Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ted Kennedy and Spiro Agnew

I've been tormenting myself by skimming through a 1971 Audubon paperback called Collected Speeches of Spiro Agnew. Although his prose is on the tame side compared to what Republican Party head Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and many other spew out on a daily basis. But I'm still struck by the intensity of the bile in these speeches. A lot of Democrats are still telling themselves that the Spiro Agnews are some kind of aberration, and that soon that kind of politics will go away. Meanwhile, two generations of Karl Roves and Dick Cheneys have been practicing this brand of politics for decades and will keep on doing so for the foreseeable future.

In a speech to an Ohio Republican Dinner in Cleveland on 06/20/1970, the sleazy Vice President singled out Sen. Ted Kennedy, who was one of the leading critics of the Vietnam War. Agnew had been engaged for months in a verbal jihad against opponents of the war. At the time of this speech, the Kent State and Jackson State murders were just weeks in the past. Politics were polarized. College campuses had exploded with protest, including violent ones, after Nixon's April 30 announcement of his invasion of Cambodia, a significant escalation and widening of the war. Hundreds of colleges shut down for a period of time; dozens were occupied by the National Guard (most notoriously including Kent State). Vietnam veterans were playing an increasingly role in antiwar protests. Organized labor was turning against the war: the Teamsters, AFSCME and the United Auto Workers had come out against the war. Congress was putting tremendous pressure on Nixon to get US troops out of Cambodia immediately and out of Vietnam soon - hard as that may be to picture after our experience during the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars up until now.

So Agnew was intent on denouncing and smearing the antiwar movement, in particular to downplay the role of Vietnam veterans and labor. In this Cleveland speech, he cited Ted Kennedy:

And what is one to believe is the position of the senior Senator from Massachusetts, Edward M. Kennedy?

In August of 1968, just prior to the Democratic convention, Senator Kennedy put forth to the world his program for peace in Vietnam. Let me read it to you.

"Specifically, our government should undertake as soon as possible:

First, to end unconditionally all bombing of North Vietnam;
Second, to then negotiate with Hanoi the mutual withdrawal from South Vietnam of all foreign forces, both allied and North Vietnamese;
Third, to accompany this withdrawal with whatever help we can give to the South Vietnamese in the building of a viable political, economic and legal structure that will not promptly collapse upon our departure; and
Fourth, to demonstrate to both Hanoi and Saigon the sincerity of our intentions by significantly decreasing this year the level of our military activity and military personnel in the south."
Let's assume for now that Agnew was quoting Kennedy correctly. Agnew here is indulging the ever-popular political trick of quoting an opposing politician seeming to contradict himself. Agnew says in what follows that Kennedy's "program and ideas were tried in their entirety" and didn't bring peace. I could write for hours about how dishonest a statement that was. Short version: Nixon was not seeking a negotiated peace and had even deliberately sabotaged the 1968 talks while he was running for President. In any case, it was even more painfully obvious then that it may seem from the perspective of four decades later that the situation in the Vietnam War in August of 1968 was quite different than it was in June of 1970. And no negotiated settlement had been reached.

But Agnew's polemics against Kennedy certainly have a contemporary ring after the kind of hoo-ha we have heard from supporters of the Iraq War for years:

As the Senator recommended, the President has stopped all the bombing of the north. He has cut all air operation over 20 per cent. He has announced the withdrawal of more than quarter of a million men. He has offered to withdraw all our men if they will withdraw theirs. He has agreed, along with the South Vietnamese to abide by the outcome of internationally supervised free elections. Every offer to negotiate we have made to the enemy remains on the table.

That August, Senator Kennedy said: "These steps would enable us to end our participation in this war with honor . . ." Well, we have taken all those steps and moreā€”and the enemy has not reciprocated a gesture.

The Senator's program and ideas were tried in their entirety, and they have not moved the enemy an inch toward peace. Yet the Senator persists in blaming the continuation of the war on the lack of United States initiatives. Well, the President of the United States is not listening to the counsel of defeatists who blame every deadlock at the conference table and every impasse in negotiation on the United States. ... [three paragraphs quoting John Kennedy]

It is not President Nixon blocking the road to peace; it is Hanoi - and Hanoi's most effective - even if unintentional - apologists today are not in Paris [site of the peace talks]; they are they are in the United States - they are in high places, and their prescription for ending the war amounts to surrender.
It's very clear in this context that his reference to apologists for Hanoi was meant in particular to include Ted Kennedy, who in 1970 was the Democratic candidate that Nixon feared the most for the 1972 election.

This kind of intimation of (what Agnew doesn't quite call) treason in "high places" represented McCarthyist language that Agnew was newly mainstreaming into the Republican Party. Those familiar with the conspiracy theories that were very common among the John Birch Society and other far-right groups would recognize the language. We also see here the framing of criticism of bad, even disastrous US foreign policy decisions as stemming from what rightwing pundits now call "the Blame America First crowd."

