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Tomgram: Engelhardt, V for Defeat

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Been There, Done That (Not!)
The Imperial Presidency Comes Home to Roost


Joe Biden's got a problem and so do I. And so, in fact, do we.

At 76 years old, you'd think I'd experienced it all when it comes to this country and its presidencies. Or most of it, anyway. I've been around since Franklin D. Roosevelt was president. Born on July 20, 1944, I'm a little "young" to remember him, though I was a war baby in an era when Congress still sometimes declared war before America made it.

As a boy, in my liberal Democratic household in New York, I can certainly remember singing (to the tune of "Whistle While You Work") our version of the election-year ditty of 1956 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower faced off against Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson. The pro-Republican kicker to it went this way: "Eisenhower has the power, Stevenson's a jerk." We, however, sang, "Eisenhower has no power, Stevenson will work!" As it happened, we never found out if that was faintly true, since the former Illinois governor got clobbered in that election (just as he had in 1952).

I certainly watched at least some of the 1960 televised debates between Eisenhower's vice president, Richard Nixon, and John F. Kennedy I was 16 then that helped make JFK, at 43, the youngest president ever to enter the Oval Office. I can also remember his ringing Inaugural Address. We youngsters had never heard anything like it:

"[T]he torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world" Ask not what your country can do for you ask what you can do for your country."

While a college freshman at Yale, I saw him give a graduation speech in New Haven, Connecticut. From where I was standing, he was as small as one of the tiny toy soldiers I played with on the floor of my room in childhood. It was, nonetheless, a thrill. Yes, he was deeply involved in ramping up the war in Vietnam and America's global imperial presence in a fiercely contested "Cold War." Most of us teens, however, were paying little attention to that, at least until October 1962, in what came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, when he addressed us on the radio, telling us that Soviet missile sites were just then being prepared on the island of Cuba with "a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere." As a generation that grew up ducking-and-covering under our school desks in nuclear-attack drills, young Americans everywhere, my 18-year-old-self included, imagined that the moment might finally have arrived for the nuclear confrontation that could have left our country in ruins and us possibly obliterated. (I can also remember sitting in a tiny New Haven hamburger joint eating a 10-cent no kidding! burger just over a year later when someone suddenly stuck his head through the door and said, "The president's been assassinated!")

And I can recall, in the summer of 1964, hitchhiking with a friend across parts of Europe and trying, rather defensively, to explain to puzzled and quizzical French, Italian, and German drivers the candidacy of right-wing Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, who was running against Kennedy's vice president and successor Lyndon B. Johnson. Goldwater was the Trump of his moment and, had I been in the U.S., I wouldn't have given him the time of day. Still, as an American in Europe I felt strangely responsible for the weirder political aspects of my country and so found myself doing my damnedest to explain them away perhaps to myself as much as to anyone else. In fact, maybe that was the secret starting point for TomDispatch, the website I would launch (or perhaps that would launch me) just after the 9/11 attacks so many years later.

The Coming of a "Presidential Dictatorship"

Although I never saw Lyndon Johnson in person, I did march through clouds of tear gas in Washington, D.C., to protest the bloody and disastrous conflict the original "quagmire war" that he continued to fight in Vietnam to the last Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian. By then, as I was growing up, presidencies already seemed to be growing down and starting to look ever grimmer to me. And of course, as we all now know, there was far worse to come. After all, Johnson at least had reasonably forward-looking domestic policies in an age in which economic inequality was so much less rampant and the president and Congress could still accomplish things that mattered domestically and not just for the staggeringly richest of Americans.

On the other hand, Richard Nixon, like Goldwater, a "southern strategy" guy who actually won the presidency on his second try, only ramped the Vietnam War up further. He also plunged his presidency into a corrupt and criminal netherworld so infamously linked to Watergate. And I once saw him, too, in person, campaigning in San Francisco when I was a young journalist. I sat just rows away from the stage on which he spoke and found myself eerily awed by the almost unimaginable awkwardness of his gestures, including his bizarrely unnatural version of a triumphant V-for-what-would-indeed-prove-to-be-victory against antiwar Democratic candidate George McGovern.

For Nixon, the V-for-defeat would come a little later and I would spend endless hours watching it that is, the Watergate hearings on an old black-and-white TV, or rather watching his imperial presidency come down around his ears. Those were the years when the Pentagon Papers, that secret trove of internal government documents on Vietnam war-making by successive White Houses, were released to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg. (His psychiatrist's office would later be burgled by Nixon's "plumbers" and he would play a key role in the fall of the house of Nixon.)

It was in those same years that former Kennedy aide and "court historian" Arthur Schlesinger wrote the book he classically titled The Imperial Presidency. And it was then, too, that Senator William Fulbright described the same phenomenon in his book The Crippled Giant, this way:

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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