Special Report: For more than four decades, Democrats have tolerated Republican abuses, claiming accountability wouldn’t be “good for the country.” But this softness has only encouraged the kind of hardball behavior that has now taken the U.S. economy “hostage,” writes Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
Since the 1960s, the Republican and Democratic parties have diverged in behavior – as well as over issues such as war and social programs – with the Republicans sometimes called the “daddy party” and the Democrats the “mommy party.” But if that analogy is followed, you would be talking about a very dysfunctional marriage.
More often than not in recent years, the Republicans have played the role of “abusive husband,” arriving home angry, busting up furniture and slapping around the wife and kids – before passing out on the couch – after which the Democratic “abused wife” tidies things up and tries to conceal bruises from the neighbors. Then, hubby arouses and the process begins again.
One might find this analogy unsettling, even unfair, but there is truth in it. Indeed, you could argue that the metaphor has sometimes moved beyond an abusive marriage to hostage-taking, as the Republican-daddy essentially takes the kids (America) hostage and demands capitulation from the Democratic-mommy.
Recently, the hostage metaphor has become popular in discussing how Republicans have dealt with Democrats during the Obama administration – for instance, last summer’s debt ceiling showdown used to extract concessions on spending and the past month’s obstruction of jobs bills with an eye toward a weakened President Barack Obama in the 2012 race. The h-word has even been uttered on the Senate floor by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada.
But Republican political “hostage-taking” is nothing new. The GOP has been playing this game since the days of Richard Nixon, who may have felt justified in adopting more ruthless tactics after losing a very narrow election to John F. Kennedy in 1960 amid allegations that Kennedy benefited from voter fraud in Illinois and Texas.
Though many historians dispute the significance of alleged fraud in the 1960 election, the notion that Nixon was robbed became an article of faith inside the GOP. Nixon grew even angrier after losing the California gubernatorial race in 1962, when he felt “kicked around” by the national press.
So, in 1968, facing another close presidential race, Nixon’s campaign escalated “hardball” tactics to a new level – by essentially taking the half million U.S. soldiers in Vietnam hostage. The historical evidence is now clear that Nixon sabotaged President Lyndon Johnson’s Paris peace talks to block a settlement and deny Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey a last-minute bump in the polls.
Nixon’s emissaries pulled off this scheme by promising South Vietnamese President Nguyen van Thieu a better deal than Johnson was prepared to offer, thus getting Thieu to boycott the Paris peace talks and killing prospects for bringing the divisive war to a quick end.
Based on documents and audiotapes from that era, we now know that Johnson was personally aware of Nixon’s “treason” – Johnson’s term for it. Having bugged the South Vietnamese Embassy’s cable traffic and other communications, Johnson knew that Nixon’s campaign had dispatched Anna Chennault, a fiercely anti-communist Chinese-American, to carry Nixon’s proposal to Thieu.
Beginning in late October 1968, Johnson can be heard on the tapes complaining about this Republican gambit. However, his frustration builds as he learns more from intercepts about the back-channel contacts between Nixon’s operatives and South Vietnamese officials.
On Nov. 2 – just three days before the election – Thieu recanted on his tentative agreement to meet with the Viet Cong in Paris, putting the peace talks in jeopardy. On the same day, Johnson telephoned Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen to lay out some of the evidence and ask Dirksen to intervene with the Nixon campaign.
“The agent [Chennault] says she’s just talked to the boss in New Mexico and that he said that you must hold out, just hold on until after the election,” Johnson said in an apparent reference to a Nixon campaign plane that carried some of his top aides to New Mexico. “We know what Thieu is saying to them out there. We’re pretty well informed at both ends.”
Johnson then made a thinly veiled threat about going public with the information. “I don’t want to get this in the campaign,” Johnson said, adding: “They oughtn’t be doing this. This is treason.”
Dirksen responded, “I know.”
