Thursday, April 26, 2007

Young Broder

Washington Post, October 7, 1969.

If there are any smart literary agents around these days, one of them will copyright the title [ed. note - titles can't be copyrighted] "The Breaking of the President" for the next big series of nonfiction best-sellers. It is becoming more obvious with every passing day that the men and the movement that broke Lyndon B. Johnson's authority in 1968 are out to break Richard M. Nixon in 1969.

The likelihood is great that they will succeed again, for breaking a President is, like most feats, easier to accomplish the second time around. Once learned, the techniques can readily be applied as often as desired - even when the circumstances seem less than propitious. No matter that this President is pulling troops out of Vietnam, while the last one was sending them in; no matter that in 1969 the casualties and violence are declining, while in 1968 they were on the rise. Men have learned to break a President, and, like any discovery that imparts power to its possessors, the mere availability of this knowledge guarantees that it will be used.

The essentials of the technique are now so well understood that they can be applied with little waste motion. First, the breakers arrogate to themselves a position of moral superiority. For that reason, a war that is unpopular, expensive, and very probably unwise is labeled as immoral, indecent, and intolerable. Critics of the President who are indelicate enough to betray partisan motives are denounced (That for you, Fred Harris.) Members of the President's own party who, for reasons perhaps unrelated to their own flagging political careers, catapult themselves into the front ranks of the of the opposition are greeted as heroes. (Hooray for Charley Goodell.)

The students who would fight in the war are readily mobilized against it. Their teachers, as is their custom, hasten to adopt the students' views. (News item: The Harvard department of biochemistry and molecular biology last week called for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam.)

Next, a New England election (the New Hampshire primary is best but the Massachusetts Sixth Congressional District election will do as well) surprisingly shows that peace is popular at the polls. The President's party sees defeat staring it in the face unless it repudiates him, and the Harris poll promptly comes along to confirm his waning grip on public trust. The Chief Executive, clearly panicky, resorts to false bravado and says he will never be moved by these protests and demonstrations, thus confirming the belief that he is too stubborn to repent and must be broken.

And then, dear friends, Sen. Fulbright and the Foreign Relations Committee move in to finish off the job.

All this is no fiction: it worked before and it is working again. Vietnam is proving to be what Henry Kissinger once said he suspected it might be -- one of those tragic, cursed messes that destroys any President who touches it.

That being the case, any President interested in saving his own skin would be well-advised to resign his responsibility for Vietnam and publicly transfer the assignment of ending the war to Congress or the Vietnam Moratorium Committee or anyone else who would like to volunteer for the job.

But he cannot. And that is the point the protesters seem to overlook. Assume that they and the President are both right when they assert the time has come to end this war. Assume that the protesters know better than the President how to do so -- despite the conspicuous absence of specific alternatives to the President's policies in their current manifestos.

There is still a vital distinction, granting all this, to be made between the constitutionally protected expression of dissent, aimed at changing national policy, and mass movements aimed at breaking the President by destroying his capacity to lead the nation or to represent it at the bargaining table.

The point is quite simple. Given the impatience in this country to be out of that miserable war, there is no great trick in using the Vietnam issue to break another President, you have broken the one man who can negotiate the peace.

Hanoi will not sit down for secret talks with the Foreign Relations Committee. Nor can the Vietnam Moratorium's sponsors order home a single GI or talk turkey to Gen. Thieu about reshaping his government. Only the President can do that.

There is also the matter of time. It is one thing to break a President at the end of his term, as was done last year. It is quite another thing to break him at the beginning, as is being attempted now.

The orators who remind us that Mr. Nixon has been in office for nine months should remind themselves that he will remain there for 39 more months -- unless, of course, they are willing to put their convictions to the test by moving to impeach him.

Is that not, really, the proper course? Rather than destroying his capacity to lead while leaving him in office, rather than leaving the nation with a broken President at its head for three years, would not their cause and the country be better served by resort to the constitutional method for removing a President?

And what a wonderful chapter it would make for Volume 2 of "The Breaking of the President" series.