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Virtual JFK: The 44th President’s Foreign Policy Challenge

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Posted on Oct 29, 2008
Collage: AP photo / Chip Somodevilla, pool / Wikimedia Commons

By James G. Blight and janet M. Lang

(Page 2)

Peace or War: Does It Matter Who’s President?

For these and other urgent, difficult foreign policy issues, is the election likely to make a significant difference? Can history tell us whether it matters who is president when it comes to matters of war and peace? Can a president decisively lead his country into war, or keep his country out of war? Or are the forces of history too impersonal, too powerful, to be significantly affected by any individual, even a president of the United States?

Some doubt that the choice of a president can make much, if any, difference. For example, in a recent widely publicized book, “The Limits of Power,” the Boston University historian Andrew Bacevich argues that the choice of a president makes little difference with regard to foreign policy, because, he believes, the U.S. political system has been broken for a very long time by greed and corruption and the trivialization of elective politics. Bacevich even dismisses the contentions of supporters and opponents of Obama and McCain who believe that this election, perhaps more than any in recent memory, offers the voters a decisive choice regarding the future direction of U.S. foreign policy. According to Bacevich, the choice the voters believe they have is an illusion. In a recent interview he said: “… it seems to me that the differences between Senator Obama and Senator McCain are operational differences, not strategic differences.” In other words, yes, there is a difference between the candidates on matters of war and peace, but no, the difference is unlikely to make much difference once the new president takes office.

But it is simply incorrect to say that a president has not made a decisive difference in the past. On this, we are confident. Our research shows that JFK prevented an American war in Vietnam, and reveals the reasons why his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, could not. We see strong parallels between the crisis-ridden environment JFK faced when he took office in January 1961 and the current situation, especially across the Middle East and South Asia. The difference between the two presidents, JFK and LBJ, made a difference as to whether the U.S. entered or avoided a disastrous military conflict. That is why it is important to examine from within a template of that earlier period the potential presidencies of Obama and McCain.


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Virtual JFK: The President Made a Decisive Difference

The key to answering our question—does it matter who is president in matters of war and peace?—lay in a careful examination of the escalation of the war in Vietnam in the 1960s. There has been no shortage of rhetoric about Vietnam during the current presidential campaign. Campaign debate about the past and future of U.S. foreign policy has been littered with analogies deriving from the U.S. debacle in Vietnam—at least since Sen. Edward Kennedy’s assertion in April 2004 that “Iraq is George Bush’s Vietnam,” and the Bush administration’s angry response. Is the war in Iraq “another Vietnam,” a quagmire in the desert? Is George W. Bush another Lyndon Johnson? Is John McCain another Bush or Johnson? Is Barack Obama another John F. Kennedy? Finally, does it make any difference whether this or that candidate reminds us of this or that president who held the office during the era in which the Vietnam conflict escalated to an American war?

Our answer with respect to the Vietnam War (elaborated in our forthcoming book, “Virtual JFK: Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived”) is this:

• If President Kennedy had lived and been reelected in 1964, we believe he would not have Americanized the conflict in South Vietnam.
• We believe JFK would have continued the withdrawal of U.S. advisers from Vietnam that had begun during his presidency.
• Kennedy’s successor, Johnson, by deciding to Americanize the Vietnam War, reversed the process JFK had set in motion.
• Thus, we believe the identity of the occupant of the White House made all the difference: between a conflict that would have become little more than a footnote in U.S. history if Kennedy had lived, and the catastrophe we now know as the American war in Vietnam and in which millions perished.

We do not say in “Virtual JFK” that we are certain Kennedy would have withdrawn from Vietnam. We do say that a bet back then on Kennedy withdrawing would have been a very good one. Further, we contend that by comparing Presidents Kennedy and Johnson it is possible to identify salient features of the temperament and decision-making approach of each, and to draw conclusions about the key differences between the president who prevented a U.S. war in Vietnam and one who initiated such a war.

