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How the Right's Smear Machine Started

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This article cross-posted from Consortium News

Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the United States

Americans sometimes wonder how the nation's political process got so unspeakably nasty with vitriol pouring forth, especially from right-wing voices like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Michael Savage, to name just a few. Yet, whenever called on this ugliness, conservatives insist that they are the real victims, picked on by the Left.

This destructive and whiny dynamic has existed at least since the late 1960s when angry passions spilled over from the Vietnam War and grew worse after Richard Nixon exploited Democratic dissension on the war to win the White House in 1968 -- and then continued the war for another four nasty years.

As president, Nixon also responded to the fury splintering American society with wedge issues, appealing to the "silent majority" and denouncing anti-war protesters as "bums." He rode that divisive formula to a landslide victory in November 1972 but soon ensnared himself in the Watergate political spying scandal that drove him from office in August 1974.

Out of all that anger emerged an American Right that believed, as an article of faith, that the Democrats and the "liberal press" had turned Nixon's run-of-the-mill indiscretions in Watergate into a constitutional crisis to undo Nixon's overwhelming electoral mandate of 1972.

So, over the next two decades -- with Nixon in the background egging on Republican politicians -- the Right built an attack machine that was designed to defend against "another Watergate" but also was available to destroy the "liberal" enemy.

Which is why, in retrospect, the decision by President Lyndon Johnson and his top aides to withhold from the public their evidence of Nixon's sabotage of the Vietnam peace talks in fall 1968 proved to be the opposite of their stated intention: to hide the dirty secret for "the good of the country."

As Johnson's national security adviser Walt W. Rostow observed in 1973 as the Watergate scandal was unfolding, Nixon may have dared undertake that domestic spying program because he had gotten away with his 1968 skullduggery unscathed.

Because the Republicans had not been held accountable, Rostow noted, "There was nothing in their previous experience with an operation of doubtful propriety (or, even, legality) to warn them off, and there were memories of how close an election could get and the possible utility of pressing to the limit -- and beyond." [To read Rostow's memo, click here, here and here.]

Indeed, if Johnson had revealed Nixon's peace-talk sabotage in 1968 -- or if Rostow had released the evidence after Johnson's death in 1973 -- the public's perception of Nixon and Watergate might have been dramatically different. Instead of a one-off affair that could be blamed on some overzealous subordinates, the break-in at the Democratic headquarters might have been seen as part of a larger pattern.

If the American people had seen the evidence that Johnson had regarding Nixon keeping the South Vietnamese government away from the Paris peace talks in 1968 -- with promises of a better deal if he got elected -- it would have been difficult for even the most die-hard conservative to believe that Nixon's resignation was undeserved.

Wall Street Disgrace

And that might have gone double if Americans had read the internal memos about how Nixon's Wall Street friends were using their inside knowledge of Nixon blocking the Vietnam peace talks so they could place their bets on stocks and bonds. [See's "Profiting Off Nixon's Vietnam "Treason.'"]

The image of these Wall Street supermen sitting around a table discussing how to profit off a prolonged war -- while a half million American soldiers were sitting in a war zone -- might have been hard for even the most ardent Ayn Rand enthusiast to stomach.

But Johnson chose to stay silent in November 1968 and took the secret to his grave in January 1973. It was then up to Rostow to decide what to do with the file that Johnson had entrusted to him, what Rostow called "The 'X' Envelope." [See's "LBJ's "X' File on Nixon's "Treason.'"]

Rostow apparently struggled with the question until June 1973 when he sealed the file with a note to the LBJ Library that the envelope should stay secret for a half century and possibly longer. (It was eventually opened in 1994, beginning a long process of declassifying some of the secret and top secret documents that described what Johnson called Nixon's "treason.")

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at It's also available at

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