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Nice Guys Finish Last Posted - Nov 19, 2017

Nice Guys Finish Last: the presidencies of Gerald R. Ford & Jimmy Carter

“Our long national nightmare is over,” Gerald R. Ford announced to a relieved nation in 1974, after sworn in as the 38th President of the United States. Safe, honest, decent, the son of America’s heartland, Gerald R. Ford was tonic for the bruised psyche of the American people. That he should come to be ridiculed as less-than bright and a clumsy oaf was not merely cruel but utterly untrue. Ford had been a linebacker and center for the University of Michigan football team and turned down an offer to play in the NFL in order to attend Yale Law School. Like his successor, Jimmy Carter, Ford was perceived as a nice guy, and everybody knows what happens to nice guys. Below is a short recap of both presidencies.

38. GERALD R. FORD (1974 - 1977)

The consensus opinion of Gerald R. Ford—the man, the politician, the president—is that he was a nice guy. What did Leo Durocher say about nice guys? By implication nice guys are weak, indecisive, easily stepped on. Who but a nice guy would pardon Richard Nixon? Or fail to intervene militarily when South Vietnam was under assault by the North Vietnamese communists? Or “sell out” to Russia by signing the Helsinki Accords? Or offer amnesty to draft dodgers and army deserters? Or wear a WIN button as a means of halting runaway inflation? President Ford did all of these things, and it cost him the 1976 presidential election. When he left office everyone agreed: Ford was a nice guy out of his depth as president. That was then. Today, Ford is praised for the same accomplishments for which he was once were condemned. Writes his biographer: “(Ford) left the presidency in far better shape than he had found it, perhaps even healthier than it had been in decades.”

Ford never wanted to be president or even a senator. In 1948, the year he was elected to the House of Representatives, becoming a senator was the ambition of his friends and fellow congressmen John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Ford’s dream was to be Speaker of the House. He may have been a nice guy, but he had goals and did what needed doing to achieve them—without making enemies. He made it as House minority leader, but never as House Speaker because the Republicans—with the exception of the 1952 election—failed to win a majority of seats during Ford’s 25 years in the House. In 1968, running for president, Nixon discussed having Ford on the ticket as his vice presidential running mate. He chose Maryland governor Spiro Agnew instead, which was just as well—Ford didn’t want the job. Five years later, with the Nixon White House embroiled with the Watergate scandal, and Agnew having been forced from office for bribery, conspiracy and tax evasion while governor, Ford was offered the vice presidency. Due to his unshakeable honesty and rock-ribbed integrity, he was everybody’s first choice. Ford accepted.

At the time—October 1973—Ford was among the few people in Washington who still believed Nixon was innocent. Why? Because early on in the investigation Attorney General John Mitchell had assured him that no one in the White House was connected with the Watergate burglary. As the evidence mounted, Ford kept the faith, even after Mitchell was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of obstruction of justice and conspiracy. Ford kept faith right to the end, when Nixon’s part in the cover up was made perfectly clear. Rather than face impeachment, Nixon resigned. At noon on August 9, Ford was sworn in as president of the United States.

Within a month of taking office, Ford pardoned Nixon. The presidential honeymoon was over. Ford was condemned by Democrats and Republicans alike. Ford didn’t take it personally. Writes the author: “Ford’s bedrock certainty of his own ethics enabled him to weather even the denunciation of most of his own countrymen.” Unemployment was high, inflation was rampant, and a recession appeared eminent. Ford’s response—wear a WIN button (Whip Inflation Now) on his lapel and urge Americans to tighten their belts. Yes, spend less, drive fewer miles, and stop wasting food. Everyone, including some of his own economic advisors, laughed off WIN as naive and unrealistic. Alongside the announcement of WIN, Ford put forth a ten-point plan to tighten the U.S. economy. Among Ford’s economic advisors who shaped the plan was future Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan. The plan worked—the economy picked up and inflation waned.

There followed several White House decisions that made Ford more unpopular with Republicans than with Democrats—making liberal Nelson Rockefeller his vice president, proposing amnesty to draft dodgers and army deserters, and allowing South Vietnam to fall to the communist North Vietnamese. Ford could have sent troops to Vietnam and Congress probably would have supported his decision. But what was the point? The war was not winnable and the corrupt South Vietnamese government was hardly worth saving. On top of that, the war—and Watergate—had divided the nation badly. It was time for the nation to heal. Ford did everything in his power to get the few remaining Americans out before Saigon fell, and succeeded.

