I’ve just finished reading Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland , an impressive depressing portrait of my native country in the years just before I decided to move to South Jerusalem.
Perlstein’s portrayal of the relation between Nixon’s inner furies and the political furies of the 1960s and early ’70s bear out a thesis I’ve argued in the past : Some leaders succeed because their “…personal struggles resonated powerfully and subliminally with a wide public. It was the crippled Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for example, who could tell a crippled America there was nothing to fear.” Sometimes a leader can uplift for this reason; sometimes he or she can release a bitter flood. Menachem Begin saw himself as unjustly ostracized and excluded from power. His resentment was pitch perfect for those Israelis who felt the country’s elite had denied them respect. His politics deepened all the divisions in Israel, and we suffer for it till today.
Perlstein descibes Nixon in similar terms: Someone who from boyhood onward felt that the elite looked down on him, that he was out of fashion through no fault of his own, and who managed to fuse the anger of all the others who felt left out into a political movement. That was the emotional basis for Nixon’s ability to unite everyone who felt excluded by the exuberance and anger and hope of the ’60s, who felt assaulted and threatened by the changes. To that ability, of course, Nixon added a sociopathic disregard for truthfulness and legality that would make Ariel Sharon look like an honest man.
I hope to write more about the book later. For now I’ll note that while Nixon used a stunning arsenal of trickery to manipulate the 1972 campaign and ensure that the weakest Democrat would be his opponent, he wasn’t the only the only one ready to lie blatantly. Perlstein describes one of the desperate measures that Hubert Humphrey used to try to win the California primary that year: Pamphlets circulated that were signed by Jewish actor Lorne Greene:
“Senator McGovern, now you claim to support the state of Israel, but why, before this primary campaign, have you acted and voted against her?”
In fact, Perlstein explains,
… on the critical litmus tests – the sale of F-4 Phantom jets and moving America’s embassy to Jerusalem – their supports were pretty much identical, the same as Scoop Jackson’s. But… Humphrey was desperate.
As a 16-year-old I walked my parent’s precinct in the San Fernando Valley for McGovern that awful November. The voters consisted of two groups: registered Republicans and Jews. Nixon did well for a Republican among Jews that year, helped by Humphrey’s efforts. I’ve met Jews who told me that they felt themselves vindicated when Nixon helped Israel during the Yom Kippur War. In fact, Nixon and Dr. K were so busy with Vietnam, and so blinded by their Cold War orientation, that they failed to seize the opportunities for diplomacy that could have prevented the war. (More on this in my book, The Accidental Empire.) Voting Nixon for Israel’s sake was falling victim to one more political con.
Fast forward: I don’t know who’s responsible for the vicious emails about Barack Obama that circulate among Jews and that are believed by those Jews always willing to believe that Israel faces doom. I’ll leave it to historians to track down who hit the send button – Republicans or rival Democrats or both. But Obama’s performance at the Aipac convention in Washington suggests that he regards the rumor campaign as a danger to his chances. The text of his speech indicates that he’s navigating between his own belief in diplomacy and his perceived need to mouth “pro-Israel” cliches that are to the right of a none-too-leftist Israeli government. So he correctly argues that the war in Iraq empowered Iran and made Israel less secure. But he also asserts that in a two-state solution,
Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.
That’s exactly the line that made Hillary Clinton’s position paper on Israel surrealistic, as I’ve argued before. In most respects, Jerusalem is already a divided city, and recognizing this politically is the key to precisely the kind of agreement that Obama says he’d like to reach. Alas. “Yes, We Can” pander to Aipac.
As a voter I support Obama. As a journalist, I’m obligated to point out how foolish those words were. They harm his ability to conduct negotiations as president. To achieve an agreement, he will have to introduce proposals he now says he opposes – thereby feeding the cynicism about politics he hopes to overcome.
But much as he wants change – as much as he wants to use his own multiethnic biography to unite Americans – he is still running for president of Nixonland.