I spent Friday and Saturday participating in a conference at the JFK Library in
Friday was devoted to two historical panels and a keynote address by David Halberstam, but Saturday moved on to a different plane. After a taped interview with former President Carter, Saturday’s first panel featured four surviving representatives of the Administrations in question: Theodore Sorensen, vigorous although nearly blind; Jack Valenti, who left the Johnson White House in 1966; Henry Kissinger; and Al Haig. The contrast between their presentations and ours was, to say the least, rather striking, and questions from the historians to the participants didn’t get very far in closing the gaps between them. On Friday Jeffrey Kimball, who has written the two most thorough books about Nixon and
It occurred to me as I listened, not for the first time, that in one sense, Americans like me must put up with these kinds of retrospectives from our leaders. The weekend struck a nostalgic note for me, because my childhood homes were full of the great and the near-great, since my father had spent his career among them. I enjoyed stepping back into that life, but it was not one that I ever wanted for myself. The career of a historian frees one’s judgment, but those who pursue it, I think, should try to conserve some grudging respect for those who, for whatever reason, are willing to assume and exercise power. Our own unwillingness to do so limits, in a sense, our freedom to complain—although that hardly means, as Dr. Kissinger seemed to be saying, that power confers immunity from any analysis of one’s motives.
But the subsequent panels were more interesting from another point of view. The next one focused upon the media and included three
The final panel included four veterans: retired general and once and perhaps future Presidential candidate Wesley Clark, Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert (who served in Korea, not Vietnam, during that era), and Pete Peterson, who spent six and a half years as an Air Force POW in Hanoi and later became our first Ambassador to a united Vietnam. They made an extraordinary impression upon the packed house and drew repeated rounds of applause. All of them, in various ways, directly addressed what Brian Williams called “the elephant in the room,” the war in
There were, however, several interesting and in a way disturbing aspects to the criticism. None of the panelists wanted to mention any names of current policy makers, least of all those of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. And the media panelists, as well as John Burns of the New York Times, who was back on a visit from Iraq and whom Brian Williams invited to say a few words, showed an almost desperate determination to avoid a reprise of the accusation that the press had lost the war in Vietnam, even as they denied (quite rightly in my opinion) that that was true. Everyone spoke warmly and repeatedly about the valor and idealism of our troops in
But what was most disturbing to me as I sat in the audience yesterday, paradoxically, was the calm confidence expressed by all four panelists—including Senator Hagel—that the electoral process would take care of our problems within a relatively short time and get the country back on track. All of them seemed to believe that the American people would decisively repudiate the policies of the men and women they declined to name later this year and again in 2008, and that centrist government would resume. Yet this morning, before I sat down to write this piece, I found evidence in my New York Times of how optimistic these hopes might be. I had stepped for two days into a kind of parallel universe, almost a time-capsule, whose inhabitants—yes, even Henry Kissinger and Al Haig—struck me indeed, as “serious” people with enough judgment to keep the United States essentially on track, even if they collaborated in the absolutely useless prolongation of the Vietnam war for another four years and more then 20,000 killed in action. They felt the world was still their world, but I was not so sure.
As Chuck Hagel mentioned, he had chosen to attend our conference in preference to a conclave of Republicans and potential Republican candidates like himself in
The panelists yesterday, to quote a famous, anonymous White House staffer whom one day will be identified, I feel sure, as Karl Rove, belonged to “the reality-based community,” but the most reliable and best-organized political bloc in the