There followed Ford’s participation in the Helsinki Accords, another unpopular decision on Capitol Hill, which even Henry Kissinger opposed. As a result of the Accords, a number of Helsinki Commissions on Human Rights sprang up across the Soviet Union, as well as satellites and in other European nations, and proved very effective at shepherding individual cases to justice. Writes the author: “The Helsinki Accords were Ford’s greatest presidential achievements on the world stage, and an argument can be made that it proved to be the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire.”

The nation was in a far better state when the 1976 presidential election arrived. The nation felt better about itself, the economy was better, and inflation, while high, was under control. The problem for Ford was that he faced not one but two opponents—Jimmy Carter, the Democratic Party nominee, and Ronald Reagan, whom Ford eked past at the Republican Convention. Reagan represented the growing right-wing of the Republican party which during Ford’s two-and-a-half years in the White House opposed him nearly as often as the Democrats. After the Republican Convention, Reagan did virtually nothing in support of Ford. In the closing weeks of the election, Ford overcame a 29-point deficit in the polls. On election day, Ford lost in the closest presidential contest since 1916.

Ford and his wife Betty retired to Palm Springs. With each passing year, his stature as president grew. Those who found his pardon of Nixon as morally corrupt realized it had been done in the best interest of the country. One of Ford’s severest critics, journalist Bob Woodward, changed his opinion as well: “Ford was wise to act. . . . Ford wanted to protect the presidency, a proper goal because the president is an extension of the nation. The only way out of the Watergate atmosphere was to move fast, to short-circuit the process. Preoccupation with Nixon’s fate could have continued for years.”

Journalist David S. Broder perhaps summed up the Ford presidency best. Shortly after the 1976 election he wrote: “In an odd, inexplicable way . . . the truth has begun to dawn on people in the finals days of Gerald R. Ford’s tenure that he was the kind of President Americans wanted—and didn’t know they had.”

39. JIMMY CARTER (1977 - 1981)

It wasn’t exactly Jimmy Carter’s finest hour. He was lost, searching for answers, and had called a number of political advisors to the White House to offer suggestions. Washington insider Clark Clifford, watching as President Carter sat on the floor and scribbled down notes as people spoke to him, couldn't help thinking that it would have been inconceivable to imagine “Lyndon Johnson sitting on the floor and saying, ‘Tell me what I am doing wrong.’” The image many of us have of Jimmy Carter—39th President of the United States—is of a micromanager who couldn’t see the forest for the trees. There is another side of Carter often overlooked: the political leader whose enduring legacy is the establishment of human rights as the central objective of American diplomacy.

Jimmy Carter was among the fresh faces to emerge from the New South, a bright young politician remarkably free of racial prejudice. In the 1960s, he was elected to state office by a combination of moderate whites and newly-enfranchised African Americans. Carter served with distinction in the Georgia legislature and as governor before running for president. In the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate, Carter presented a renewed sense of idealism to the American electorate. With an engaging manner and infectious grin, he surprised the pundits with his victory in the Iowa caucus, after which there was no stopping his run for his party’s nomination. Against incumbent president Gerald R. Ford in the fall election, it was a case of two Nice Guys competing for the same job, with Carter perceived as the wiser and sharper of the two, giving him a slight edge that carried him to the White House.

While he was an excellent campaigner, Carter was not a mixer, which became evident once he became president. He had ideals aplenty but none of the Washington know-how to carry them out. On top of that, he entered office acting as if he didn’t need help from Capitol Hill. His first mistake was not appointing a chief of staff, which complicated and prolonged the White House decision-making process. His second was offending his very own party in Congress—the Democrats. According to one aid, as far as Carter was concerned, “anyone who disagreed with him was simply wrong.” There followed a number of embarrassing blunders. Adding insult to injury, the Senate overturned most of Carter’s decisions.

What Carter did get right was his decision to make human rights the centerpiece of his foreign policy. He made a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement a prime object, and achieved it with the Camp David Accords between Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and Anwar Sadat of Egypt. Of equal historical significance was his negotiation of an agreement to return the Panama Canal to the Panamanians. On the other hand, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the taking of American hostages by radical Islamic students in Iran were a decided setback that proved beyond his ability to manage.