Our research and conclusions have nothing to do with either endorsing or repudiating the ethos and mythology of “Camelot.” Our judgment does not rely on the recollections of private conversations JFK allegedly had with some close adviser. Instead, we stick to the facts, as they can now be gleaned from the massive public record, nearly a half-century after Kennedy’s assassination. Our research method of critical oral history, which we developed in a predecessor project on the Cuban missile crisis, was used to address what would have happened in “Vietnam, if Kennedy had lived.” The method is described in detail in our 2005 book, “The Fog of War: Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” the companion book to the 2004 Academy Award-winning film of the same title, directed by Errol Morris.

Critical oral history involves the simultaneous interaction of three essential elements in a conference setting: (1) declassified documents and formerly top-secret audiotapes; (2) oral testimony from key former and/or present officials who had some responsibility for the way events transpired; and (3) commentary by top scholars of the events under scrutiny. The documents are given context by the oral testimony of those who were involved in the decisions. The vagaries of memory and the sometimes-confused chronologies underlying oral testimony about events decades in the past are checked against the documents and scholarly analyses. The documents also provide a neutral playing field on which scholars and former officials can address the issues and begin to work toward a common understanding of the events under scrutiny. To examine how critical oral history works in practice, see our 2002 book, “Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis and the Soviet Collapse.” It contains the annotated record of a critical oral history conference in Havana during which we first learned that the Soviets had delivered nuclear warheads to the island before the U.S. naval “quarantine” went into effect, and that in all probability tactical nuclear weapons would have been used by the Soviets in response to the expected U.S. invasion of the island.

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By gemantel, December 5, 2008 at 7:12 pm Link to this comment

Was it really that hard to understand, Folktruther?

But if it was, maybe this will help clarify it (see link below)


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By Folktruther, November 3, 2008 at 10:48 pm Link to this comment

I don’t get it, gemantel.  What are you hinting?

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By gemantel, November 3, 2008 at 1:28 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Do you perhaps suppose there was pressure on Johnson (possibly from elsewhere in Washington?) such that he just couldn’t resist the prospects of war in Vietnam?  The kind of pressure that Eisenhower warned about in his farewell speech?

After all, it is absolutely no secret that LBJ himself did not have faith in the supposed truth behind the events that led to the Tonkin Gulf resolution—as this lack of belief is preserved on audiotape via phone conversations.

Furthermore, James Galbraith has stated the following:

“My father retains a distinct, chilling recollection of LBJ’s words to him, in private, on one of their last meetings before the Vietnam War finally drove them apart: ‘You may not like what I’m doing in Vietnam, Ken, but you would not believe what would happen if I were not here.’”

Which in turn might relate to an earlier proposal by the Joint Chiefs, that of a nuclear First Strike at the former Soviet Union, with a “prime time” target date of December 1963.

And the fact that the tape of the phone call from Hoover to LBJ on the morning of 11/23/63, regarding the impersonation of Oswald in Mexico City, was subsequently erased.

And thus it doesn’t take too much of an imagination to surmise that the “little” lie that prevailed throughout the 50s and into the 60s—that the Russians enjoyed a comfortable military advantage over the USA—just might lurk as a dark secret behind what happened to our beloved 35th President in Dallas the day before.

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By Anarcissie, November 3, 2008 at 9:47 am Link to this comment

“War Is The Health Of The State”:
( )

But I would say, war is the state.

One can’t reasonably say that capitalism is the cause of war, however, since war preceded capitalism by many millennia.  (It has been reported that even chimpanzees conduct wars.)  Rather, capitalism fits itself into the war-state system; it is a phase of the system.  It may even mitigate it somewhat, since direct violence is replaced by greed and contests over property; property is maintained by force, but it is mostly implicit or threatened force rather than its overt exercise.  On the other hand, because capitalism is so creative and productive, when contests of force do break out they are much more destructive and terrifying than those of pre-capitalist days.

