Lessons for Clinton and Starr in an Abdication Back in ’68

Those who thrill in anticipation of a disgraced President leaving the White House under a cloud might cast their thoughts back 30 years to an actual, not fantasized, abdication.

The evening of March 31, 1968, Lyndon Johnson took to national television and spoke in a voice both pious and wheedling about the ways in which he had decided to dampen the Vietnam War. This was not the unforgettable part. Offering a bombing halt here and refusing a troop increase there was not sensational news. Johnson had said and done such things plenty of times before without causing many hearts to leap. In fact, for three years the war had had a predictable rhythm: drop bombs Monday through Saturday, then on Sunday extend an olive branch still reeking from the stench of napalm. On March 31, 1968, Johnson was far from ending a war whose symbolically great atrocity, the My Lai massacre, had just taken place, though barely anyone in the United States knew it yet. The memorable line came toward the end of Johnson’s speech: “I shall not seek, and will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”

Johnson tried to save face, claiming that he was taking himself out of the running for a second elected term only to free his hands to find a way out of the war. He fooled no one. He was fessing up that he had lost moral authority. He had squandered political capital as if it were going out of style. After 52 months in office, he was loath to appear in public, fearful that he would be forced to hear once more what he called “that horrible song,” “Hey, hey, L.B.J., how many kids did you kill today?” He had earned respect with his civil rights commitments–two recent books, Taylor Branch’s Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-1965 and Michael Beschloss’ Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964 , reveal him to have been far gutsier and less equivocal than I, for one, suspected at the time–but he had squandered that respect, and then some, on the worst war in American history. He had a great deal of blood on his hands, to no good effect, and the best thing to say for him now was that he had finally had to stand up in public and acknowledge that the country had become ungovernable–at least by him.

To the legions who had marched, chanted, petitioned and otherwise clamored against the war during all the long months that Johnson had mounted it, his speech brought jubilation. Whoops echoed through the dorms. Parties spilled into the streets of the student quarters. No doubt the 22-year-old Bill Clinton was one of the millions who exulted, inhaling the victory, high on jolts of vindication. The more naïve now permitted themselves to think that three years of carnage that had wracked the country would now come to an end. Johnson had walked the plank–far too late in the game to vindicate his shattered Presidency. But the war would long outlast Johnson because the wrongheaded ideas that had produced it were not Johnson’s alone. They were Hubert Humphrey’s, too, and they were George Wallace’s, and most to the point, they were Richard Nixon’s. The war went on, on, on, scorching more earth, killing and scarring an estimated 2 million more of the Vietnamese and some 20,000 more Americans, breaking more hearts and minds. More Vietnamese died on the watch, as they say, of Richard M. Nixon than on that of Lyndon B. Johnson.

If ever a victory was Pyrrhic, it was the antiwar movement’s over Lyndon Johnson. Righteous it was to oppose a fruitless, ugly war, but saying No was far from enough for a successful politics. It was more like a substitute for politics. There wasn’t enough of an ideal in all that negation. The glee over Johnson’s speech flowed from a necessary negation, but it was still a negation. Gloating and vindictiveness were no foundation for anything solid.

Nor are they now. Here is what honest men and women on the right might contemplate as they slug away at the man they love to hate. They may force Bill Clinton onto the ropes eventually. So much is unlikely, but, given the powers currently vested in the independent prosecutor, not impossible. The bashers will be tempted to exult. But they will not win respect, or power, in the process. The country already feels dirtied by the interminable soap opera that passes for public discourse. The public display of more dirt, whatever Bill Clinton did or did not do, will not necessarily redound to the benefit of the right wing. Nor will it make men more respectful of women. Nor will it arouse greater trust in authority. What it will do is heighten disgust with public life altogether.

William J. Clinton is no Lyndon B. Johnson. His achievement is not so great, nor are his putative crimes–in a way, it seems peculiar even to pair these two ambiguous Presidencies in the same sentence. In the becalmed waters of the 1990’s, who thinks government can or should lead anyone to a Great Society? The very notion has a scratchy sound, like old 45’s. As the man said, the era of big government is over. But Mr. Clinton and the Clinton-haters alike might learn a lesson from Lyndon Johnson’s self-undoing. For Mr. Clinton, it is that the dues for arrogance are steeper than you expect. For Clinton-haters, the moral is that gloating does not translate into governing.

As more women turn up to charge Bill Clinton with conduct unbefitting a gentleman, the ranks of conspicuous moralists seem to be growing, even as the polls seem to stay on the President’s side. Like Johnson and Nixon before him, Mr. Clinton has surely given his enemies a sword. (He may well be asking himself why he couldn’t keep it in his scabbard.) Cheerleaders for Kenneth Starr, thinking his unending inquisition a victory for conservative values, might think twice about the price of pulling the temple down. If their goal is to wound Mr. Clinton politically and gum up his program, they may yet succeed. But if they think their pompous lectures about family values and a nation of laws amount to a political program with which to govern the country, they’re badly mistaken. They are conserving nothing at all, no authority at all, not even their own.