What hurt him politically was the state of the economy. While Carter pursued his ambitions for energy and human rights policies, the Democratic Congress was far more interested in alleviating the impact of stagnation on their constituents. High rates of unemployment and inflation were hitting voters from both ends, and representatives were feeling their anger. A gasoline shortage, a scandal involving one of his aids, the nuclear meltdown at the Three-Mile Island nuclear energy plant, and Ted Kennedy’s decision to seek the Democratic nomination in 1980, further hurt him. Carter not only began to question himself, but to question the nation, which he did openly in a televised address. He told Americans that they faced a crisis of confidence and urged them to recognize—and to accept—that their families lived in an age of limits. The speech drew mixed responses. Many felt that Carter blamed the nation for the problems they were struggling with rather than offering solutions and leadership.

In 1980, when Reagan emerged as the Republican Party’s candidate for president, a testy Carter implied that his opponent was an outright racist and willing to launch a nuclear war if elected. Carter later apologized for his remarks. A bigger blow to Carter occurred during the presidential debate, when Reagan asked Americans to consider whether they were better off in 1980 than four years earlier. Despite the economy, despite Reagan’s unexpected savvy as a debater, the election remained close until the final weekend. On Sunday night, Carter went before the nation and announced that a deal to release the hostages being held in Iran would not be reached before the election. Two days later, Reagan won in a landslide.

After losing to Reagan, Carter did a great deal to resurrect his reputation. He traveled widely, met with a number of world leaders, and back at home lent his name, his time and his energy in support of Habitat for Humanity. As I write this, Carter is 95 years old and still active. “For all of Carter’s equivocations and inconsistencies,” writes one historian, “the mere fact that an American president had used his bully pulpit to raise a cry about human rights had profoundly affected the rest of the world and the American public.”

Coming up: Ending the Cold War: the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.
Only in America
Posted - Nov 12, 2017

A ne’er-do-well auto mechanic named Clarence Gideon was arrested for petty theft. Because he couldn’t afford an attorney, he asked the court to provide one for him. The court denied his request. He was tried, convicted and sentenced to five years in Florida State Prison.

Clarence Gideon wasn’t ready to give up just yet. He borrowed a book from the prison library and boned up on the appeals process. Then, with a pencil and prison letterhead, he appealed directly to the United States Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari. He said the state court had deprived him of his Sixth Amendment right to an attorney and thus denied due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. As a layman, Gideon said he was incapable of defending himself in court, and that is why he was now serving time in prison.

Gideon’s chance of finding a needle in a haystack was infinitely better than in having his case heard before the Supreme Court. But, as fate would have it, the case of Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) was not only heard, but changed the course of American legal history. Gideon’s incredible story, and the story of how the Supreme Court chooses and decides cases, is the subject of “Gideon’s Trumpet” (1964), by Anthony Lewis. Lewis knows the ins and outs of the American judicial system. He was a New York Times reporter who covered the Supreme Court from 1957 to 1964. He also taught law at Harvard from 1974 to 1989.

The Supreme Court receives about 2500 appeals each term (or did so at the time of Gideon’s appeal) of which about 150 are actually granted a hearing. “Review by the Supreme Court is in the interest of the law, its appropriate exposition and enforcement, not in the mere interest of the litigants,” the author quotes Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes. In other words, the Court accepted Gideon’s appeal not out of the goodness of its heart but to address a legal question. The question that interested the Court was whether or not criminal defendants tried in state court unable to afford an attorney were being denied their Constitutional rights. In federal court, defendants without means were provided legal counsel by the court. Under federal law, it was their Constitutional right. But in state court? That was a different issue all together. Until Gideon’s appeal, the states were not bound by Bill of Rights guarantees. “Our Constitution created a system of dual governments, state and federal, each with its own laws,” writes the author. Tried in state court, Gideon was not guaranteed the right to an attorney. Fortunately for him, issues of federal law sometimes arise in state courts, and therefore can be appealed, and this was one of them.

Twenty years earlier, in a similar case (Betts v. Brady, 1942), the Court ruled in favor of the state—an indigent criminal defendant did not have the right to an attorney in state court. By 1962, when Gideon filed his appeal, the makeup of the court had changed significantly (more liberal/more activist) and had decided it was time to reexamine the merits of the Court’s prior decision. Having accepted Gideon’s appeal, the Court asked one of the top attorneys in the nation (future Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas) to represent Gideon. Working pro bono, Fortas put the expertise of his powerful Washington law firm to work on the case, with no stone left unturned.

