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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 3)

In April 2005 we organized a critical oral history conference devoted to the question of whether or not JFK probably would have escalated the war in Vietnam if he had lived and been re-elected. The most relevant declassified documents and transcripts of formerly secret Kennedy and Johnson audiotapes filled the conference briefing notebooks of the participants. And top scholars of the war, who came from across the spectrum on this key issue, grilled former officials of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. They included LBJ’s all-purpose aide and press secretary Bill Moyers, former State Department intelligence chief Thomas Hughes and Chester Cooper, who was the principal Vietnam expert serving National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy. The former officials were not shy about what they believed the scholars had gotten wrong in interpreting the declassified documents. The critical oral history conference produced a scintillating argument, in the best sense of the word argument: people stated opposing positions, argued hard for their views and listened carefully to what those with opposing views were saying. Some revised their views on the question of what a surviving JFK would have done and some did not. The annotated record of that path-breaking conference, complete with excerpts from the most illuminating formerly secret documents, is the empirical heart of our book “Virtual JFK.”

By combining these elements—former officials, declassified documents and scholars of the war—the conferees participated in a historical thought experiment. In this thought experiment, the only factor that varies to any significant degree is the identity of the president—that is, JFK before his Nov. 22, 1963, assassination, and LBJ after Nov. 22, 1963. The outcome of interest is whether or not the U.S. president sent combat troops to South Vietnam, and whether he initiated U.S. bombing in both South and North Vietnam. Caveat: Of course, history never allows for an “experiment” in the scientific sense of the term. History never repeats itself—not exactly—and its variables cannot be manipulated the way the scientific method requires the manipulation of independent variables, in the service of making causal connections to the dependent variables. That said, however, all the participants in the critical oral history exercise recounted in “Virtual JFK” agreed that the JFK-LBJ-Vietnam conundrum comes as close as we are ever likely to get in a historical example to something approximating scientific rigor.

The thought experiment is plausible because LBJ, for various reasons discussed at length in “Virtual JFK,” retained all the senior members of JFK’s national security team, including the “Big Three”: Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy. Moreover, these key advisers gave LBJ the same advice they gave JFK. All three had argued from the outset of the Kennedy administration that the U.S. should send large numbers of combat troops to Vietnam to save the Saigon government from a communist takeover. Kennedy said no, repeatedly and forcefully, and eventually convinced McNamara to become the principal architect of the withdrawal of U.S. advisers from Vietnam. Within days, or even hours, of LBJ’s accession to the presidency, these same advisers made to him the same argument they had made to Kennedy. The argument was: U.S. troops are needed in Vietnam. If you, as president, fail to guarantee the security of our ally in Saigon, the U.S. reputation will be tarnished irrevocably, another “domino” will fall to the communists, and your presidency will probably be judged a failure—the moment when the Free World began to collapse in earnest. We now know in great detail when, to whom and on what basis JFK said no to these arguments. We also know the details of LBJ’s response, given less than 48 hours after Johnson took the oath of office. It was “win the war.”

Same advisers. Same conflict. Same dire predictions. Same recommendations. But a different president. And an utterly different outcome. Conclusion: It was the president who made the difference. It was the president who was determinative in keeping the nation out of war or leading the nation into war.

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Avoiding Escalation vs. Avoiding Defeat

The declassified documents and oral testimony now available strongly suggest that in his attitude and decisions on the war JFK was poles apart from LBJ. Over and over again, Kennedy acted to avoid unintended escalation. He worried that having gotten into a conflict, there might be no non-catastrophic way out. Kennedy was certainly no pacifist. But he was skeptical of military advice—skeptical of the typical military confidence in the armed services’ ability to achieve their objectives with acceptable costs and risks. JFK’s skepticism derived from many sources. He had fought in the Pacific in World War II and seen firsthand the extraordinary degree to which war eludes human control, or even human understanding. And he never forgot the overconfidence and delusionary assessments and advice he received in the run-up to his decision to allow the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion to go forward.

LBJ, with no combat experience or significant military experience of any kind, was highly insecure around military advisers. Equally, he was also almost pathologically anxious about appearing to be the first president to “lose” a war that his military and civilian advisers told him must be fought. In fact, it is now quite clear from the documentary record that LBJ’s core concern was losing, or even the appearance of losing. Chief among his worries was that his military advisers might leak stories to the press or the Congress that he was preventing the U.S. military from achieving its objectives—whether it was intimidating the Soviet Union at the nuclear level or winning the war against the communists in Vietnam. Just as Kennedy was no pacifist, Johnson was no warmonger. He was aware of the risks of escalation, but unlike Kennedy he thought he could keep escalation under control in Vietnam via micro-managing the war from the Oval Office. He also hoped, despite receiving a good deal of evidence to the contrary, that superior U.S. military power might eventually bring the Vietnamese communists to their knees and to the conference table. JFK never believed that regular U.S. combat forces could prove decisive in a civil conflict like the one in Vietnam. Thus LBJ was much more amenable to reiterated lamentations, doomsday predictions and pressure to escalate from advisers who told him, as they had told Kennedy, that without U.S. military intervention in Vietnam, countries of the so-called free world might topple over “like a row of dominos,” as President Dwight Eisenhower had said in April 1954.

This, then, was the core difference that made all the difference: Kennedy’s bottom line was avoiding uncontrollable escalation to a catastrophic conventional or nuclear war, while Johnson’s bottom line was avoiding a military defeat anywhere in the world, or even the appearance of a defeat. Kennedy, too, worried about defeat, of course. After all, he was president during that phase of the Cold War when many on both sides of the East-West divide characterized the competition in winner-take-all terms. But Kennedy was prepared to take his chances at limiting the political fallout from an outcome that his political opponents in the U.S. might try to characterize as a military defeat. JFK had shown at the outset of his presidency that even the tragic and humiliating Bay of Pigs invasion could be successfully framed from the “bully pulpit” of the U.S. presidency as a mistake from which he intended to learn, and which could have been much worse for U.S. interests if he had gone along with the invasion and air attack that many of his advisers had urged on him.

The antithetical nature of the bottom lines of these two presidents was, we believe, the principal reason why there was no American war in Vietnam before JFK’s assassination and why, in retrospect, it seems to have become almost inevitable after LBJ assumed the presidency, given the ever-worsening situation on the ground in South Vietnam.


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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)

-http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/latestnews/stories/120508dntexlbjaudio.2dd019ec.html

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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”:
( http://www.bigeye.com/warstate.htm )

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:  http://www.buttheadpolice.com

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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