Vice president Hubert Humphrey and GOP nominee Richard Nixon were in the middle of a rough presidential race when word came to Johnson that the Nixon campaign was sabotaging Vietnam peace talks. Nixon representatives promised leaders in South Vietnam that he’d deliver them a better deal if they stayed in Saigon until after the U.S. election. Call it Nixon’s “other” Southern strategy.
Johnson called it treason, and releasing the news publicly would all but ensure a Humphrey victory. But Johnson – and Humphrey – were against it. They didn’t think the American public could handle the blow to the political system that a presidential candidate betraying his country for selfish interests would represent. The shock would be too much, and what if Nixon won anyway?
So Johnson decided not to do anything but talk to Nixon, who denied it all, of course. The snake. As we know, the war went on, and Nixon won.
Maybe Johnson was right. Forty years’ worth of hindsight still can’t give a good look at what-ifs, and many were scared there’d be a legitimate revolution. The Civil Rights Movement, the counterculture, the protests, the litany of assassinations. Maybe in 1968, the country couldn’t have handled much more.
Thanks to Johnson’s decision, what gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson called “the death of the American dream” was delayed, maybe even as late as 1974. Maybe the country was less fragile then and could better cope with such a revelation.
But I still think if in 1968 someone had been able to tell LBJ what Nixon really was, Johnson wouldn’t have hesitated to go public.
Whatever faith might have been lost by a treacherous presidential candidate, whatever damage done, it’s incomparable to that caused by a man elected to our highest office and found out to be utterly undeserving of respect.
The American people “couldn’t survive another blow,” Johnson said. But we did survive it – or something much worse. We had to survive it, although it turned an entire generation cynical and poisoned our politics to this very day.
Imagine a man with his fist four inches from your nose intending to punch you. What reasonable person would want to be hit in the face? It hurts. So you say, “Pull back! Pull back!” And he does, all the while making it clear he means to clobber you. From four inches, it may bloody your nose and hurt like the devil, but from his shoulder, with a step and the weight of his body behind it, he will drop you, maybe dead.
By trying to hold back some immediate, short-term pain, you often invite severe injury later.
For the best of reasons, LBJ put off the pain of Nixon’s betrayal – the country suffered Nixon’s presidency.
In the late-1990s, the tech boom collapsed, but it was put off. More recently, the housing bubble collapsed and with it, everything relying on its continued, uninterrupted growth. Banks fail, we put it off. Carmakers fail, we put it off. We pay off debts with credit cards and loan ourselves money from our children’s wallets. For the best of reasons.
Johnson tried to protect us and save some of our innocence, but he dealt in results and not causes. It does no good to mop a floor and leave the pipe leaking. Nixon was still a snake whether we found out or not, and instead of saving us from his venom, Johnson put us right in his fangs.
What fangs, I wonder, sink in us now? When, do you think, we’ll notice?