President Obama's Vocal Minority Speech


    1 December 2009 and 3 November 1969: the desire to contain a vocal minority and the determination to mobilize a silent majority.

    I’ve looked at a lot of the coverage of the President’s speech at West Point last night, and, so far at least, no one seems to have noticed the precedent and example that is hiding in plain sight: Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” speech of 3 November 1969.

    Nixon was eleven months into his presidency forty years ago —just as Mr. Obama is eleven months and a week into his— when he went to the people to explain his plans for the war the nation was fighting in Vietnam.

    Both leaders used a highly-publicized and much-anticipated speech to explain the conduct of a war started by their predecessor(s); to separate themselves from that history; and to announce their new policies for ending the war and bringing peace.

    Both speeches were about the same length —4500 words. And both, based on the knowledge that the nation was divided and confused, and that there was a widespread feeling that the leaders hadn’t been leveling with the people, began with straightforward narratives of the story to that point.

    Nixon even listed the questions he would answer:

    How and why did America get involved in Vietnam in the first place?

    How has this administration changed the policy of the previous administration?

    What has really happened in the negotiations in Paris and on the battlefront in Vietnam?

    What choices do we have if we are to end the war?

    What are the prospects for peace?

    Obama recalled the brutal provocation of 9/11, the decisions that followed, the developments in Iraq, and the current situation in Afghanistan:

    Over the last several years, the Taliban has maintained common cause with al Qaeda, as they both seek an overthrow of the Afghan government.  Gradually, the Taliban has begun to control additional swaths of territory in Afghanistan, while engaging in increasingly brazen and devastating attacks of terrorism against the Pakistani people.

    Nixon mentioned his reservations about the way the war had been conducted:

    Now, many believe that President Johnson’s decision to send American combat forces to South Vietnam was wrong. And many others —I among them— have been strongly critical of the way the war has been conducted.

    Obama recalled his outright opposition:

    I opposed the war in Iraq precisely because I believe that we must exercise restraint in the use of military force, and always consider the long-term consequences of our actions.

    Nixon mentioned the possibility —and acknowledged the temptation— of simply ending the war by blaming the administration that began it.

    From a political standpoint this would have been a popular and easy course to follow. After all, we became involved in the war while my predecessor was in office. I could blame the defeat which would be the result of my action on him and come out as the Peacemaker. Some put it to me quite bluntly: This was the only way to avoid allowing Johnson’s war to become Nixon’s war.

    But I had a greater obligation than to think only of the years of my administration and of the next election.

    Obama examined and refuted the arguments —within his own party— that he should wash his hands of the wars his predecessor started.  Indeed, he cited Vietnam in this regard:

    I recognize there are a range of concerns about our approach.  So let me briefly address a few of the more prominent arguments that I’ve heard, and which I take very seriously.

    First, there are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam.  They argue that it cannot be stabilized, and we’re better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing.  I believe this argument depends on a false reading of history.

    Both Nixon and Obama quoted Eisenhower — Nixon albeit indirectly and Obama to make the opposite point.  Nixon said:

    In 1963, President Kennedy, with his characteristic eloquence and clarity, said: “. . . we want to see a stable government there, carrying on a struggle to maintain its national independence.

    “We believe strongly in that. We are not going to withdraw from that effort. In my opinion, for us to withdraw from that effort would mean a collapse not only of South Viet-Nam, but Southeast Asia. So we are going to stay there.”

    President Eisenhower and President Johnson expressed the same conclusion during their terms of office.

    Obama said:

    I’m mindful of the words of President Eisenhower, who — in discussing our national security — said, “Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration:  the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.”

    The thirty-seventh President spoke of the great weight of his decisions as Commander in Chief:

    There are powerful personal reasons I want to end this war. This week I will have to sign 83 letters to mothers, fathers, wives, and loved ones of men who have given their lives for America in Vietnam. It is very little satisfaction to me that this is only one-third as many letters as I signed the first week in office. There is nothing I want more than to see the day come when I do not have to write any of those letters.

    I want to end the war to save the lives of those brave young men in Vietnam.

    As did the forty-fourth:

    As President, I have signed a letter of condolence to the family of each American who gives their life in these wars.  I have read the letters from the parents and spouses of those who deployed.  I visited our courageous wounded warriors at Walter Reed.  I’ve traveled to Dover to meet the flag-draped caskets of 18 Americans returning home to their final resting place.  I see firsthand the terrible wages of war.  If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow.

    So, no, I do not make this decision lightly.

    Although the two speeches —separated by forty years— shared many similarities, there were major differences between them in terms of substance, technique, and intention.