The state of Florida, meanwhile, assigned a 26-year-old assistant attorney general named Bruce Robert Jacob to represent the state. While he didn’t have the resources of Abe Fortas’s powerful law firm, Jacob did have a long history of legal precedent on his side. He argued that defendants without means were perfectly capable of acting as their own attorney. Indeed, Gideon had done quite well representing himself in court, said Jacob—in a losing cause. Jacob also made an appeal to all 49 states to file friend-of-court briefs on behalf of Florida. There was one very big problem, however: 23 states favored a new standard of fairness on state criminal procedure. Some were already providing attorneys to defendants who could not afford one. Only two states—Alabama and North Carolina—actually spoke on behalf of Florida.

The Supreme Court’s ruling was unanimous. States were ordered to provide an attorney to indigent defendants who asked for one, not just in state capital offenses, but in all criminal cases. Gideon’s conviction was overturned. He was assigned an attorney and his case was retried in Florida court. This time he was acquitted and was released from prison, having served two years.

Only in America do such things happen.

Gideon v. Wainwright was one of three Supreme Court decisions to significantly alter criminal procedure so that it better protected the rights of the accused, not just in some states but in all states. The other two were Miranda v. Arizona (1966) and Mapp v. Ohio (1961). At the time, conservative critics accused the Court of legislating rather adjudicating the law. Perhaps. But how much longer would it have taken Congress to pass such legislation, if ever?

Equal protection under the law means equal protection in whatever state you happen to reside. Prior to Gideon v. Wainwright, that was not the case.

Justice Walter Schaefer of Illinois has advanced “the relation of the United States to the rest of the world” as one argument for national standards of criminal procedure. “The quality of a nation’s civilization can be largely measured by the method it uses in the enforcement of its criminal law.” Adds the author, “The Supreme Court is in a strategic position to give voice to national ideals.”

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Undeclared war and three presidents
Posted - Nov 06, 2017
What a contrast. On January 17, 1961, in his farewell address to the nation, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of what he described as a threat to our democracy. He called it “the military-industrial complex,” a formidable union of defense contractors and the armed forces. Eisenhower spoke as someone who had seen the horror and lingering sadness of war, saying that "we must learn how to compose differences not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.”

Three days later, on January 20, John F. Kennedy was sworn in as our nation’s 35th president. While campaigning for office, he spoke of a “missile gap” and the need to “get this country moving again” in order to offset the gains made by the Soviet Union. The foreign policy Kennedy was inheriting from Eisenhower, and from Truman before him, had two essentially unquestioned central goals: containing communism and preventing world war. Kennedy believed in that consensus. America must be strong and unafraid to display a show of arms if need be. Unwillingness to do so, said Kennedy, was a sign of weakness. “We dare not tempt them with weakness,” Kennedy said on the steps of the Capitol that day. “For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed. . . .” The United States, Kennedy was declaring, needed more arms from the military-industrial complex. And it must be ready to move quickly in small wars, too—needed new military options, to contain communism without blowing up the world.

Among the hotspots in the world when Kennedy took office—Berlin, Formosa, Korea, Iran, and Southeast Asia—it was Southeast Asia, notably South Vietnam, that Kennedy chose to contain communism. The impact of his decision would divide the United States and adversely impact two successive presidents.

35. JOHN F. KENNEDY (1961 - 1963)

Entering office, John Kennedy was handed—in poker parlance—a royal flush. America was not at war. There was no “missile gap”—Russia wasn’t even close. Militarily, the U.S. was the most powerful nation on the planet. The economy was strong and resources were abundant. Technologically, the U.S. led the world in every category—automobiles, trains, airplanes, ships, computers, communications systems, education, infrastructure, home appliances, you name it. And, after a delayed start, NASA would soon overtake Russia in the race to the moon. Other than the festering sore of denying civil rights to African Americans, America had never been stronger economically or militarily. John F. Kennedy entered the White House on inauguration day with little to concern him other than discovering that all the antique chairs were reproductions.