Johnson continued: “I think it would shock America if a principal candidate was playing with a source like this on a matter of this importance. I don’t want to do that [go public]. They ought to know that we know what they’re doing. I know who they’re talking to. I know what they’re saying.”
The President also stressed the stakes involved, noting that the movement toward negotiations in Paris had contributed to a lull in the violence.
“We’ve had 24 hours of relative peace,” Johnson said. “If Nixon keeps the South Vietnamese away from the [peace] conference, well, that’s going to be his responsibility. Up to this point, that’s why they’re not there. I had them signed onboard until this happened.”
Dirksen: “I better get in touch with him, I think.”
“They’re contacting a foreign power in the middle of a war,” Johnson said. “It’s a damn bad mistake. And I don’t want to say so. … You just tell them that their people are messing around in this thing, and if they don’t want it on the front pages, they better quit it.”
The next day, Nixon spoke directly to Johnson and professed his innocence.
“I didn’t say with your knowledge,” Johnson responded. “I hope it wasn’t.”
“Huh, no,” Nixon responded. “My God, I would never do anything to encourage … Saigon not to come to the table. … Good God, we want them over to Paris, we got to get them to Paris or you can’t have a peace.”
Nixon also insisted that he would do whatever President Johnson and Secretary of State Dean Rusk wanted.
“I’m not trying to interfere with your conduct of it. I’ll only do what you and Rusk want me to do. We’ve got to get this goddamn war off the plate,” Nixon said, recognizing how tantalizingly close Johnson was to a peace deal. “The war apparently now is about where it could be brought to an end. … The quicker the better. To hell with the political credit, believe me.”
However, the South Vietnamese boycott continued, and Johnson concluded that Nixon was playing a double game. Johnson also became aware that Christian Science Monitor reporter Saville Davis had gotten wind of the story. The President was tempted to confirm it.
Before doing so, however, Johnson consulted with Rusk and Defense Secretary Clark Clifford on Nov. 4, 1968. Both these pillars of the Washington Establishment advised against going public out of fear that it might reflect badly on the U.S. government.
“Some elements of the story are so shocking in their nature that I’m wondering whether it would be good for the country to disclose the story and then possibly have a certain individual [Nixon] elected,” Clifford said in a conference call. “It could cast his whole administration under such doubt that I think it would be inimical to our country’s interests.”
Instead of helping Davis confirm his information, Clifford and Rusk argued that the Johnson administration should make no comment, advice that Johnson accepted. He maintained his public silence on what Nixon was doing.
The next day, with Johnson unable to cite any clear progress toward ending the war, Nixon narrowly prevailed over Humphrey by about 500,000 votes or less than one percent of the ballots cast.
No Way Out
In the aftermath of the election, Johnson continued to privately confront Nixon with the evidence of Republican treachery, trying to get him to pressure the South Vietnamese leaders to reverse themselves and join the Paris peace talks.
On Nov. 8, Johnson recounted the evidence to Nixon and described the Republican motivation to disrupt the talks, speaking of himself in the third person.
“Johnson was going to have a bombing pause to try to elect Humphrey. They [the South Vietnamese] ought to hold out because Nixon will not sell you out like the Democrats sold out China,” Johnson said.
“I think they’ve been talking to [Vice President-elect Spiro] Agnew,” Johnson continued. “They’ve been quoting you [Nixon] indirectly, that the thing they ought to do is to just not show up at any [peace] conference and wait until you come into office.
“Now they’ve started that [boycott] and that’s bad. They’re killing Americans every day. I have that [story of the sabotage] documented. There’s not any question but that’s happening. … That’s the story, Dick, and it’s a sordid story. … I don’t want to say that to the country, because that’s not good.”
Faced with Johnson’s implied threat, Nixon promised to tell the South Vietnamese officials to reverse themselves and join the peace talks. However, the deal was done. There was no turning back because Thieu could then expose the secret arrangement with Nixon’s people. Nixon had to understand that it was more likely that Johnson would stay silent than that Thieu would.
