Two of our former presidents, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, have been talking a lot about their views and feelings on Iraq. It would be nice if they took to speaking less and thinking more. They could start with an event in the latter years of Dwight David Eisenhower, a former president who knew how to do the job.
Forty-two years ago this spring, in April 1961, a young American president launched an amphibious invasion on a foreign shore. It was such a thorough failure that to this day the words “Bay of Pigs” are shorthand for “American military fiasco.” The American-trained Cuban exiles who stormed the beaches of Cuba in hopes of liberating their homeland were, essentially, abandoned and left to die, denied the support they’d been promised by the U.S. government. Fidel Castro crushed them.
The Bay of Pigs invasion was badly planned, poorly executed and almost wildly unrealistic. (Months before it began former secretary of state Dean Acheson told JFK, in a private Rose Garden conversation, that you didn’t need Price Waterhouse to figure out 1,500 guerillas aren’t going to beat 25,000 Cuban regulars.) And yet after the invasion, when Kennedy both acknowledged the failure and took responsibility for it, he won the support of the American people. His approval rating jumped to 82%. He rallied. History, and his administration, went on.
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Do you remember or know how Kennedy’s partisan and political foes responded to the crisis?
The Republican who’d lost the 1960 presidential election to Kennedy six months before and by less than a percentage point—and who had reason to believe that it may have been stolen—was invited to the White House. He didn’t bring his resentments in his briefcase.
From Richard Reeves’s “President Kennedy”: “ ‘It was the worst experience of my life,’ Kennedy said of the Cuban fiasco . . . to, of all people, Richard Nixon. . . . Kennedy wanted the symbolic presence and public support of both political friends and foes to show the nation and the world that Americans were rallying around the president, right or wrong.”
Kennedy asked Nixon’s advice. Nixon told him to do what he could to remove Castro and communism from Cuba. The meeting ended with Nixon telling JFK, “I will publicly support you to the hilt.”
Kennedy and Nixon that day achieved something like “the kinship of competitors.” Mr. Reeves writes. Nixon was good as his word, supporting the president and refusing to attack him.
Others did the same. New York’s liberal governor Nelson Rockefeller and Arizona’s conservative senator Barry Goldwater, both of whom thought they might run against Kennedy in the next election, met with him individually and gave the president their public support.
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But the most important backing Kennedy needed was that of his immediate predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, who had led America through the previous eight years of relative peace and prosperity. He also knew something about amphibious invasions, as he had commanded the biggest in history, in June 1944, on the beaches of Normandy.
Eisenhower was not amused by what had just happened to his country. Called to Camp David, he dined with Kennedy, and then together they toured the grounds. It was on this walk that Ike delivered a stinging reprimand in which he challenged Kennedy’s judgment, knowledge and understanding of the world.
Richard Reeves: “That was in private. In public, the two men came back from their walk to face the reporters and cameras. . . . Kennedy told reporters he had asked the General to visit him so he could ‘get the benefits of his thoughts and experiences.’ Eisenhower told the reporters, ‘I am all in favor of the United States supporting the man who has to carry the responsibility for foreign affairs.’ “
Ike supported Kennedy’s leadership and refrained from making public criticisms. Later, when the smoke cleared and Eisenhower was dead, Kennedy staffers said that of course Eisenhower had to support Kennedy; the original idea of a Cuban exile force had been hatched while Ike was president. This was spin, and of a particularly disingenuous sort. Under Eisenhower—under every president—possible and contingency foreign-affairs initiatives are put forth and game planned. That’s what governments do. It was Kennedy who, only weeks after his November election, told CIA director Allen Dulles that he wanted the agency to move forward on Cuban invasion plans. After he was in the White House he consented to and encouraged the plans, and personally tinkered with them, to their detriment.
Surely their conversation at Camp David strongly suggests that neither Kennedy nor Eisenhower considered the latter compromised by events. Quite the opposite, in fact. “Mr. President,” Ike questioned him, “before you approved this plan did you have everybody in front of you debating the thing so you got the pros and cons yourself and then made the decision, or did you see these people one at a time?” Kennedy did not directly answer, and then said he’d just approved a plan recommended by the CIA and the Joint Chiefs.
Eisenhower challenged him: Had Kennedy changed any of the military plans? Yes, Kennedy said. How could you change plans after the Cuban exiles were already on their way to the beach? Kennedy said he was trying to keep U.S. involvement at a minimum, and meant to conceal that involvement in fears the Soviets would retaliate by moving on Berlin.
From Eisenhower a verbal smack. “That is exactly the opposite of what would really happen. The Soviets follow their own plans, when they see any sign of weakness they show their strength.” JFK said he’d been advised not to show America’s hand. Eisenhower hit back: American support, training, materiel and leadership would immediately be obvious to everyone. “How could you expect the world to believe that we had nothing to do with it?” He told Kennedy when America resorts to arms, “it must be a success.”
