Arugula, elitism, torture, John McCain by mattsteinglass
August 4, 2008, 10:12 pm
Filed under: President, Vietnam

Andrew Sullivan writes:

They really played the arugula card? For all McCain’s personal qualities, we’re learning that the machine behind the GOP simply re-makes the campaign in its own Coulterite image. Instead of actually fighting on the core questions – how do we get out of Iraq with the least damage? how do we get past carbon-based energy? how do we tackle al Qaeda’s new base in Pakistan and within the nuclear-armed Pakistani government? how will we reduce the massive debt bequeathed us by the Bush-Rove GOP? how do we restore the Geneva Conventions? – we are debating people’s cultural insecurities and food choices.

I share the amazement that this stuff still works. But it’s not surprising that John McCain should wind up waging a good old GOP culture war, because it’s the GOP culture war that gave birth to his political career.

Why is John McCain a celebrity? In 1969, the Nixon administration launched a public relations campaign to shore up US popular support for continuing the war in Vietnam. Negotiations with the North Vietnamese were going nowhere, and Nixon saw himself “sinking deeper into the Johnsonian bog”, as Anthony Lake and Roger Morris put at the time, if he couldn’t enlist public backing to pursue the war until some acceptable deal was reached. Nixon’s public relations strategy had two elements. The first was Vietnamization, which would in principle turn the war over to the South Vietnamese, allowing Nixon to announce periodic troop withdrawals; and the withdrawal of US troops entailed a dramatic escalation in US bombing support to secure the South Vietnamese government. The second element was the demand that North Vietnam release the US POWs it was holding, including John McCain. These became Nixon’s talking points on Vietnam beginning in July, 1969. The demand to free the POWs was accompanied by a wrist bracelet campaign, in which people around the US could wear wrist bracelets engraved with the name of one of the US POWs in Hanoi.

The campaign to free the US POWs was an effective political stratagem. It refocused attention away from what Americans were doing to Vietnam, and towards what Vietnamese were doing to Americans. If you looked, as a dispassionate observer, at what was happening in Hanoi in the late 1960s, your answer would be simple: Americans were killing Vietnamese. The CIA estimated in January, 1968 that US bombing of North Vietnam since 1965 had killed 72,000 civilians (alongside 18,000 military personnel). The GOP’s campaign to popularize the POWs neutralized the polarity of this issue, setting the mistreatment of 400 American soldiers and pilots equal to the killing of tens of thousands of Vietnamese civilians. The treatment of those American servicemen was certainly a legitimate moral issue in its own right. But it was a distraction from the real issue of what American soldiers were doing in Vietnam in the first place. John McCain, the most famous of the POWs from the moment he was shot down, became the instantiation of that distraction, of that reversal of victimhood. He is the personification of the idea that Americans, rather than Vietnamese, were the victims of the Vietnam War. That’s why he became a political hot property, that’s why he was elected to Congress in 1981, and that’s why he is now a candidate for President of the United States.

Nixon’s campaign to popularize the POWs worked. Partly as a result of the publicity campaign, partly as a result of the death of Ho Chi Minh in September 1969, and partly as a result of the failure of a brutal interrogation program run by Cuban officers (and the demotion of the harsh Vietnamese prisoner commander Nguyen Van Xuan, known as “the Cat” to the POWs), the Vietnamese altered their policy towards POWs. All the POWs, including McCain, report that their treatment improved greatly after October 1969.

But that was a happy incidental consequence of Nixon’s PR offensive. The main goal was to help plant the seeds of the culture-war narrative which Nixon and every GOP candidate after him would campaign on for the next 40 years, right down to John McCain’s own campaign against Barack Obama. Here is Nixon’s “Silent Majority” speech, from November 3, 1969:

In San Francisco a few weeks ago, I saw demonstrators carrying signs reading: “Lose in Vietnam, bring the boys home.” …I know it may not be fashionable to speak of patriotism or national destiny these days. But I feel it is appropriate to do so on this occasion.

Just after the speech, Nixon sent Spiro Agnew out to do the dirty stuff. Agnew called the news media “a small and unelected elite”. It was a step short of Agnew’s later rhetoric:”an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals”.

The terms are exactly the same today. Fashionable, effete, elite, impudent (“presumptuous”), intellectual, minority. Same old script. It’s no surprise that this is McCain’s campaign. This is the stuff that birthed his political career.

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