David Frum December 28th, 1998 at 12:00 am
Clinton administration’s defenders are shocked, absolutely shocked, that anyone
might think the timing of the raid on Iraq had something to do with the
impeachment vote in the House of Representatives. Geraldo Rivera — usually a
reliable indicator of this administration’s thinking — opined on television
last Wednesday that never before in American history had any president had to
endure such insinuations. Is the self-pity merited?
take a little trip back through time. It’s October 25, 1973, five days after
Richard Nixon’s "Saturday Night massacre" — the firing of Special
Prosecutor Archibald Cox, and the resignations of Attorney General Elliot
Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus. It’s also the
twentieth day of the Yom Kippur war, and Israeli troops have crossed the Suez
canal, surrounded an Egyptian army in the Sinai desert, and reached the
outskirts of Damascus. Suddenly, President Nixon orders American troops worldwide
placed on "precautionary alert" — not a war footing, but close to
it. Soldiers’ leaves are canceled, B-52s in Guam are ordered back to the United
States, and a third aircraft carrier is dispatched to the Mediterranean.
Washington rally round the president? Hardly. Nixon sends out National Security
Adviser Henry Kissinger — one of the few members of his administration to
retain any credibility — to face the press. Kissinger is asked much ruder
questions than anybody dared put to Clinton’s national security adviser, Sandy
Berger, or Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: Not only is Kissinger
challenged to explain whether the operation was "designed" with
domestic political considerations in mind, but one reporter ventures to ask him
to comment on whether he thinks Nixon entirely sane.
Nixon administration was in fact reacting to a genuine and frightening threat:
the possibility that the Soviet Union would send troops into the war zone to
save Egypt and Syria from humiliation by Israel. Credible reports had reached
Washington that 40,000 Soviet airborne troops were gathered in staging areas in
southern Russia and that 6,000 Soviet marines might already have disembarked in
Syria. But even after the genuineness of the crisis had been established; even
after the Soviets had backed down; even after the alert ended, the doubts
lingered. The Washington Post
reported on October 26 that the capital was gripped by an "undercurrent of
suspicion that the president might have escalated the crisis … to … take
people’s minds off his domestic problems." normal'>Newsweek suggested in its November 5, 1973, issue that the
president’s "flourish of crisis diplomacy" was a device to divert
attention, and it quoted an unnamed administration source as saying, "We
had a problem and we decided to make the most of it." normal'>Time questioned whether "the alert scare was necessary,"
and concluded that it probably was not.
ancient history shows something more than the falseness of the Clintonites’
claim that no previous administration has ever had to endure the skepticism
that this one has. It points to parallels between the harm the Clinton
presidency is doing to the country and that done by the Nixon and Johnson
administrations a generation ago. Between 1966 and 1975, every poll of public
opinion registered a dramatic drop in public trust and confidence in the
government in Washington. The reasons for this drop are pretty obvious: Lie to
people often enough and they stop believing your words; fail often enough and
they lose faith in your judgment. And the decade from 1966 to 1975 abounded in
lies and failures, both abroad and at home.
conservatives have been known to laud the collapse of trust in government,
because it makes it harder for the likes of the Clintons to launch sweeping new
social programs. That’s true enough. But a widespread belief that politicians
are liars and frauds is an equally effective weapon against tax cuts, school
choice, and Social Security reform. Cynicism does not promote small government.
As the sociologist Edward Banfield taught 30 years ago, a society in which
people do not trust each other will not be able to govern itself. And a society
that cannot govern itself will not be a society without government; it will be
a society perpetually vulnerable to authoritarian government.
when people say, as they do, that Ronald Reagan’s most important achievement
was restoring Americans’ faith in themselves, they are not mouthing platitudes.
Between 1979 and 1989, opinion polls showed a rise in public confidence in the
trustworthiness of government. Reagan’s strong leadership, his rock-solid
personal integrity, and his consistent record of success won back much of the
faith — and some of the latitude to conduct a muscular foreign policy — that
Johnson and Nixon had forfeited. It was Reagan’s record, crowned by the
collapse of communism and the ultimate vindication of his hardline anti-Soviet
policies, that made the Gulf War of 1991 politically feasible.
Reagan’s achievement was an incomplete one. Trust in government as measured by
polls has never recovered the levels of the 1950s and early 1960s. Even at the
peak of his popularity in 1984 and 1985, Reagan never commanded the deference
that an Eisenhower or even a Kennedy once took for granted, particularly in the
realm of foreign policy. Nor did Reagan’s achievement sink deep roots. The
shock of the 1990 recession and George Bush’s breach of his no-new-taxes pledge
rolled poll-measured levels of public trust right back to their late-1970s
nadir. And then Bill Clinton was elected.
here we are: The economy is strong, still; crime, unwed pregnancy, abortion,
and divorce are all trending down; the 1990s have been the first decade since
the 1920s in which the United States has faced no powerful enemy. And yet,
trust in government has not recovered as it did in the 1980s. Indeed, as Karlyn
Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute notes, while 73 percent of
Americans in 1958 trusted the government in Washington to do the right thing
"most" or "all" of the time; in 1998, 73 percent expect the
government to do the right thing "only some of the time" or
"never" — a precise mirror image. Against this backdrop of low
expectations and ill-humor, President Clinton ordered up a repeatedly postponed
air war against Iraq 24 hours before he was sure to lose a House impeachment
should fervently hope that suspicions Bill Clinton timed a military operation
for political protection remain just that — suspicions. Because already, 80
percent of the public believes the president is a perjurer, and a majority
believes that he organized an obstruction of justice. Yet Clinton’s
faithlessness, curiously enough, seems to be inflicting more damage upon the
institution of the presidency than upon his own personal standing. He remains
popular even as ever-increasing numbers of Americans describe the government he
heads as corrupt and immoral. It’s an impressive act of blame-shifting. So one
has to wonder to what record heights public mistrust of government would ascend
were it ever shown that Clinton had deployed the military — even in a just and
necessary cause — for personal gain.
one must fear that at the very same moment that the president’s job ratings are
reaching an all-time high, the troubling timing of this sudden and startling
reversal of Clinton’s foreign policy seems likely to perpetuate for another
generation the poisonous suspicions that have crippled American foreign policy,
and American government more generally, since the 1960s.