Nixon bet right. Johnson failed to achieve the peace breakthrough he had hoped for before leaving office, but remained silent in his retirement. Following the advice of Rusk and Clifford, the Democrats were already playing the part of the “abused wife,” hiding the ugly truth from “outsiders.”
The U.S. participation in the Vietnam War continued for more than four years at a horrendous cost to both the United States and the people of Vietnam. Before the conflict was finally brought to an end, a million or more Vietnamese were estimated to have died along with an additional 20,763 U.S. dead and 111,230 wounded.
The war also divided the United States, turning parents against their own children. But Nixon continued searching for violent new ways to get Thieu the better deal that had been promised, including the invasion of Cambodia and heavier bombing of targets in North Vietnam.
Onward to Watergate
Meanwhile, to tamp down dissent in the United States, Nixon turned to a political spying operation against his enemies, targeting anti-war figures such as Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and later his Democratic rivals.
In May 1972, Nixon’s “plumbers” planted bugs in the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee, apparently gleaning information about the last-minute strategies of the Democratic establishment to block the nomination of Sen. George McGovern, whom Nixon viewed as the easiest Democrat to beat. [For details on what Nixon got from the bugs, see Secrecy & Privilege.]
On June 17, 1972, when the “plumbers” returned to plant more listening devices, they were caught by Washington police. Nixon immediately took charge of the cover-up: issuing orders, brainstorming P.R. strategies and trying to blackmail Democrats with threats of embarrassing disclosures, including that President Johnson had bugged the Nixon campaign in 1968.
According to his own White House tapes, Nixon said he was told by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that Johnson had ordered the bugging of a Nixon campaign plane to ascertain who was undermining the Paris talks.
On July 1, 1972, White House aide Charles Colson touched off Nixon’s musings by noting that a newspaper column claimed that the Democrats had bugged Chennault’s telephones in 1968. Nixon pounced on Colson’s remark.
“Oh,” Nixon responded, “in ’68, they bugged our phones too.”
Colson: “And that this was ordered by Johnson.”
Nixon: “That’s right”
Colson: “And done through the FBI. My God, if we ever did anything like that you’d have the …”
Nixon: “Yes. For example, why didn’t we bug [the Democrats’ 1972 presidential nominee George] McGovern, because after all he’s affecting the peace negotiations?”
Nixon: “That would be exactly the same thing.”
A Nixon Leak
Nixon’s complaint about Johnson bugging “our phones” in 1968 became a refrain as the Watergate scandal unfolded. Nixon wanted to use that information to pressure Johnson and Humphrey into twisting Democratic arms so the Watergate investigations would be stopped.
On Jan. 8, 1973, Nixon urged Haldeman to plant a story about the 1968 bugging in the Washington Star. “You don’t really have to have hard evidence, Bob,” Nixon told Haldeman. “You’re not trying to take this to court. All you have to do is to have it out, just put it out as authority, and the press will write the Goddamn story, and the Star will run it now.”
Haldeman, however, insisted on checking the facts. In The Haldeman Diaries, published in 1994, Haldeman included an entry dated Jan. 12, 1973, which contains his book’s only deletion for national security reasons.
“I talked to [former Attorney General John] Mitchell on the phone,” Haldeman wrote, “and he said [FBI official Cartha] DeLoach had told him he was up to date on the thing. … A Star reporter was making an inquiry in the last week or so, and LBJ got very hot and called Deke [DeLoach's nickname], and said to him that if the Nixon people are going to play with this, that he would release [deleted material -- national security], saying that our side was asking that certain things be done. …
“DeLoach took this as a direct threat from Johnson. … As he [DeLoach] recalls it, bugging was requested on the [Nixon campaign] planes, but was turned down, and all they did was check the phone calls, and put a tap on the Dragon Lady [Anna Chennault].”