U.S. involvement in Vietnam started small, with about 600 American military advisors stationed in and around Saigon, a number in line with the Geneva Convention. Kennedy was looking for a small conflict to exercise his belief in the viability of limited warfare, while at the same time showing Khrushchev that he was tough. Vietnam was that place. This was in 1961, before anyone in the U.S. had ever heard of Vietnam, never mind being able to locate it on a map. Indeed, only two American soldiers stationed in Saigon were known to have perished up to this time.

The road to American involvement in the Vietnam War was paved with a series of small, seemingly insignificant decisions, made without a lot of thought or investigation or soul-searching, small decisions that Kennedy believed could easily be reversed and therefore were in line with keeping his options open. However, once he upped the ante toward the end of 1961–sending 3,300 aircraft and doubling the number of American advisors (breaking faith with the Geneva mandate)–the press took notice and began sending journalists to cover the war. Thus, the decision to withdraw became increasingly difficult. By the summer of 1962, Vietnam was making the front page of newspapers across the country. For Kennedy, it meant Vietnam was now a very real issue calling into question American resolve and prestige, demanding more of his attention, and eliciting more and more questions from the press. And it only grew worse as he upped deployment to 11,500 American soldiers by the end of 1962, and 16,000 by the end of 1963. By then, Kennedy was appearing on the network newscasts—CBS, NBC, and ABC—defending his Vietnam policy.

Kennedy did not live to see the outcome of his Vietnam policy, which would lead to an undeclared war, a war that at its peak deployed more than half-a-million Americans soldiers, most of them ages 18-22. Whether or not Kennedy would have managed the war differently than Lyndon Johnson will never be known. However, the advisors Kennedy picked and relied upon in 1961-63, such as Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, Walt Rostow, and MacGeorge Bundy, were the same people Johnson relied upon in 1964-67.

36. LYNDON B. JOHNSON (1963 - 1969)

It was Lyndon Johnson’s bright, shining moment. Speaking before a joint session of Congress seeking passage of the Voting Rights Act, he said: “There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem, because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustices.” Johnson paused, and—echoing the civil rights movement theme song—he added, “And we shall overcome.”

Johnson was brash, pushy, a sycophant when he had to be, and utterly merciless on subordinates. He ascended to the presidency only through the tragic assassination of John Kennedy. However, it’s questionable whether Kennedy ever could have been as effective as Johnson in getting a mountain of liberal legislation through congress.

Johnson spear-headed passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and legislation that created Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, and Head Start, which offered early education for the poor. He urged passage of the Clean Air Act, to reduce air pollution, and the Wilderness Act, which protected 9.1 million acres of Federal land. He pushed the Higher Education Act, which increased federal aid to universities for scholarships and low-interest loans for students. And he pressed for passage of the Freedom of Information Act, which made the workings of government more transparent than ever before. Alone, these Acts would have insured Johnson a place among the nation’s greatest presidents, and possibly alone as our nation’s greatest domestic president. What damaged his presidency—and divided the nation—was his management of the Vietnam War.

Ironically, Johnson had doubts about the war from the start. But with the Vietcong stepping up fighting in 1964, and Johnson not wanting to appear weak, he ordered in more advisors and more weapons and related equipment, plus the construction of air bases from which to launch retaliatory bombing missions. Relying on the advise of Kennedy’s advisors—whom Johnson admired and retained—he approved every request for more military aid while believing in his heart-of-hearts that once embedded in Southeast Asia the U.S. military would find it extremely difficult to get out. As if to erase his doubt about the war, Johnson would not tolerate dissent in the high level meetings that decided how the war was being prosecuted. He demanded unanimous decisions from his advisors—perhaps as a means of sharing blame should the war go badly.

By 1968, with 550,000 troops deployed in Vietnam and no end in sight— and Americans protesting in streets and universities across the nation— the war indeed was going badly. After the Tet Offensive confirmed Johnson’s worst fears, he ordered a stop to the bombing, requested peace talks with North Vietnamese leaders, and announced he would not be seeking a second term as president. There was more than enough blame to go around—Robert McNamara, MacGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk, Walt Rostow, and now General William Westmoreland—but in the end it was the man at the top who was forced to bear all of it. Johnson knew: his sparkling domestic legacy was tarnished by a war he didn’t want and was never fully committed to. American lives lost on Johnson’s watch—35,000.

