post, discussing the time between the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the resignation of Richard Nixon. I was too young to pay any attention to politics in those days, and I only started being aware of how weird it was through reading Hunter S. Thompson’s political writings of the time — and I still think it’s a great encapsulation of the bottled insanity of the US political system of that era.
For 11 years, 1963 to 1974, tragedy and shame were the most persistent themes of American politics. That period has never been given a name, but after four decades it feels like a distinct unit in history. From the death of John Kennedy to the resignation of Richard Nixon, everything connects in a web of deceit, paranoia and distorted ambition.
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Even after ultimate power fell into Johnson’s hands, it left him squirming in frustration and rage. He was triumphant for a brief moment, pushing through Congress laws that opened society to black Americans. But he felt surrounded by enemies. Although he asked Kennedy’s men to stay on, he never trusted them. When Malvolio leaves the stage he threatens, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.” That was how Johnson felt about Bobby Kennedy. Caro is especially good on the bitter 15-year struggle that consumed these two men, both smart but both hopelessly lacking in self-awareness.
Johnson’s second downfall, the swiftly increasing Vietnam war, was also America’s tragedy, a fruitless enterprise that cost many lives and wrecked American confidence in Washington. As Caro now says, “Everyone thinks distrust of government started under Nixon. That’s not true. It started under Johnson.” On Vietnam he lied so consistently that Americans ceased to believe anything he said. Journalists spoke euphemistically of his “credibility gap.” Trust in the political class never returned.
With Johnson so dishonoured that he couldn’t run for re-election in 1968, Nixon succeeded him. He brought with him a style darker and more paranoid even than Johnson’s. In covering up a break-in by his party’s operatives at the Watergate complex, he revealed that everything said about him by his worst enemies was true.
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From beginning to end, Schlesinger despised Nixon. In 1962, when Nixon brought out his self-revealing memoir, Six Crises, demonstrating that his main interest in life was judging how others saw him, Schlesinger wrote in his diary “I do not see how his political career can survive this book.” Schlesinger, while he served power-mad leaders, didn’t understand them. He couldn’t imagine that just six years later, in 1968, Nixon’s furious ambition would make him president and then get him re-elected to a second term, the one he failed to complete because Watergate made him the first American president ever to resign in disgrace, a fate even worse than Johnson’s.
Schlesinger’s book provides an accompaniment to this heartbreaking era of shame. It never fails to remind us that, no matter what theories the historians construct, the course of history is usually shaped by a few frail, frightened and often deeply damaged human beings.