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By walldizo, November 3, 2008 at 3:16 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Historians and political scientists may argue certain guestures that could be interpreted differently from their common acceptance.Such arguments usually attract attention when they relate to present issues of contentious nature.Historians and political scientists generally base their judgment on material substances and not on hypothetical assumptions.Even if we conceive the idea that JFK was actually sincere in withdrawing troops from Vietnam, events on the ground refute such convictions regardless of how we justify his inability to carry on his intentioned policy.This will bring us closer to the real question; Can the US thrive and prosper without waging wars on others?? and if so, wouldn’t JFK or any other president for this matter,be violating the trust of his constituancy should he opposed waging wars agaist others ???.Its the generally accepted trend for the US policies which derive its essence from Capitalism that puts the rules and directives for the successful president.I think it woul be more approprate if discussions are directed toward the nature of Capitalism as a warring system that binds those who adhere to its principles with the existing US policies.

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By Anarcissie, November 2, 2008 at 6:27 pm Link to this comment

You don’t seem particularly gullible to me.

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By Folktruther, November 2, 2008 at 9:41 am Link to this comment

I agree, Anarcissie, that there certainly is a Kennedy whitewash machine that even extends to Boobie Kennedy.  And that he did increase the number of advisers. 

But, given that I don’t know the ins and outs of it, he did appear to resist his military and intelligence advisors which Paul Dale Scott thinks is the reason for his assassination.

For example, he did not implement the false flag operation Northwoods unanimously approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to arouse oppinion to invade Cuba.  And he did appear to want to take some ‘advisors’ out of Vietnam.

But I am very gullible and you may be right.

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By Anarcissie, November 2, 2008 at 9:14 am Link to this comment

Folktruther, I fear you’re being taken in by the Kennedy monarchical whitewash machine.  I didn’t know it was still running, but there it is.  The king can do no wrong….

Eisenhower had at most 1100 military people in Vietnam.  (The web sites I read today say 800.)  They were really advisors.  In fact, Diem and company were unwilling to let them get anywhere near operational forces; Diem distrusted American involvement (with good reason, as it would turn out later).  In any case, Eisenhower was extremely dubious about war on the famous Asian land mass.  One of Kennedy’s campaign promises was to “get America moving again.”  The war in Vietnam was one example of what he meant.  I don’t think he intended to abandon it.  Since the war turned out badly, however, the ruling-class intelligentsia have gone to great effort to revise history in favor of their hero.

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By walldizo, November 2, 2008 at 3:29 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

If JFK, as depicted,was sincere in getting the troops out of Vietnam regardless of the numbers already deployed there, then we need not go any further than those who opposed his policy to figure out who assassinated JFK.So, based on this assumption,one would also predict the same fate for Obama should he threaten the interest of the oil comlex by withdrawing from Iraq.Should this happen, A goolmy scenario will ensue leaving us with another LBJ’s long and repeated search for a dragon to kill.

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By Folktruther, October 31, 2008 at 7:41 pm Link to this comment

Even, granted that you are right about the number of Advisers in Vietnam, Anarcissie, the fact that there is evidence that he wanted to take some out indicates what he was thinking. 

He asked Mike Mansfield, the former majority leader of the Senate, and later ambassodor to Japan, to write an analysis of the options and Mansfield decided that there was no way to win.  No matter how many troops the US put in, Vietnam could match them.  Also Kennedy was really pissed by the military and intelligence advice he got in invading Cuba.

I am not saying he was not an imperialist, or even a militarist.  But the evidence suggests that he didn’t want to fight in Vietnam, a war that Ike handed off to him.

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By Anarcissie, October 31, 2008 at 6:59 pm Link to this comment

’... The facts are that on the day Kennedy was killed there were 4000 troops in Viet Nam. ...’

Wikipedia gives the number as 16,300.  Elsewhere I have read other figures ranging from 14,000 to 17,000.

