Political ignorance or political prejudice, which is it Mr Reno?

“Whoever can be trusted with small things can also be trusted with big things. Whoever is dishonest in little things will be dishonest in big things too.”

~Luke 16:10-14

On his 2 June 2022 podcast, RR Reno spoke with Christopher Caldwell about Caldwell’s article from the June/July 2022 print edition of First Things, “Regime Change, American Style”, which was an extensive review of Garrett M. Graff’s recent book, Watergate: A New History. The review itself is worth a separate article since it provides a summary of Nixon’s life that seems to elide his criminality. In effect, Caldwell suggests that if Nixon had done anything criminal then it was no worse than what Lyndon Baines Johnson or John F Kennedy did before him and that the “Establishment” found a long-desired way to criminalize Nixon. It is as if one were to read a 5,000-word Vanity Fair review of Pol Pot’s life with two sentences at the end that mention the “killing fields” and ends by saying “At least he was not as bad as Stalin and Mao who really got away with it”.[i]However, Mr Caldwell’s review is less important than the problem of political ignorance that both men appear to display. 

The issue is not that either man is ignorant of the facts, context, or the source material. In this sense, they do not display political ignorance as described by Ilya Somin in his rather confused article and book on political ignorance which reduces political knowledge to a form of trivial pursuit. He appears to argue that you will be considered politically knowledgeable if you know the three branches of government, how the budget is made, and as a bonus whether you can name the Secretary of Agriculture.[ii] What is never considered is that a person does not really need to know that information to participate politically in the American system. Such knowledge or trivia is a bonus in regard to what political knowledge is and how voting works.  Somin appears to have a rather strange understanding of political knowledge in that it relates to facts about the political system instead of what is traditionally or commonly understood as political knowledge as good and bad decisions or activities about the best or preferred way for a community to live together.[iii]  In this sense, the framers of the constitution were wise in that they understood they could not expect their citizens to be as virtuous as the framers since their virtue was not political virtue understood as political trivia but rather political virtue understanding duty, responsibility, loyalty, and a shared commitment to the democratic experiment that is America. In other words, political virtue was shown by a willingness to volunteer to participate in the public domain when summoned.

In the context of the podcast, the problem of political ignorance is more a question of political prejudice as both men come to the discussion with preconceived notions about Nixon, Watergate, and whether Nixon did anything that would be considered a crime. What that means is that neither man wishes to explore the argument that Nixon was guilty since their goal is more to mitigate Nixon’s crimes or to put them in doubt so as to reduce, albeit indirectly, Donald Trump’s crimes in that Nixon was ousted by a witch hunt and the same can be said to explain why Trump was impeached twice. In this Reno and Caldwell choose to be politically ignorant regarding Nixon’s crimes. 

Around the three-minute and twenty-second mark, Mr Reno makes two claims to mitigate if not excuse President Nixon’s criminal behaviour in the Watergate scandal. The remarks are concerning because his claims are false and demonstrably false, especially if he had read the book he was supposed to be discussing. Moreover, Mr Caldwell, who is supposed to have read the book that he reviewed should have known these were false. If Mr Caldwell did not know them to be false, it raises questions about his understanding of American political culture as well as his qualification to review Mr Graff’s book. Above all it raises questions about whether Mr Reno and Mr Caldwell should be listened to or believed in such matters given their casual disregard for the truth. 

Mr Reno’s first claim is that JFK ordered the assassination of Ngô Đình Diem and his brother Ngô Đình Nhu.

The second is that the Gulf of Tonkin episode was worse than Watergate and that either event minimizes Nixon’s criminal acts in the Watergate affair. 

The first claim is demonstrably false. There is no evidence that JFK knew of the assassinations before they occurred nor is there any evidence that they were ordered by him. There is no evidence. None. Yet, Mr Reno makes this claim as if it is true. He could have checked for evidence. What he would find is that no serious scholar of the Vietnam War has found any evidence to sustain any claim that JFK ordered Diem’s assassination or encouraged it in any way. When this claim emerged again in 2003, three historians of the Vietnam War explained why it was without merit.[iv]

What is clear is that JFK encouraged the coup and the United States supported the coup against Diem as a way to remove him. However, that is very far from encouraging or expecting his assassination. Mr Reno does not attempt to make a nuanced argument that Kennedy should have expected Diem’s assassination or even that he encouraged the coup with the veiled hope that this would lead to Diem’s death. No, Mr Reno goes so far as to state that John F Kennedy ordered Diem’s assassination.