In other words, a furious Johnson appeared finally prepared to disclose Nixon’s “treason.” However, ten days later, on Jan. 22, 1973, Johnson died of a heart attack. Haldeman apparently shelved Nixon’s 1968 bugging complaint as a non-starter.
On Jan. 27, 1973, Nixon agreed to Vietnam peace terms in Paris. The agreement was along the lines of what President Johnson had negotiated more than four years earlier. The U.S. military withdrew from South Vietnam but continued supplying Theiu’s forces, which proved incapable of standing on their own, finally collapsing in 1975.
The Watergate scandal of 1972-74 was the one time when the Democrats truly stood up to Republican bullying.
Although some leading Democrats, such as Democratic National Chairman Robert Strauss, opposed pursuing the scandal, enough courageous Democrats and responsible Republicans were shocked enough by Nixon’s abuses to keep the investigation pressing forward.
Finally, after the Washington Post exposed Nixon’s financial ties to the cover-up and after Democratic members of Congress elicited devastating testimony from White House insiders, the U.S. Supreme Court forced Nixon to relinquish some of his White House tapes containing more damning evidence. Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974.
However, what the Republicans learned from Watergate was not “don’t do it” but “cover it up more effectively.” Aided by right-wing financiers, the Republicans began building a media infrastructure to put out their own message to the public – and funding attack groups that would target troublesome journalists and political figures.
October Surprise Case
The next round of Republican political hostage-taking centered on a case of actual hostage-taking. The evidence is now overwhelming that in 1980 – as President Jimmy Carter was seeking reelection and was trying to free 52 American hostages who had been seized in Iran – Republican operatives from Ronald Reagan’s campaign went behind Carter’s back to make contact with Iran’s leaders.
Reagan’s brain trust, especially campaign chief William Casey, saw the long-running crisis with Iran over the hostages as a powerful vulnerability for Carter but also a potential game-changer if Carter succeeded in engineering their release shortly before the election, as an “October Surprise.”
Over the past three decades, some two dozen witnesses – including senior Iranian officials, top French intelligence officers, U.S. and Israeli intelligence operatives, the Russian government and even Palestine leader Yasir Arafat – have confirmed the existence of a Republican initiative to interfere with Carter’s efforts to free the hostages.
In 1996, for instance, during a meeting in Gaza, Arafat personally told former President Carter that senior Republican emissaries approached the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1980 with a request that Arafat help broker a delay in the hostage release.
“You should know that in 1980 the Republicans approached me with an arms deal if I could arrange to keep the hostages in Iran until after the elections,” Arafat told Carter, according to historian Douglas Brinkley who was present. [Diplomatic History, Fall 1996]
Arafat’s spokesman Bassam Abu Sharif said the GOP gambit pursued other channels, too. In an interview with me in Tunis in 1990, Bassam indicated that Arafat learned upon reaching Iran in 1980 that the Republicans and the Iranians had made other arrangements for a delay in the hostage release.
“The offer [to Arafat] was, ‘if you block the release of hostages, then the White House would be open for the PLO’,” Bassam said. “I guess the same offer was given to others, and I believe that some accepted to do it and managed to block the release of hostages.”
In a little-noticed letter to the U.S. Congress, dated Dec. 17, 1992, former Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr said he first learned of the Republican hostage initiative in July 1980.
Bani-Sadr said a nephew of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Iran’s supreme leader, returned from a meeting with an Iranian banker and CIA asset, Cyrus Hashemi, who had close ties to Casey and to Casey’s business associate, John Shaheen.
Bani-Sadr said the message from the Khomeini emissary was clear: Republicans were in league with elements of the CIA in an effort to undermine Carter and were demanding Iran’s help.
Bani-Sadr said the emissary “told me that if I do not accept this proposal they [the Republicans] would make the same offer to my rivals.” The emissary added that the Republicans “have enormous influence in the CIA,” Bani-Sadr wrote. “Lastly, he told me my refusal of their offer would result in my elimination.”