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By prole, October 31, 2008 at 2:03 pm Link to this comment

Despite the copious disclaimers, the implicit underlying assumption here, as in more hawkish quarters, is that the U.S. should reign supreme in the world and the “debate” is confined largely to “soft power” vs. “force projection”. This
has been going on for many decades, at least since JFK, it’s essentially what the Democratic and Republican wings of America’s duopoly one-party state tussle over - how best to manage the
empire. Using JFK as a ‘role model’ takes quite a bit of revisionist reworking for some of the reasons cited in the other comments above. Describing Vietnam in the brief Kennedy era as a"disintegrating situation” is a telling indicator of this twisted
rationale. Disintegrating only in the sense that it could no longer be managed effectively by successive Western colonial powers, using handpicked local puppet regimes. If this were clearly and forthrightly explained or acknowledged to the wider American public outside of the elite sectors, they would likely have little trouble accepting it. By the time the bloodbath in S.E.Asia was in full swing - commenced by the real JFK, regardless of
what the academic “virtual” one would do - the “resistance to military solutions” among the public was widespread. In fact, they didn’t need any Democratic/Republican power broker from among the
elites to “explain” this to them. Rather it was the other way around.  Then as now, popular opinion is subject to dangerous manipulation, even demagoguery, but it may not always be as bellicose as those of the elites. Suppose that some “top scholars” were to do a “path-breaking” “thought experiment” on a “virtual public” better informed and without being subjected to the same blandishments of media disinformation and official propaganda. All existing in a “virtual America” with a direct democracy not a detached one-party monolith. Under such conditions, maybe we wouldn’t have to rely so much on the whims and temperament of those entrusted with too much concentrated power. As was rightly noted, no one can be “certain Kennedy would have withdrawn from Vietnam”, but the fact that costly conferences are convened to rehash such questions says alot about the underlying lack of democracy in the society and the way people are trained to trust their fate, including war and peace, to remote political potentates. To make an even greater leap in the purely hypothetical by coloring it with the quasi-historical, and investing Obama with all the virtual virtues that the researcher longs for and painting his adversary with all the qualities of the shameful past is substantively insupportable. McCain may be an unpalatable warmonger but Obama too has indicated his willingness to use force against Iran and expand the size of the military and deepen involvement in a “quagmire” in Afghanistan, etc., so as to make him almost as suspect.  You don’t have to agree with all of Bacevich’s views to recognize that he and many others are right to believe the system is broken. Instead of creating “virtual” worlds of idealized presidents to save us, we need to create a more viable popular democracy.

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By Paul Manola, October 31, 2008 at 12:24 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It has always been interesting to hear the views of non-miltary people. The facts are that on the day Kennedy was killed there were 4000 troops in Viet Nam. A month prior to that Kennedy had sent NSAM # 263 saying he wanted to pull 1000 of those out. He was, based on his military experience leaning towards avoiding a conflict which he felt would only lead to more and more envolvement. It is documented in several speeches and press conferences that he stated the struggle in Viet Nam is their fight and they will have to fight it. Anyone who has experienced lethal combat knows that no matter how well planned, equipped and ready, the moment the first round leaves the chamber all bets are off. Johnson quickly reversed the approach to Viet Nam and by January 1964 16,000+ troops were in country.

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By Blackspeare, October 31, 2008 at 11:37 am Link to this comment

The question to be shortly answered is will Obama be more like Kennedy or Carter?  Time will tell.  One thing certain is the incoming administration will receive little cooperation from the outgoing and will do much to make the transition more difficult.  Obama is going to have one hell of a situation on his hands both domestically and internationally——he may have to be more like Roosevelt than anybody else.

But one thing is certain, no matter what Obama does Limbaugh and Hannity will rip him apart, but it is good for the ratings!

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By Anarcissie, October 31, 2008 at 8:37 am Link to this comment

On the contrary, war is the essence of the politics of the state.  The problem is not that political ends cannot be achieved by military means, but that the political ends are often contradictory and at odds with the official narrative (which is quite important).  Both Iraq and Vietnam could have been subjugated by using much larger forces and completely destroying the social order and physical plant of the countries, as the Nazis or the Romans might have. However, this could not have been done on the cheap, nor would it have gone along with the theoretical purpose of the invasions.

