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Our pols, ourselves (continued)

Q: You gave 56 pages to Eisenhower, by far the longest section in the book. Youíve got the revisionism from Fred Greenstein, then youíve got the anti-revisionism by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Was there something about Eisenhower that you felt really needed to be explained?

A: Eisenhower had such authority on military matters. He essentially capped the defense budget. Contained it. In fact, Kennedy ran against him on the missile gap, which was a complete fiction. He didnít intervene, and no one ever accused him of being weak. So that appealed to me. And I have always had a soft spot for him because of that speech, when he retired, about the military-industrial complex. That for me was kind of a moral X-ray into the American system, because of the vested interests. If you were to repeat that on television today, people would say, "What are you saying? Radical!" So I think I was influenced by those things.

But then after I had put in Greenstein all by himself, other parts of Eisenhower made me wonder. I thought, well, this is taking revisionism a step too far. Maybe the truth is somewhere in between. He did control the defense budget, but instead he used the CIA, in Iran and Guatemala. But my God, he looks like a giant today. A giant.

Can you imagine what his reaction would be to young Bush? Oh. I mean, this guy, this guy had done things in his life. Done things. Won the war.

Q: As Ron Reagan, who makes no bones about never having done anything, said of Bush Junior, whatís he ever done except stop being an obnoxious drunk?

A: Did he say that?

Q: Yeah.

A: Good for him. Good for him. Ooh. Ooh. Wow. I donít know if I could even say that one myself.

Also, I grew up in the Eisenhower years, and Kennedy has gotten so much attention by contrast. Eisenhower was by far the greater president.

Q: Let me ask you something about Kennedy, because you juxtapose Norman Mailer writing about Kennedy as the mythic hero and Robert Dallek on his health problems. Knowing what Dallek dug up, wasnít Kennedy too sick and too medicated to be president?

A: You really have to wonder, when you look at the pharmacological basis of his functioning every day. Recently I was on a panel with Tom Wicker, who covered the Kennedy administration for the Times. He was asked by somebody in the audience, "Did you know about all these drugs and did you know about the women?" He said, "No and no." And then he was asked, "Would you have reported it?" He said, "I would have definitely reported it. Whether Scotty Reston would have run it is another thing."

But whatever Kennedy was taking, it worked in the Cuban missile crisis. Talk about a profile in courage.

Q: You include a piece in which Reagan biographer Lou Cannon writes that Reagan didnít know enough to be a full participant in his own presidency. Obviously thatís true of Bush as well, but I wonder if Reagan at least had a better sense of what he didnít know than this guy does.

A: I think so. Look what he did. When the deficit was hemorrhaging, he raised taxes. When Social Security was failing, he raised taxes. The guy was completely pragmatic. He was Ronald Reagan, and that gave him cover to do anything.

Q: He did a 180 on the Soviet Union once he became comfortable with Gorbachev.

A: Absolutely. He was capable of growth.

Q: In Jack Farrellís piece, you see Tip OíNeill just ripping the hide off of Reagan, to his face and also in public. Why are Democrats so reluctant to do that with Republicans now?

A: I donít know. I think that in this campaign, the war-president thing scared them. What did Bill Clinton say? If Americans had to pick between somebody whoís weak and right or strong and wrong, theyíre going to go with strong and wrong. A lot of people were invested in that. Kerry just didnít deconstruct that.

But OíNeill had guts, you know what I mean? When he yells about people with bad backs and knock-knees and all the rest, that stuff mattered, thatís what government was about. And thatís what his Cambridge district reflected. He was rooted, it was authentic. When he left office, Mr. Liberal, his approval rating was something like 66 percent, because people knew that he believed what he said.

Thatís whatís gone. They just donít have anybody that authentic. I mean, Edwards has some connection, but none with the New Deal, none with the Democratic tradition. Whereas OíNeill was the genuine article.

Q: There are a couple of descriptions that I really like, too, of Jesse Jackson and Tip OíNeill, and of how comfortable they were with the language of religion. Thatís another thing that Democrats seem unable to do today.

A: Oh, itís true. The Democrats today, with respect to religion, are a little bit like George H.W. Bush in that wonderful anecdote. Remember that? "When I was in that raft, in the Pacific, I thought of Bar, I thought of my family, and I thought of God, and I thought of the separation of church and state." Whoops! Donít want to be thinking too much about God.

The moral language of the Democrats comes out of Christianity and Judaism. Christ came for the poor. You judge a society on the basis of how it treats people who are vulnerable. Thatís the moral test. And itís in the New Testament. Itís in the Old Testament. Itís what religion is about, applied to society. Religion isnít ó well, what do I know? But the great tradition of religion isnít about virtue. Itís about justice.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.

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Issue Date: December 17 - 23, 2004
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