37. RICHARD M. NIXON (1969 - 1974)

How to explain the Nixon presidency? How to explain the intoxicating highs and crushing lows, the continuation of the Vietnam war, detente with China and Russia, the landslide reelection of 1972, Watergate, and the forced resignation from office? How to explain the man himself? “Nixon was our most Shakespearean president,” says writer Elizabeth Drew. “(H)e brought us into tragedy and made us go through it with him.”

Nixon ran for president in 1968 and won in an election that was a referendum on the Vietnam War. While campaigning, Nixon alluded to a “secret plan” for ending the war. In fact, he had no plan, secret or otherwise. Still, there was nothing to prevent him from calling a truce and pulling American troops out. The war was not winnable—the Tet Offensive had shown that—the inept and incredibly corrupt South Vietnamese government not worth saving, and over half of Americans wanted an end to U.S. involvement. Indeed, Vietnam wasn’t even a crucial piece of the Nixon-Kissinger grand plan then in the planning stages—detente with China and Russia. Only Nixon was plagued with the very malady that had plagued his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson—saving face. Like Johnson before him, Nixon did not want to be “the first president to lose a war.”

“Peace with honor” was the Nixon mantra. To get it, he ordered a gradual pull-out of troops while vainly seeking negotiations with leaders in Hanoi whose strategy was to play a waiting game in order to get the best deal possible. And, like Johnson, Nixon turned to arial bombing of North Vietnam to pressure them to the negotiating table. But he went further than Johnson in targeting parts of Cambodia and Laos, often with “secret” and unauthorized bombings that Congress knew nothing about. A settlement was finally reached—nearly five years after Nixon took office—at a cost of an additional 21,000 Americans lives, not to mention at least one million Vietnamese lives, and the destabilization of Cambodia that resulted in the death of at least on million Cambodians. Was the negotiated settlement any better than the one he could have gotten in 1969? Most historians says no.

By then, Nixon was elected to a second term and deeply embroiled in the Watergate scandal. “Watergate” was named after the Watergate office building in Washington D.C. where the Democratic National Committee was headquartered. The Nixon White House ordered a break-in for reasons that remain sketchy. What is clear is the break-in was illegal, and the subsequent coverup fatal to the Nixon presidency. The break-in was one of many “dirty tricks” ordered up by Nixon to get even with his perceived enemies that, in his mind, were legion—the press, political rivals, intellectuals, the Eastern elite, Hollywood actors, liberal members of his own party, among many. He even drew up an “enemies list” to be certain none of them were invited to White House functions. They were all out to get him, Nixon said in closed meetings with his most trusted advisors. Now, ensconced inside the White House with all its levers of power—entitled as it were—it was Nixon’s turn to get back at them. The clumsy Watergate break-in blew the lid off. As the nation watched on their television sets, investigations and congressional hearings ensued that eventually led to Nixon’s resignation, in August 1974—the end of a sad, sordid story.

Had Nixon pulled out of Vietnam after taking office in 1969, it’s likely Watergate never would have happened. So says Nixon White House aid John Ehrlichman. It was the release of the Pentagon Papers and the subsequent planting of bugs that led to the Watergate break-in, says Ehrlichman. Had the war been over, the Pentagon Papers would no longer have mattered. Perhaps. Vietnam and Watergate aside, Nixon achieved many accomplishments while in office, including his historical opening of diplomatic relations with China and achieving detente with Russia, the funding of Amtrak, the constitutional amendment granting eighteen-year-olds the right to vote, the end of the draft, large increases of funding to supports the arts, the Consumer Protection Act, and more. Moreover, as the result of new laws enacted during his time in office, Nixon presided over a dramatic expansion of the regulatory state. “(R)ail as he did against ‘big government,’” writes Elizabeth Drew, “in the end Nixon accepted the premise: that the federal government can do good things for the people. He was the last Republican president to do so.”

Coming up: Nice guys finish last: the presidencies of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

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Monuments and Robert E. Lee
Posted - Oct 29, 2017
Below is my review of “The Man Who Would Not Be Washington” published in 2015, before the controversy over Civil War monuments.


Imagine: in place of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., a memorial dedicated to Robert E. Lee. It might have happened, had Lee accepted command of the Union Army in 1861. In such a case, it’s likely the outcome of the Civil War would have been decided much sooner, due to the brilliant generalship of Robert E. Lee. A grateful nation would have insisted on a monument to Lee, rather than Abraham Lincoln. Far fetched? Perhaps, to our minds conditioned by the actual outcome of events. Jonathan Horn, an exceptional writer and the author of “The Man Who Would Not Be Washington,” makes a compelling argument for just such a possibility—had Lee sided with the North.