Kennedy said that hereafter if he got into anything like this, “it is going to be a success.”
“Well I am glad to hear that,” Eisenhower snapped.
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The Bay of Pigs happened because JFK was a new president, inexperienced, and eager to show toughness.
But why did Eisenhower give him such public assistance and support? And why did the others?
Because it was another era. It was pre-Vietnam. To make partisan advantage out of an American failure would be classless, vulgar and most of all destructive. But it wasn’t just the style of the times, it was their style. Ike and the rest showed support because they were fully mature and serious. They knew America was in trouble and they loved their country. So they put aside their own grievances and criticisms, put the country’s needs ahead of their own, and showed the world unity.
They were, that is, patriots.
It is good to remember how badly shaken America’s allies were. Historian and former Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger later wrote that in the beginning Kennedy had conveyed to Western Europe “an impression of United States foreign policy as mature, controlled, responsible, and, above all, intelligent.” But now the New Frontier “looked like a collection not only of imperialists but of ineffectual imperialists—and, what was worst of all, of stupid, ineffectual imperialists.” In “A Thousand Days” Mr. Schlesinger quotes as representative of European sentiment a statement in the Frankfurter Neue Presse: “Kennedy is to be regarded as politically and morally defeated.” Italy’s Corriere della Sera said that American prestige had, in a single day, collapsed.
And they were our friends.
This was bad for America, the West, and the world. A dangerous moment. But it was almost redeemed when America’s leaders stood together, shoulder to shoulder, and showed the world we were not vulnerable and not weakened.
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You see where I’m going. We are not in the midst of a failed invasion; we are not on the ropes. But we are in a big fight, and our nation’s prestige, credibility and leadership are very much on the line. Old friends attack us every day, new foes vow to give us a day that makes 9/11 seem like a picnic. Or so Saddam Hussein is said to have said. This would be a good time for unity, but that is impossible. Mr. Clinton is by nature a partisan and, deep down, an embittered one. Mr. Carter is a very nice, confused man of considerable vanity. Both of course have full rights of free speech and a right to their views.
But if they cannot offer unity, couldn’t they offer discretion? Whatever their views, they should not put them forth in ways that undercut an administration that, right or wrong, is attempting to get a fair hearing from the world in order to take the steps it thinks necessary to make it safer from terror regimes.
Are we getting discretion from our former presidents? No. Mr. Carter is often most critical when outside our country. A few months ago he received the Nobel Peace Prize, and the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Gunnar Berge, announced that the honor “can also be interpreted as a criticism” of the Bush administration. Mr. Carter not only accepted the award under these circumstances; he used his speech to subtly cast doubt on the administration’s actions and intentions regarding Iraq. Mr. Carter tours Europe giving help to those who oppose the American government’s intentions; at his home in Georgia, he tells a British tabloid he admires its “Not in My Name” campaign to increase world opposition to the U.S. government.
Mr. Clinton, on the other hand, has taken to telling the world that “we should let Blix lead us to come together.” Mr. Clinton calls Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, “a tough honest guy who is trying to find the truth.” Does Mr. Clinton speak of the American president with such approbation? No. He treats President Bush with equal parts derision and faux sympathy.
He has taken to offering virtually minute-by-minute play-by-play on the administration’s decisions, usually on cable. He seems to enjoy putting himself forward as the current president’s obvious superior. He is more thoughtful, more experienced. He speaks from a great height.
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Why are Messrs. Clinton and Carter so careless? Don’t they know that their behavior gives cover to foreign leaders as trying to block administration fortunes in the U.N. and elsewhere? Don’t they know that it shows Saddam maybe he doesn’t have to change, because America is torn and divided?
Why do they do this? A hunger for relevance, you say. A need for attention. Maybe. But those are personal needs and not worthy of a former president at a time of danger. One wonders: Does Mr. Clinton talk about Iraq and Osama so much because he is trying to hide in plain sight his own failures? He had eight years to get serious about them. He punted and dodged. The louder he talks now the more activist he seems then. But this is no time for legacy-spinning.
Messrs. Clinton and Carter might ponder that they themselves in their own times of crisis benefited greatly from the discretion of the presidents who preceded them, Mr. Carter at key moments during the Iran hostage crisis and Mr. Clinton at many points including—well, for a solid year during the Monica scandal, George Bush 41 was urged every day to speak out about what Bill Clinton had done to the presidency. And Mr. Bush wouldn’t say boo. Would’ve been bad for the country, didn’t want to make it worse.
Mr. Clinton and Mr. Carter are, truly, the anti-Ikes. They want their tongue lashings to be in public, for all the world to see. No matter the precariousness of the moment or the satisfaction of what foes in which caves.
Lucky for JFK he had Eisenhower. Lucky he didn’t have them.