Mr Caldwell who claims to be a scholar of American political history would know this is false simply because if it were true then someone like President Johnson or President Nixon would have made much of it for their own political purposes. Yet, we find no evidence of this claim in any source. Indeed, Mr Graff’s book addresses this specific issue since Nixon was concerned to hide his own treason with the Chenault Affair as he searched for anything that he could use against Kennedy. Graff’s book on page 83 and 96 explains that E. Howard Hunt admitted that he fabricated cables, on orders from those working for Nixon in the White House, to plant the false story that Kennedy ordered Diem’s assassination. Nixon had wanted a way to discredit Kennedy among Catholic voters. Here is Hunt’s testimony under oath to his attempt to create false evidence of the Diem assassination.[v]

The second claim is that Johnson used the Gulf of Tonkin to escalate the Vietnam War. Again, this is simply not true. The United States was already deeply involved in Vietnam when the Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred. Johnson used the incident, which dd not happen, to convince Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin resolution which authorised him to use military force in Vietnam. Historians and former members of Johnson administration agree that if the Gulf of Tonkin incident had not occurred, then another event such as the attack on Pleiku would have come along to allow Johnson to press Congress for support.[vi]

In his definitive book on the Gulf of Tonkin episode, Professor Edwin Moises explains that Johnson did not need this event nor was this event the single or even most important episode to expand the war.[vii] More to the point, it remains unclear if anyone even knew what happened at the time. The uncertainty and the ambiguity of the situation was such that people insisted, at the time, and decades later even when evidence emerged to undermine their claims, that an attack occurred.[viii] In other words, people wanted it to be true so it became true in their mind.  However, it is not simply that the attack did not occur, but that the situation was so uncertain that Johnson could use it for its political purposes and he exploited it to the fullest.

Johnson certainly didn’t create the attack nor did he falsify the attack. There was military activity in the area. That Johnson exaggerated and exploited the event is not a crime. There’s no criminal statute against exploiting ambiguity and uncertainty for political purposes. If anything, it reveals that Congress was lax in asserting its prerogative to insist on more evidence or to challenge Johnson in his claims. Congress failed to challenge him because they broadly agreed with the direction Johnson was taking the country. 

To suggest that Johnson acted criminally in using a moment of foreign policy ambiguity to support his domestic legislative goals seems naïve at best and irresponsible at worst. What is the crime? What evidence does Mr Reno have to sustain his claims? He does not provide any nor does Mr Caldwell.  Yet both men are absolutely certain that Johnson committed a crime in the Gulf of Tonkin incident that is on par with or worse than anything that Nixon might have done or was credibly accused of in the impeachment investigation. Yet, if they cannot provide evidence for their claim is it anything other than a political prejudice that masks their ignorance?  More to the point, both men accept that whatever Lyndon Johnson did in foreign policy was worse than what Richard Nixon did in the domestic realm. Is this responsible thinking? Are they helping their readers to understand the world? Are they undermining the truth by failing to investigate the event and educate themselves, and their audience, as to what happened?

Mr. Reno continues by stating that what Nixon did in Watergate, a clear criminal act of obstructing justice, was small potatoes when compared to what Kennedy and Johnson were alleged to have done. What makes this strange is that Mr Reno attempts to equate, and therefore minimize, a domestic criminal act, obstructing justice, which clearly violates the Constitution with an act in the external domain, where the Constitution exerts less direct and unambiguous authority. The Constitution is written to provide the President with extraordinary powers and latitude in the external domain (a realm of necessity), which allows him to act in ways that he would be constrained from doing in the domestic realm (a realm of law not necessity). In many ways, this is the distinction between Foreign and Domestic policy even though the Constitution nominally applies to both.  The requirements of foreign policy, in an arena of necessity, are given greater latitude than the domestic realm, which is an arena of law. Yet, Mr Reno does not consider this and his analysis puts more emphasis on a foreign policy act, done in the national interest for national security reasons in the context of a global confrontation with the USSR, over one in the domestic realm done for Nixon’s personal and political interests. 

Neither Mr Reno nor Mr Caldwell discuss the difference between the domestic and external realm nor the president’s authority in the external realm. Their failure to discuss this difference raises a further question about how well they understand American political culture as well as their competence to comment on Mr Graff’s book. 

If Mr Reno had wanted to mention a crime, he might have focused on Ronald Reagan with Iran Contra or even George W. Bush authorising torture. He doesn’t mention that as a crime, instead he focuses on Johnson and Kennedy as the criminals who got away with it and left Nixon to face the consequences. To suggest that Nixon’s accusers were politically motivated whiners since his minor issue was overshadowed by their monstrous crimes, belies the reality which is that it is the opposite. Nixon acted criminally and knew he was acting criminally in his own interests. More to the point, Republicans also agreed that Nixon had acted criminally and they supported the Rodino Report that catalogued the evidence concerning Nixon’s criminal activity.[ix] Whatever Kennedy or Johnson did in foreign policy, they did based on their democratic mandate to pursue the national interest while Nixon had no democratic mandate to obstruct justice or abuse his power.