    At the core of both speeches, both Presidents presented essentially similar policies in radically different ways.  Nixon expounded on the Vietnamization that he had initiated earlier in the year:

    We have adopted a plan which we have worked out in cooperation with the South Vietnamese for the complete withdrawal of all U.S. combat ground forces, and their replacement by South Vietnamese forces on an orderly scheduled timetable. This withdrawal will be made from strength and not from weakness. As South Vietnamese forces become stronger, the rate of American withdrawal can become greater.

    And Obama set out what amounted to a policy of Afghanization:

    The 30,000 additional troops that I’m announcing tonight will deploy in the first part of 2010 —the fastest possible pace— so that they can target the insurgency and secure key population centers.  They’ll increase our ability to train competent Afghan security forces, and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight.  And they will help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans.

    But Nixon was adamant about staying until the job was done and about keeping his counsel in the meantime:

    I have not and do not intend to announce the timetable for our program. And there are obvious reasons for this decision which I am sure you will understand. As I have indicated on several occasions, the rate of withdrawal will depend on developments on three fronts.

    While Obama was definitive about his timetable for disengagement.

    And as Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan.  After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.

    Nixon had written his speech entirely by himself at Camp David over the weekend before the Monday night on which he delivered it.  He did this partly because he considered the content so important, and partly because he was determined that none of it would leak in advance.  He took considerable satisfaction from the fact that what he said completely confounded the widespread speculations and predictions about what he would have to say.

    Obama’s speech was parceled out in leaks over the preceding several days; and the text was accurately reported twenty-four hours before the speech was delivered.  In the event, the delivery confirmed the expectations.

    Nixon read his speech in the Oval Office in the White House at 9.30 PM.  The glass-top desk was covered with a piece of brown baize and the only backdrop was the closed gold silk window curtains.  The Obama address, delivered using TelePrompter at 8.30 PM, was a highly staged and choreographed event in Eisenhower Hall at the United States Military Academy at West Point —the second largest auditorium east of the Mississippi (only Radio City Music Hall is bigger).  The event was opened with introductions and concluded with a crowd bath.

    The Nixon speech was intended to speak directly to the American people by going above the large and growing anti-war movement while going around its sympathizers and supporters in the media.  Nixon was convinced that “the great silent majority” of Americans would support his plan to end the war the way he proposed if only he could reach them and explain himself to them.

    His belief was justified by the phenomenal results of that single speech.  Overnight his poll ratings jumped from the high thirties to the high sixties, and the wind was at least temporarily sucked from the sails of the anti-war movement.

    The Obama speech, on one very important level, was a finely calibrated exercise at mollifying, or at least containing, the vocal minority of leaders and activists inside the president’s own party who want nothing to do with this or any war.

    Whether President Obama’s speech is as successful at containing the vocal minority as President Nixon’s was at mobilizing the silent majority will take at least a few more days to begin to figure out.


        Forty years ago today, on 2 December 1969, RN signed House and Senate bills dealing with the preservation of presidential homes and birthplaces.

        60 Auburn Avenue, Cincinnati, OH: 27 was born here on 15 September 1857.

        250 Eisenhower Farm Drive, Gettysburg, PA: 34 lived here from 1951 until his death in 1969.

        Johnson City, TX: 36 was born here on 27 August 1908

        Statement on Signing Bills for the Preservation of Presidential Birthplaces and Homes. December 2, 1969

        WE HAVE DEVELOPED a tradition of preserving the birthplaces and homes of our Presidents to commemorate their dedication and service to the Nation and to serve as a tangible symbol and inspiration for present and future generations of Americans. Today we have an unprecedented opportunity to do honor simultaneously to three American Presidents–William Howard Taft, Dwight David Eisenhower, and Lyndon Baines Johnson.

        The legislation I am approving carries this tradition forward in three steps. H.R. 7066 and S. 2000 will preserve and establish as national historic sites the birthplaces and boyhood homes of President Taft in Cincinnati, Ohio, and President Johnson in Johnson City, Texas. S.J. Res. 26 will authorize the necessary funds to preserve and develop President Eisenhower’s home and farm at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, already established as a national historic site.

        The approval of these three measures will now make these American homes as much a part of the Nation’s history as are the achievements of the men who occupied them. I am sure everyone will understand my very special personal feeling at being able to pay such a tribute to President Eisenhower, with whom I was privileged to work closely for many years and for whom I will always have the deepest affection and admiration.

        Some other presidential birthplaces that are historical sites and/or part of presidential libraries:

        The Manse in Staunton, VA: 22 was born here on 28 December 1856.

        Lamar, MO: 33 was born here on 8 May 1884.