Not that any of Agnew's fans then or Rush Limbaugh's today would actually care, but it's worth noting that nothing that Agnew quoted from Ted Kennedy even remotely qualifies as "blaming America first", much less anything remotely treasonable.

Today's Republican Party leader Limbaugh was telling Glenn Beck on the latter's FOX News hatefest on 08/26/09 that President Obama "is purposely using his Attorney General to make the United States the villain of the world." Same playbook as Agnew was using in 1969. Except that what Limbaugh is defending was a torture program ordered by a Republican President and Vice President.

At another Republican dinner in Las Vegas on September 14, 1970, shortly before the mid-term elections, Agnew returned to trashing Kennedy. It also has the most familiar kind of ring. Bill Ayers and the Weathermen/Weather Underground actually were active in violent protest back then, and the nation had seen large demonstrations and serious campus unrest that year.

Neither Kennedy nor any other Democratic Senator had endorsed political violence or condoned it. Since Kennedy had lost two brothers to political violence, that is not at all surprising in his case. But Agnew ridiculed him for speaking out against it:

In San Diego the other day, I started the Come-Lately Club. Its membership consists of those men in control of the opposition Congress [Agnew's odd phrase for the Democratic majority in both Houses of Congress] who have for years winked at disorder and in this Congress have blocked the President's anti-crime legislation. But now that election time is near, they suddenly lift high the banner of law and order.

Just today, we enrolled our newest member. He denounced campus radicals and compared them to the Palestinian terrorists. His blast at these "apostles of force" sounded tough. Oh, it sounded hardline - but it did not sound at all like the man who was saying it. Now, who do you suppose is the latest to lash out at what he calls "the campus commandos"? None other than that newest member of the Come-Lately Club, Senator Ted Kenned. Kennedy Come Lately - it's about time.
Not that Agnew bothers to cite even a single example of Ted Kennedy or another other Democrat "wink[ing] at disorder".

Agnew went on to attacks the advocates of "radical liberalism", pretty much a complete oxymoron in terms of American politics, and not a phrase that has survived in that form. But it's an older version of the conceptually bizarre conflation of liberalism, socialism, communism and fascism that today's Republicans so commonly use. He used language like the following, which has proved to be effective in rallying conservative whites to the Republican causes over the years. Citing a sentence from an editorial in the Las Vegas Sun criticizing Agnew's demagoguery, he said:

There you have it all, my friends - the contemptuousness, the elitism, the condescension toward the good people of this country that are the hallmarks of the radical liberal. ...

Well, people of Nevada, I don't believe that we are "unthinking masses" and I don't believe we need any "young intellectuals" to tell us how we should conduct our lives. I believe the people of America and the people of Nevada have the independence, the intelligence, the judgement and the wisdom to make up their own minds - and let's send the so-called "young intellectuals" back to the Ivory Towers where they belong.
In other speeches, he's careful to make some ritual acknowledgment that there are good young people out there after he's made cracks like this, but not in this case. This was part of a conscious strategy of trying to stigmatize the antiwar movement in particular as the work of irresponsible young college students with bad attitudes.

He goes on to beat the drums of a favorite culture war theme, drug abuse. He uses the theme to bitch about rock music, pointing out supposed drug references in the Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends" and the Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit". He didn't go into some of the more exotic ideas about secret messages instructing people to sin being played backwards on those sinister rock songs. (How that was supposed to induce anyone to do anything was never clear to me.) But he does pander to the aging Republicans who in 1970 were still thinking that Elvis Presley was a degenerate who played "race music" or whatever and that the Beatles with their long hair were making healthy young men into sissies. He told his Las Vegas audience:

These songs present the use of drugs in such an attractive light that for the impressionable, "turning on" becomes the natural and even the approved thing to do.

And all the while that this brainwashing [sic] has been going on, most of us have regarded it as good, clean, noisy fun.
I wonder what Spiro would have had to say about Rush's OxyContin habit?

In a reference to the Peter Fonda/Dennis Hopper movie Easy Rider, he says:

A popular recent movie - I will not name it here because I don't want to promote it - has as its heroes two men who are able to live a carefree life off the proceeds of illegal sales of drugs. When they come to a violent end, the villain, it turns out, is an allegedly repressive society. No sympathy is wasted on the wrecked lives of the people who bought their drugs and financed our heroes' easy ride.
Yes, this is superficial pandering to fears of problems real and imagined. But it has been effective for Republicans for decades.

By the way, I've seen Easy Rider more than once. But I never realized before that the end, in which a guy in a pickup-truck shoots the Fonda and Hopper characters with a shotgun, meant that "the villain" was "an allegedly repressive society". I would have thought it represented the end of a self-destructive course which their lives were taking. But who am I to question a great film critic like Spiro Agnew?

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