The narrative and purpose of the war in Vietnam was important in Kennedy’s case because he also had to fight another kind of war, the political struggle with his domestic competitors.  Americans were not yet tired of the war in 1963.  In fact, they had hardly begun to think about it; when they did think about it, they were generally enthusiastic.  (De Tocqueville remarked of the Americans that there was no people so willing to start a war, and so unwilling to fight it.)  Getting out scot-free in 1963 would have been quite a difficult trick, especially after botching the Bay of Pigs and leading the country through the wringer of the Cuban missile crisis.  Of course later it would become much more difficult.  I think Johnson and Kennedy were on the same page with respect to Vietnam, and as you observe Kennedy’s advisors were all very fond of the war (at the time).

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By InTheKnow, October 31, 2008 at 4:43 am Link to this comment

My thoughts about this subject are thus:
1) Presidents, notwithstanding any prior military service, are professional politicians, NOT military commanders. Civilians typically do not understand this. Consider this: Is it logical to assume that a professional politician, someone who has spent years and years practicing politics, is suddenly going to make a good military commander of U.S. Armed Forces? Absolutely not! The title of Commander-In-Chief is conferred upon the winner of a political contest. It is not earned by demonstrating high military aptitude for commanding military forces. Therefore, presidents make very poor military decisions when required to do so. They typically further compound the problem by putting the Secretay of Defense, another civilian, in charge of the Pentagon. The Secretary of Defense then selects Generals who will kow-tow to him, instead of doing what they know to be the correct military thing to do. This is why the USA is always attempting to accomplish a political objective using military might. Real Generals know that in the long-term, it is not possible to accomplish a political objective using military might; especially if that political objective is democracy (as in Vietnam & Iraq, for examples).

2) I have reason to believe that President Kennedy probably would have escalated the Vietnam Conflict much the way LBJ did. How so? Well, he’s the one who hired the the “Big Three”: Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, in the first place. Presidents don’t typically hire advisors that they constantly disagree with. Eventually, he probably would have followed their advice to “win the war”. Additionally, the U.S. was involved in the Cold War, and President Kennedy probably bought into the Domino Theory. Even as a Senator, Kennedy argued the importance of the West defending Southeast Asia from Communism, after returning from a fact-finding tour to the Middle and Far East.

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By Folktruther, October 31, 2008 at 1:09 am Link to this comment

The political cost for ‘losing’Vietnam would not be unacceptable if you weren’t going to run again.  that’s the difference betweeen Kennedy’s second term and Johnson’s first full term.  Paul Dale Scott, such a fanatical researcher that the U of Cal publishes his assissination theories, maintains that Kennedy made too many enemies, both by his lack of militarism in Vietnam and Cuba.

And his assassination is one reason why people still are facinated by him.  the blatant lies and evasions of the Warren commission, like that of the 9/11 comminssion, make it impossible to bury historical events while the truth is obviously still covered up.

  The most effective deception of the American people is done by the pseudo-progressives (alright, pseudo-leftists) to interpret the historical truth in ways that provide damage control for the Amereican power system.  Just as the regulation of American industry is done by industry representatives, so the progressive truth about Amereican power is covered up by pseudo-leftists protecting the American power system.

This is why marxism (and real anarchism) has been repressed in the US.  As Francis Conors Saunders, a British historian, has documented, the liberal and socialist left during the Cold War was funded by the CIA and other Foundations to be anti-communist and anti-marxist.  The covering up of the assassinations was part of this Cold War damage control. 

And this led directly to the covering up of the false flag operation of 9/11-anthrax.  The evidence is hidden in plain sight but leftists like Cockburn and Chomsky denigrate anyone pointing it out.  People will keep digging at history until the truth is finally acknowledged, which is one of the reasons for the facination with the Kennedys.

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By Anarcissie, October 30, 2008 at 8:17 pm Link to this comment

All right; then I hope Obama, if he is elected, will be like your Kennedy, and not like my Kennedy, if he can’t do any better than that.

