The Birth of the Right's Shameless, Nasty Smear Machine
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Americans sometimes wonder how the nation’s political process got so unspeakably nasty with vitriol pouring forth especially from right-wing voices like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Michael Savage, to name just a few. Yet, whenever called on this ugliness, conservatives insist that they are the real victims, picked on by the Left.
This destructive and whiny dynamic has existed at least since the late 1960s when angry passions spilled over from the Vietnam War and grew worse after Richard Nixon exploited Democratic dissension on the war to win the White House in 1968 – and then continued the war for another four nasty years.
As president, Nixon also responded to the fury splintering American society with wedge issues, appealing to the “silent majority” and denouncing anti-war protesters as “bums.” He rode that divisive formula to a landslide victory in November 1972 but soon ensnared himself in the Watergate political spying scandal that drove him from office in August 1974.
Out of all that anger emerged an American Right that believed, as an article of faith, that the Democrats and the “liberal press” had turned Nixon’s run-of-the-mill indiscretions in Watergate into a constitutional crisis to undo Nixon’s overwhelming electoral mandate of 1972.As president, Nixon also responded to the fury splintering American society with wedge issues, appealing to the “silent majority” and denouncing anti-war protesters as “bums.” He rode that divisive formula to a landslide victory in November 1972 but soon ensnared himself in the Watergate political spying scandal that drove him from office in August 1974.
So, over the next two decades – with Nixon in the background egging on Republican politicians – the Right built an attack machine that was designed to defend against “another Watergate” but also was available to destroy the “liberal” enemy.
Which is why, in retrospect, the decision by President Lyndon Johnson and his top aides to withhold from the public their evidence of Nixon’s sabotage of the Vietnam peace talks in fall 1968 proved to be the opposite of their stated intention: to hide the dirty secret for “the good of the country.”
As Johnson’s national security adviser Walt W. Rostow observed in 1973 as the Watergate scandal was unfolding, Nixon may have dared undertake that domestic spying program because he had gotten away with his 1968 skullduggery unscathed.
Because the Republicans had not been held accountable, Rostow noted, “There was nothing in their previous experience with an operation of doubtful propriety (or, even, legality) to warn them off, and there were memories of how close an election could get and the possible utility of pressing to the limit – and beyond.” [To read Rostow’s memo, click here, here and here.]
Indeed, if Johnson had revealed Nixon’s peace-talk sabotage in 1968 – or if Rostow had released the evidence after Johnson’s death in 1973 – the public’s perception of Nixon and Watergate might have been dramatically different. Instead of a one-off affair that could be blamed on some overzealous subordinates, the break-in at the Democratic headquarters might have been seen as part of a larger pattern.
If the American people had seen the evidence that Johnson had regarding Nixon keeping the South Vietnamese government away from the Paris peace talks in 1968 – with promises of a better deal if he got elected – it would have been difficult for even the most die-hard conservative to believe that Nixon’s resignation was undeserved.
Wall Street Disgrace
And that might have gone double if Americans had read the internal memos about how Nixon’s Wall Street friends were using their inside knowledge of Nixon blocking the Vietnam peace talks so they could place their bets on stocks and bonds. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “ Profiting Off Nixon’s Vietnam ‘Treason.’”]