Sunday, December 26, 2010

Hiss Or History? Part II

Richard Nixon's defenders (0f which I've been one lo! these many years) are wont to say that his tape-recorded comments shouldn't always be taken as official policy, or even a perfectly accurate expression of his real views, since he was prone to let off steam in conversations with trusted aides. The theory is that just because he said, in the heat of his rage over the leak of the Pentagon Papers, that he wanted his men to burglarize the Brookings Institution didn't mean they really should. Just because he kibbutzes with Kissinger about hypothetical Soviet pogroms doesn't mean he'd stand by and let another holocaust occur.

Such defenses of Nixon's blaring taped outbursts often -- usually -- fall on deaf ears. Some are understandably reluctant to accept that the most powerful man in the world didn't usually mean what he said.

But now the family of a disgraced Vietnam-era officer, Maj. Gen. John D. Lavelle, is marshaling evidence from the tapes, namely yet more Nixonian outbursts, to show that the general was carrying out his commander-in-chief's orders. Charles A. Stevenson, a Johns Hopkins University lecturer who used to be a U.S. Senate staffer, opposes the restoration of Lavelle's honor -- and sure enough, he too has discovered that, with 37, presidential commentary doesn't always add up to presidential action or culpability:

Stevenson...noted that Nixon blew a lot of hot air in his Oval Office meetings, rants that shouldn't be mistaken as official policy.

"Nixon said an awful lot of things to his staff, that his staff wisely did not implement," Stevenson said. "Nixon had a practice of saying outrageous things as if they were orders."

Hat tip Maarja Krusten


Rick Perlstein said...

There's nothing honorable in the chief executive of the United States leaving his subalterns to sort out which of his orders he "meant" and which he did not. In fact, that may have been his most dishonorable trait of all.

Fr. John said...

That would be probably be true if that was what Nixon was doing, although that's not what I was talking about. This is a matter of our sorting out what Nixon meant and what he did not based on what our position is on a given question. Gen. Lavelle's family wants the tapes to mean that Nixon gave the orders that would exonerate him. Lavelle's critics say the tapes don't prove anything. Michael Gerson wants the tapes to mean that Nixon was indifferent to the idea of a Soviet holocaust against Jews because he, Gerson, is making a case against what he takes to be realism in foreign policy. Realist Kissinger argues that the tapes don't mean anything because Nixon got more Jews out of Russia than any other president. And so it goes. The tapes are only going to be one element of the whole story.