It was late spring of 1966, and three intellectual giants of the Kennedy adminstration, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Richard Goodwin, and the late John Kenneth Galbraith discussed the Vietnam war over lunch in New York. Goodwin made the most salient remarks about the current state of debate, as Schlesinger recalls in Robert Kennedy and His Times. "[President Lyndon] Johnson, Goodwin said, was a man possessed, wholly impervious, to argument. The only thing he understood was political opposition."
Yesterday, Senators Chuck Hagel, Gordon Smith, John Warner, and others who have voiced opposition to the escalation in Iraq voted to block debate on the floor. Senators, your words mean nothing to the President if they are not backed up by political action. For Bush, like Johnson, is a political warrior. And the only opposition he understands is political.
Senator Robert Kennedy learned this lesson exactly forty years ago this afternoon, in a meeting with President Johnson. Earlier that week, a story broke in Newsweek that Kennedy was in touch with a North Vietnamese peace feeler during a recent trip to France. Johnson, growing increasingly paranoid about a Kennedy challenge in 1968, thought the story was leaked by Kennedy to push him toward negotiations. (If there had been a peace feeler, Kennedy was oblivious to it.) Johnson called Kennedy to the Oval Office.
The President did a lot of shouting. According to Kennedy, he said there would be a military victory by June or July, and, in the intimidating manner that made him a successful Senate leader, "I'll destroy you and every one of your dove friends.... You'll be politically dead in six months." Kennedy asked him to, "Say you'll stop the bombing if they'll come to the negotiating table." Johnson wouldn't budge. He told Kennedy that he was giving comfort to the enemy, and that he and others opposing the war had the blood of American soldiers on their hands.
Kennedy stormed out, disgusted. That day he realized his discussions with the President had been pointless. Political opposition was the only opposition Johnson understood. Quietly, the 1968 race had begun.
"'What message does Congress intend to give?' asked White House spokesman Tony Snow. 'And who does it think the audience is? Is the audience merely the president? Is it the voting American public or, in an age of instant communication, is it also al-Qaida?'"If these Republican Senators aren't disgusted enough to walk out, they need to be voted out.
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