There was clear evidence that Nixon obstructed justice and that the Republicans on the committee that voted to move his articles of impeachment demonstrates that Nixon was not hounded out of office by a partisan witch-hunt. They weren’t coerced into this. It wasn’t a partisan approach. It was bipartisan. Both Democrats and Republicans voted for it. This is unambiguous. It’s in the voting record.[x]  And yet, neither Mr. Reno nor Mr Caldwell mention this evidence. Instead, they would mislead listeners and encourage them in the false belief that Nixon was almost innocent of anything, and if he was guilty of anything, it was simply politics and on par with what Johnson and Kennedy had done in foreign policy.

From this episode we have to conclude that neither Mr Reno nor Mr Caldwell have much concern with the truth or with historical accuracy. They have their political prejudices and even though Mr Graff’s book refutes those prejudices, neither man is willing to admit that. One is lead to ask the question of whether they even read the book they are discussing. I am not sure which is worse, that neither man read the book or that both chose to promote their political prejudices over the truth. Both men are considered public intellectuals with a deep knowledge of American political culture and experience as political commentators, so their political ignorance is concerning as one would expect them to pursue the truth and welcome the truth. Instead, neither man appears to have such a regard for the truth. In this, both men should know better and should apologise to their listeners for misleading them and leading them into error.

[i] Caldwell never mentions in his review that Nixon committed a criminal act nor that there were grounds, supported by Republicans and Democrats, to impeach him and convict him in the Senate. Instead, we are told it was his enemies and his friends that sold him out as if Nixon were blameless in that he was the one caught holding the bag that all previous Presidents had been carrying. 

Consider these sentences, which are indicative of Mr Caldwell’s approach. “Nixon was lured into trouble not by the FBI’s activity but by its passivity.”  (The FBI is at fault.) “These ­irregulars broke into the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.” (There is no mention that Nixon ordered this break in which is known as the Huston Plan.). “He did not destroy the tapes and he did not ­defy the Supreme Court.”  (Nixon obeyed the law which seems to be a surprise to Mr Caldwell who indicates that this was unwise and future Presidents have not cooperated which, one would infer, is a good thing according to Mr Caldwell.) “Democrats impeached Donald Trump twice, once for a sleazy phone call, and once for a demonstration by his supporters that turned into a riot.” (A demonstration that turned into a riot is a curious way to describe an attempted coup in which the President and his advisors coordinated with the attackers who sought to stop the electoral count, and according to John Eastman, have Vice President Pence unilaterally declare Trump President.) The last point is rather bizarre given that the Claremont Review of Books, where Mr Caldwell’s writings regularly appear, published a blistering critique of the Eastman Memos by Professor Joseph Bessette. https://claremontreviewofbooks.com/critique-eastman-memos/  

[ii] Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter, Second Edition, Stanford University Press, 2016

[iii] Political knowledge, or knowledge of good and evil, is something that requires us to climb what is sometimes called the ladder of knowledge which refers to the process or effort to discover whether opinions are a true justified belief about political things. We move from information about political things to opinions about these political things through political science, or more precisely, political philosophy. Our goal is to move from the raw political things, to false or incomplete opinions to true opinions about political things and from there to knowledge. The average person only needs opinion about the political things, they rarely need political knowledge because they live within the world of opinions. Political parties offer a ready-made source of political opinions that a voter needs to participate politically. Even lacking that, they can (and do) follow political experts or people they believe share their political opinions. Even lacking experts, they can act on their own understanding of what is good or bad for themselves or their communities *as they perceive it*. Thus, Somin’s claim that Americans are political ignorant asks the wrong question since it focuses on political trivia and not on political opinions or political knowledge. 

[iv] https://historynewsnetwork.org/articles/1717.html

[v] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q4BxueYtcG4

[vi] McGeorge Bundy is often quoted as saying these events come along like trolleys.

[vii] See Edwin E. Moise Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War, Revised Edition 2019 US Naval Institute Press https://www.usni.org/press/books/tonkin-gulf-and-escalation-vietnam-war-revised-edition

[viii] Moise Tonkin Gulf.

[ix] The Articles of Impeachment were in the Report submitted by the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Peter Rodino https://watergate.info/impeachment/articles-of-impeachment

[x] The Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee supported the report and the articles of impeachment. The votes on the articles can be found here https://watergate.info/impeachment/analysis-judiciary-committee-impeachment-votes


About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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