Bani-Sadr said he resisted the GOP scheme, but the plan was accepted by the hard-line Khomeini faction. The American hostages remained captive through the Nov. 4, 1980, election which Reagan won handily. They were released immediately after Reagan was sworn in on Jan. 20, 1981. [For more details, see Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
Though some Carter advisers suspected Republican manipulation of the hostage crisis, the Democrats again kept silent. Only after the Iran-Contra scandal broke in 1986 – and witnesses began talking about its origins – did the 1980 story get fleshed out enough to compel Congress to take a closer look in 1991-92.
Again, however the Democrats feared that the evidence could endanger the fragile political relationships in Washington that enable governing to go forward. Once more, they chose to ignore the GOP machinations and, in some cases, literally hid the evidence. [For instance, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Key October Surprise Evidence Hidden.”]
The Bush Years
Aggressive Nixon-style strategies carried over into the campaigns mounted by George H.W. Bush in 1988 and 1992. The elder Bush’s dark side would come out most glaringly when he was in what he called “campaign mode.”
The general election campaign against Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988 stands as one of the nastiest in U.S. history, with Bush questioning Dukakis’s patriotism and playing the race card by exploiting Willie Horton, a black inmate who raped a white woman while he was on a Massachusetts prison furlough.
Bush charted a similar course in 1992, with the goal of destroying Bill Clinton’s reputation and winning reelection by political default. The strategy, managed by then-White House chief of staff James Baker, involved searching Clinton’s passport files looking for dirt to use against the Democratic candidate.
President Bush was personally involved in this “silver bullet” strategy aimed at portraying Clinton as disloyal to his country, possibly having collaborated with Soviet bloc intelligence.
In a later interview with federal prosecutors, Bush acknowledged that he was “nagging” his aides to push an investigation into Clinton’s student travels to the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. Bush also expressed strong interest in rumors that Clinton had sought to renounce his U.S. citizenship.
Bush described himself as “indignant” that his aides failed to discover more about Clinton’s student activities. But Bush stopped short of taking responsibility for the apparently illegal searches of Clinton’s passport records.
“Hypothetically speaking, President Bush advised that he would not have directed anyone to investigate the possibility that Clinton had renounced his citizenship because he would have relied on others to make this decision,” the FBI interview report read. “He [Bush] would have said something like, ‘Let’s get it out’ or ‘Hope the truth gets out’.”
The passport caper backfired in early October 1992 with disclosure of the State Department’s improper search of Clinton’s passport files, creating a scandal called “Passport-gate.” However, after Clinton defeated Bush, the Democrats chose not to press for a thorough examination.
When a special prosecutor was named to investigate “Passport-gate,” the outgoing Bush administration was lucky because right-wing judges had taken over the selection panel and picked Republican stalwart, Joseph diGenova, who proceeded to clear Bush and his top aides despite evidence of their guilt.
The largely unchecked Republican brazenness expanded into the actual counting of votes in Election 2000.
Though Democrat Al Gore won the national popular vote and stood to gain the presidency if a full recount of legally cast votes in Florida had been allowed, five Republican justices on the U.S. Supreme Court sided with George W. Bush and stopped the Florida recount, effectively handing Bush the presidency.
The Democrats again shied away from a full investigation of how Bush engineered his undemocratic selection as president, as did the national news media. The thinking was that a serious fact-finding effort would undercut Bush’s “legitimacy” and be harmful to the country.
Almost a year later, in November 2001, a group of eight large news organizations reached a similar conclusion after finishing a study of the uncounted Florida ballots and discovering that under any standard used for the notorious ballot chads – dimpled, hanging or fully punched through – Gore would have won if all ballots considered legal under Florida law were counted.
However, in the post 9/11 climate, the news organizations twisted their own findings to ratify Bush’s electoral victory rather than reveal that the electoral loser was in the White House. The Democrats stayed silent, too. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Gore’s Victory” or the book, Neck Deep.]
