The Odd Couple: Nixon and Lieberman

Nixon and Lieberman both supported pro-war policies while claiming to be anti-war.

BY Rick Perlstein

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Is Joe Lieberman working to bring the troops home? The only way to judge is by his actions. And every time a smart resolution has come up in the Senate to change course, he has voted against it.

There’s a taboo in American politics against using the “N”-word–comparing a politician to Richard Nixon. But after spending five years writing a book on Nixon, I couldn’t help but notice some similarities with Connecticut’s junior senator–and I don’t just mean the mystery of how Joe Lieberman spent the mysterious $387,000 his campaign listed as “petty cash” in the days before the August 8 primary.

I’m not the first to point out Nixonian traits in Lieberman. There’s an ad going around the Internet that shows clips from a Nixon speech on Vietnam, then similar words from Joe Lieberman. The senator has commented of it, “that’s not the kind of debate we ought to have.” But speaking as one who knows Richard Nixon backwards and forwards, I believe that’s exactly the debate we ought to have. As a historian, I find the ad fair–uncannily so.

By 1969, most Americans wanted out of Vietnam. So many, in fact, that on October 15, 1969, an astonishing 2 million–Democrat and Republican, young and old people–took the day off from work and school to hit the streets to beg President Nixon to end the war. One of them was Tom Seaver, star of 1969’s “Miracle Mets.” He said, “If the Mets can win the World Series, the U.S. can get out of Vietnam.”

Both notions seemed like miracles. Everyone knew Nixon was a hawk. He would say things, as the war was ramping up in the mid-’60s, like “We are fighting in Vietnam to prevent World War III.” Running for president in 1968, he pledged that “new leadership will end the war and win the peace.” By the fall of 1969, few believed him. The war was still raging, less popular than ever.

And so, two weeks after that largest antiwar demonstration in U.S. history, Richard Nixon gave a speech to the nation pledging that he was anti-war, too.

This is the speech that shows up in the new anti-Lieberman ad. Promising, “I want peace as much as you do,” he pledged an eventual withdrawal, while simultaneously warning that everyone else’s plans for withdrawal would lead to “defeat and humiliation.”

It was a thoroughly fudging performance. Nixon started making token troop withdrawals–and made up for it by escalating aerial bombardment. The following April, he dangled this sweet enticement before the American people: “we finally have in sight the just peace we are seeking. … we can say with confidence that all American combat forces can and will be withdrawn.” Ten days later, American troops invaded a second, neighboring country: neutral Cambodia.

Richard Nixon said one thing and did another.

So, it seems, does Joseph Lieberman.

Once, everyone knew Joe Lieberman was a hawk. But now that the war is unpopular, he’s striking a Nixonian position. He says things like: “no one wants to end the war in Iraq more than I do and bring our troops home.” And that anyone else’s way of bringing the troops home, as he put it a month ago, will be “a formula for defeat and disaster.”

Is Joe Lieberman working to bring the troops home? The only way to judge is by his actions. But every time a smart resolution has come up in the Senate to change course in Iraq, Lieberman has voted against it. What he has done is choose only to see, after completing a trip to Iraq–a trip few Americans will be able to take for ourselves–“real progress there.”

Reasonable people can agree with Lieberman’s argument–and Nixon’s argument, too–that fixing a timetable for withdrawal gives the enemy an incentive to stall their attacks for when the Americans won’t be around to fight.

And reasonable people can agree with Ned Lamont’s argument that not fixing a timetable gives our allies, the new Iraqi government, an incentive to stall on the difficult, risky things they must do to achieve a truly secure federal state for themselves, knowing the Americans will always be around to save their bacon.

What is not reasonable, I’m afraid, is the Nixonian trait I see in Joe Lieberman: the way he makes the argument–with a sanctimoniousness too often present among politicians trying to distract the public.

Richard Nixon said at his first inauguration, “We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Like Joe Lieberman says: “It’s time for both sides to understand that pointing fingers and impugning motives are not going to get our troops home one second sooner.”

Sanctimony of this sort can be a form of self-protection: an attempt to stop people from demanding answers from their political leaders.

Joe Lieberman is running by touting his experience. But it is clear that experience has taught him one of Nixon’s favorite tricks–saying he’s against the war, yet continuing to push it.

Rick Perlstein is the author of The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (2014), Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008), a New York Times bestseller picked as one of the best nonfiction books of the year by over a dozen publications, and Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, winner of the 2001 Los Angeles Times Book Award for history.

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