Horn’s fascinating book is as much about the geography of Lee’s world as it is about the man himself—about locations that figured prominently in Lee’s life, many along the Potomac—Stratford Hall (his birthplace), Mount Vernon, Arlington House, which overlooked the capital, Harpers Ferry, Sharpsburg—and locations elsewhere—White House plantation (Martha Washington’s birthplace), West Point, battlefields north and south of the Potomac, and Washington College (later renamed Washington and Lee University), where Lee spent his last years, as president of the college. Lee was a master at reading geography and used it to good advantage in the war with Mexico, and on many Civil War battlefields where, with lesser forces, he utilized the terrain to his advantage to outwit a host of Union commanders—McClellan, Pope, Burnside, and Hooker.

Robert E. Lee was born into a military family. He was the son of Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, a general who served under George Washington in the Revolutionary War. Robert E. Lee attended West Point, and after graduating second in his class joined the Army Corp of Engineers. As fate would have it, he married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the daughter George Washington’s adopted son, Martha Washington’s grandson from a previous marriage. The marriage made Lee heir to the Washington legacy, and heir to Arlington House, which housed what remained of Washington’s estate. It was here that Robert and his wife lived when the Civil War broke out.

Lee’s decision to side with the South put him at odds with Washington’s legacy as father of the Union. It wasn’t an easy decision for Lee. He thought secession was illegal, he thought George Washington would agree, and he opposed it. In April 1861, Lee was called to the city of Washington by an emissary for Abraham Lincoln who tried to get Lee to squash the secession. “The country looks to you as the representative of the Washington family,” Lee recalled the emissary telling him. Lee returned to Arlington to think about it for two days before declining the command. He said he couldn’t go to war against the state he called home, Virginia.

Lee famously said slavery was an evil institution, but in the same letter, he wrote that it was necessary for the time being. Indeed, Lee needed slaves for the upkeep of Arlington. Of course, after Lee departed for Richmond, the slaves were freed, and all of the Washington artifacts housed at Arlington House were removed or lost. Shortly after that, Arlington became Arlington National Cemetery.

The war over, Lee spent his last days in the upper reaches of the Shenandoah Valley, in Lynchburg, Virginia as president of Washington College. But the story does not end there. The Marble Man, as he was called at West Point, did not lend his support to building monuments. According to the author, Lee probably didn’t even support preserving battlefields because countries that hide reminders of civil wars move on quicker. Says Horn: “(Lee) was worried that preserving the reminders of the past might preserve the passions that had divided the country.”

A marble monument was built on the western end of Washington Mall, not to the memory of Robert E. Lee, but to the memory of Lee’s moral and political antagonist, Abraham Lincoln. Still, there were those who favored some form of monument to Robert E. Lee in Washington, D.C. The idea was floated of erecting a statue of Lee on the southern end of the Arlington Memorial Bridge, the bridge that connects Virginia with the nation’s capital, and of Ulysses S. Grant on the northern end. But the support was not there and the idea was dropped. Concludes the author: “. . . Lee waged against a union he cherished and, until revising his views after the fact, considered inviolable and indivisible.” The Lincoln Memorial is a reminder of that inviolable and indivisible union Lee retired to.

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Work of My Sons

Morning Softly - Water Echoes Movement
-Released in 2014. Bill made guitar riffs and synth tracks at home, got Lya Finston to write some lyrics and sing, and got Scott to provide some bass.

Morning Softly - Early Eerie Feeling
-Recorded in 2014. Songs written by Bill, at home. Synthesizers were added later. Some drumming done by Brendan Lenihan.

Scott Nisley - Brick City Skies
-Released in 2014. With his piano melodies and vocals, Scott entrusted the production of his album to several studio musicians.

The 45's - Roof-Hopping
-Recorded in 2010. A collaborative effort between Scott and Bill Nisley, Adam Sherman, and Zach Belka.

Oh, Yeah...

Richard Nisley's Brothers in Cars
Thanksgiving Day, 1967. From L to R: my brothers David, Charles, and Rob. Photo by John Nisley.
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