The Magazine


Dec 28, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 15 • By DAVID FRUM
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THE 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?

Let's 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.

Does 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.

The 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." 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." Time questioned whether "the alert scare was necessary," and concluded that it probably was not.

This 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.

Some 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.