There are few journalists/authors that I look forward to reading more than Andrew Ferguson, currently a staff writer at The Atlantic and nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. As I’ve mentioned many times, my friend Christopher Caldwell—he wrote a column, “Hill of Beans,” for New York Press, and is engaging company, whether at a ballgame or in the office; regrettably, I haven’t seen him since 2005—is the best at his craft. That’s not bias: there was a reason I sought him out in the mid-1990s after reading his witty and substantive columns in The Weekly Standard, that once-great weekly run by Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes. Caldwell, before moving to The Standard when it began in 1995, was a key read in the brief renaissance of The American Spectator, before editor R. Emmett Tyrrell went off the rails in his poorly-sourced series of articles about Bill Clinton.
Ferguson, now 67, was also present for The Standard’s founding (along with the fine editorialist David Tell, Matt Labash and Tucker Carlson, among others), and at one point David Brooks—at The Standard, too, and just as insufferable as he is today with The New York Times—called Ferguson “the greatest political journalist of my generation,” a reasonable compliment despite its provenance.
I read with considerable interest Ferguson’s review of Luke Nichter’s recent The Year that Broke Politics: Collusion and Chaos in the Presidential Election of 1968, a book I haven’t read but ordered once reading Ferguson’s article in The Washington Free Beacon. Nichter’s nearly 400-page title is, as Ferguson says, an historical corrective to many of the “myths” about 1968 that are now accepted as fact by liberal historians and Democratic Party sycophants. For example, in the past several months, probably because of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s presidential candidacy and the 60th anniversary of his uncle’s assassination, it’s become somewhat accepted that had RFK not been assassinated himself after his victory in the California primary in early-June of ’68, he would’ve defeated LBJ’s neutered Hubert Humphrey for the nomination and then Richard Nixon in November.
There’s no shame in political naivete—as a 13-year-old in ’68, watching the Democratic Convention in Chicago, I still thought my preferred candidate, Gene McCarthy, had a chance—among the young, but any adult with common sense, especially those immersed in politics, know that HHH had the nomination sewn up (a far different set of rules then which gave power to party bosses) before RFK was killed. I’ve long thought that Kennedy’s anti-war campaign was one he knew was destined to fall short, but would set him up for 1972, but that not uncommon theory is now lost to history’s interminable “bull sessions” of “What Ifs.”
A treasured pastime of historians is ranking all the U.S. presidents; there’s usually one or two surveys a year, and though they don’t command the interest of, say, Quicksilver Messenger Service’s best album or song, they engender some middlebrow conversation. Aside from Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson, who always take the top three spots, there’s variation from decade to decade. For example, Harry Truman was a pariah to the Democratic Party as soon as he left office in 1953; his name barely whispered at that Party’s quadrennial political conventions. That changed dramatically upon the publication of Merle Miller’s Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S Truman, in 1974. Truman was historically rehabilitated, though he died a few years before his reinvigorated celebrity. Nixon, one of the smartest, cunning and paranoid presidents, goes through similar rehabilitations, and denigrations, every decade or so; right now, it appears he’s on the rise again, at least in wistful conservative circles. (JFK, inexplicably, is always rated a Top 10 president, despite the brevity of his tenure.)
Ferguson writes: “The 1968 presidential election, we have been relentlessly taught, turned decisively on questions of race. Nixon and [George] Wallace are the ready villains. Yet Nixon had always been a racial liberal—as vice president in 1957, when he counted Martin Luther King Jr. as a close political ally, he had been instrumental in passing the first serious civil rights law of the modern era. As a presidential candidate, he explicitly forbade his campaign from racial appeals… Nixon himself, on the rare occasions when he mentioned race in connection with crime, simply pointed out that blacks themselves were disproportionately its victims.”
Later, Ferguson takes a well-earned shot at “the mythmakers—NPR podcasters, PBS documentarians, popular biographers,” for demonizing every aspect of Nixon’s six years in office, almost always without evidence. Nixon, and his White House loyalists, torpedoed his reputation with Watergate, the Ellsberg break-in, Vietnam escalation, etc. but ending the draft, visiting the Soviet Union and China were unmistakable achievements. Also, he was first president, for better or worse, to address environmental issues, and you’d think today’s liberals would give the man grudging credit for that.
My only quibble with Ferguson’s entertaining review—and it’s a substantive disagreement—comes at the end when he asserts that the men Nichter discusses in his book about 1968, and politicians of that era, including Nixon, Clark Clifford, Nelson Rockefeller, Ronald Reagan, Dean Rusk, HHH, LBJ, “even” Gen. Curtis LeMay, “were serious men doing serious things in a dangerous and complicated world,” despite their faults. Translated: they were politicians.
He continues: “I’m not the only reader who will see them as an implicit rebuke to the political clown show Americans suffer through each day.” I ascribe Ferguson’s inclusion of the auto-pilot cliché “clown show” to either lack of self-editing, or maybe just wanting to finish the piece. But it’s not true: aside from Donald Trump, who’s an outrageous outlier in politics, today’s “luminaries” in Washington are, like their predecessors in the 1960s, mere narcissistic public servants (although now, like then, some enrich themselves while in office). Is Barack Obama a clown? Bernie Sanders? John Roberts? Nancy Pelosi? Marco Rubio? I think Ted Cruz is a lousy senator, Chuck Schumer and Josh Hawley too, and Joe Biden a career pol of middling intelligence who’s overstayed his welcome, but they’re not “clowns,” just as the 1988 field of Democratic presidential primary candidates weren’t “dwarfs,” as was said at the time.
—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023