I don’t see much reason to believe that Kennedy was preparing to withdraw from Vietnam; the U.S. knew from the battle of Ap Bac that the South Vietnamese regime was not going to survive on its own, and the domestic political cost for “losing Vietnam” would have been unacceptable.  And perhaps the foreign political cost as well.  The correct imperial plan for Vietnam would have been for the U.S. leadership to seduce Ho Chi Minh away from his Soviet and Chinese allies, as they did Tito.  I am not sure why this was deemed impossible, but I suppose it may have something to do with Vietnam’s previous colonial status.

It is discouraging to observe that we are still not done with the hagiography of the Kennedys.

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By Folktruther, October 30, 2008 at 1:29 pm Link to this comment

Although the US is committed to a war trajectory, Anarcissie, which both Obiden and McCain will pursue, the writers do have a point about Kennedy.  He was a warmonger but he exercised restraint, both in the Cuba war and confrontation, and in Vietnam. 

McNaumara, in his book IN RETROSPECT, hints distantly and deniably that Kennedy was assassinated because he had begun to withdraw advisers from Vietnam.  These advisers were in fact plane and helicopter pilots who actually flew with native pretend pilots, but the distinction between advisers and military troops was still an important one.

Johnson was a militarist like McCain (and Biden) and didn’t want to lose.  With McCain, one would have as president a man who spent his whole career as a fighter pilot, and who has a bad temper. A man trained to be reflexsive not reflective. In a crucial situation, Obama would have a cooler head than McCain.  This is one real reason for progressives voting for him, the other, having an African-American president.

Since, however, in both California and New York, Obama is ahead by 20+ points in the last poll I saw, I suggest voting for McKinney

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By Anarcissie, October 30, 2008 at 7:46 am Link to this comment

The sad, material fact is that when Kennedy entered office, there were about 1100 American military people in Vietnam and on the day he died there were 17,000.  It was only after the Vietnam adventure turned sour that one began to see assertions that, had he lived, he would have withdrawn this force.  Kennedy’s chosen servants, his cabinet and other advisors, pushed Johnson further into the war.  Kennedy’s numerous, monarchistic sycophants among the intelligentsia don’t want to believe their hero had feet of clay, yet he did—covered with blood.  But no amount of whitewash will cover up the facts about Vietnam or its harbinger, the Bay of Pigs.

I already know McCain is an enthusiastic warmonger; I can only hope that if Obama becomes president, he will not be like Kennedy.

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By wakeupUSA, October 30, 2008 at 6:49 am Link to this comment

Any thinking and compassionate person knows that Sarah Palin and John McCain are buttheads extraordinaire who would only steer the country further into an already dark abyss.

Go to:

Vote for them, and other buttheads like Bush, to get asses stamped on their heasd.  All in good fun, but makes a wicked statement.  Spread the word!!  Buttheads will roll!!

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By writeon, October 30, 2008 at 1:51 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Good King, bad King. Dumb King, smart King. Lucky King, unlucky King. Balanced King, unbalanced King.

Surely Democracy should ammount to more than this? A ‘monarch’ deciding the fate of millions, if not the world.

Even a President is still only one man, a mere mortal, in bewilderingly complex and contradictory world.

It’s here that his court of advisers becomes of crucial importance. Everyone is trying to influence the ‘monarch’ and pull him in this way and that. Bush was an easy mark, seemingly a puppet controlled by a ring of grand advisors, who through him, wealded extraordinary power over the state apparatus. Men who were given and took power, yet were mostly unelected coutiers at the world’s most powerful court.

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By John Bottorff, October 30, 2008 at 12:41 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Outstanding piece.  My hope is that there are enough able minded citizens out here in cyberspace that can wrap their brains around the importance of this election.  Are we as a society going to elevate to an enlightened level of human understanding and consciousness? Simple gratitude and appreciation for fellow human beings is not too much to ask, is it?  I hope in my lifetime that I see the beauty of coexisting together on this planet.  Obama ‘08

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