What the Republicans learned from this recurring dynamic was that bullying pays – and that no one of significance in the U.S. political/media system is likely to stand up to you.
So, again, in 2004, Republicans and their right-wing allies smeared Democrat John Kerry, a Vietnam War hero, for his supposed cowardice. A well-funded right-wing group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth questioned Kerry’s medals, and at the GOP convention, Republican activists highlighted skepticism about the severity of Kerry’s war wounds by passing out “Purple Heart Band-Aids.”
The War on Obama
In 2008, Barack Obama got a taste of these Republican tactics with accusations about him “palling around with terrorists” and depicting him as an anti-American Muslim possibly born in Kenya. However, given the collapsing U.S. economy, Obama defeated Republican John McCain.
Still, Obama’s victory didn’t spare him a continuation of the smear tactics reverberating through the right-wing media echo chamber from talk radio to Fox News to corporate-funded Tea Party activists who brandished weapons at rallies and vowed to disrupt Obama’s efforts at governing.
Whereas the Democrats rallied behind Republican presidents at a time of national crisis – as occurred with George W. Bush after 9/11 – Republicans refused to do the same for Obama even in the face of the worst U.S. economic crisis since the Great Depression. The bad economy was simply an opportunity to regain power.
Congressional Republicans also detected a vulnerability in Obama’s vow to change the poisonous climate of Washington. GOP leaders understood that if they simply voted en bloc against pretty much whatever Obama proposed, the noxious gridlock would continue and the media would frame it as a “failure” by Obama to live up to a campaign pledge.
But the economy would remain Obama’s biggest threat. Though it went into freefall on George W. Bush’s watch with the Wall Street meltdown in September 2008, Republicans knew that if they could water down or sink Obama’s plans for putting Americans back to work, high unemployment would erode his support and likely mean a quick Republican resurgence.
Their strategy of angry and consistent disruption worked wonders. In Election 2010, the Republicans regained the House and narrowed the Democratic majority in the Senate. Excited Republicans looked to a continuation of obstructionism as the key to regaining the White House in 2012.
After Election 2010, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky brazenly explained the strategy: the GOP would make it “our top political priority over the next two years … to deny President Obama a second term in office.”
Over the past year, McConnell’s declaration became a battle cry for the Republicans as they engaged in brinksmanship that repeatedly shook the fragile economy. When economic indicators began to perk up last spring, the Republicans forced a showdown over the debt ceiling that slowed down the recovery even more and led to a downgrading of U.S. government securities.
As stubborn joblessness remained a severe crisis, the Republicans marched in lockstep this fall against any Obama plan for putting Americans back to work.
Democrats began to recognize the obvious: the Republicans understood that a lousy economy was their best route back to full power in Washington, although Senate Majority Leader Reid tried to put most of the blame on Tea Party extremists. “That faction of the Republican Party is holding our economy hostage,” Reid declared.
But this hostage-taking is nothing new. It has been a successful Republican tactic dating back to 1968 when Nixon took the Vietnam War and half a million U.S. soldiers hostage, through 1980 when Reagan took the Iran hostage crisis hostage, through George W. Bush taking the electoral process hostage in 2000, through today as the 14 million unemployed Americans and the millions more who are barely holding on have become the latest hostages.
Yet, Democrats still do not seem to have learned the dangers of tolerating this kind of behavior. Trying to hide the historical truth “for the good of the country” has not truly been good for the country, any more than a battered wife really helps her family by covering up the acts of an abusive husband.
Indeed, making excuses and looking the other way only encourages more of the dangerous behavior. Some Americans even gravitate to the tough-guy bully when the alternative is a weak-kneed appeaser.
Though it appears that President Obama and progressive activists may have finally begun to stand up and speak out against what the Republicans and their policies have wrought, there remains much more to be done, both in explaining what’s at stakes now and understanding what has happened over the past 43 years.
[For more on related topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.