        Brookline, MA: 35 was born here on 29 May 1917.

        Hope, AR: 42 was born here on 19 August 1946.

        Yorba Linda, CA: 37 was born here on 9 January 1913.

          Setting The Record Straight

            Last month the International Republican Institute honored Henry Kissinger with its 2009 Freedom award in recognition of his contribution to the security and progress of the United States.  HAK was introduced by his old friend Senator John McCain, and his former associate and fellow Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger.

            HAK was interviewed by historian Niall Ferguson, a Senior Research Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, and currently the holder of professorial chairs at Harvard University and the Harvard Business School.

            After the presentation of the Award, HAK sat down for a conversation with writer and historian Niall Ferguson.  As an opener, Professor Ferguson asked if there is any historical parallel between our experiences in Afghanistan today and Vietnam back in the day.  HAK’s reply was concise and memorable:

            First of all, I have a perception of Vietnam which is not the majority media perception of Vietnam.

            I think in essence we defeated ourselves.  Vietnam was a problem of the American soul and not of the American performance.

            And until we accept this we are not going to learn the lessons of the period.

            We entered a war with decent motives and attempted to pursue it by judgments that turned out to be not applicable to the situation because they were drawn from a European experience.

            And when I say “we” I mean the Kennedy and Johnson administration.

            President Nixon attempted to disengage us from that war. And, while he is accused today of having prolonged the war, the only decision he made that prolonged the war was his refusal of the communist demand that, at the beginning of the peacemaking process, we had to replace the Government of Vietnam with a communist-dominated government, and after which we would have to withdraw our troops under fire.

            Those two conditions he refused, and if that is prolonging the war, we would do it again.

            The whole program, as broadcast by C-SPAN, concluding with the Kissinger-Ferguson conversation, can be seen here.


            HAK at the IRI dinner, chatting with Gen. Brent Scowcroft, his erstwhile assistant and subsequent successor as National Security Adviser.

              The Mission Inn At Christmas

                From the Los Angeles Times comes this article about the historic Mission Inn in Riverside, California which has just set up its much-cherished “Festival of Lights” for another holiday season. Nixon scholars know it as the place where the future President married Pat Ryan, but it has hosted many, many other weddings – including Bette Davis’s union with her third husband, William Grant Sherry, in 1945. The inn has also counted among its visitors the likes of Albert Einstein, Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, Amelia Earhart, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – and not just two-legged ones:

                One of the more unusual guests was a circus elephant named Schneider, who escaped from a train and invaded the premises in 1909.

                Apparently mistaking his reflection in the window of the hotel barber shop for another bull elephant, Schneider charged, bursting through the glass.

                [Mission Inn founder Frank] Miller took the incident in stride. “He said that was the only guest that was ever allowed to carry his own trunk,” Gutierrez said.

                  Obama/Edwards: The Ticket That Never Was

                    In recent months little has been heard about the scandal that forced former Senator (and 2004 Democratic vice-presidential candidate) John Edwards from political life. A grand jury in North Carolina is now hearing testimony regarding the question of whether funds earmarked for his 2008 presidential campaign were diverted to pay the living expenses of Rielle Hunter, who in February 2008 gave birth to a daughter who, it is widely reported, was fathered by Edwards. I wrote about “the Edwards Zone” a number of times in 2008 at TNN, but developments since I last discussed the case have been as bizarre and murky as ever, so I’m waiting to see what comes out of the grand jury’s deliberations.

                    But a passage in the new book The Audacity To Win by David Plouffe is worth mentioning. Plouffe, the campaign manager who handled President Obama’s race for the White House last year, says in it that just after then-Senator Hillary Clinton narrowly defeated Obama in the New Hampshire primary in January 2008, “a senior Edwards advisor” telephoned him with a remarkable offer.

                    The advisor pointed out that Edwards’s failure to win in Iowa (where he finished second, just ahead of Clinton but well behind Obama) or in New Hampshire made it unlikely that he would be the nominee. The advisor also observed that Clinton’s win in the Granite State had put Obama in a difficult position going into the next primary in South Carolina. He proposed a solution: that Edwards drop out of the race, endorse Obama, and be anointed by the Illinois senator as his running-mate should he receive the nomination. The two senators would then campaign jointly. The Edwards advisor argued that this would give Obama the edge in South Carolina, Edwards’s native state, and in the other Southern states on Super Tuesday, and thus guarantee him the nomination.

                    Plouffe took this offer to Obama, who rejected the idea. The advisor then informed Plouffe that he would approach Clinton instead, but if the notion was even presented to Hillary, no evidence has turned up so far.

                    Leaving aside the question of why Edwards thought he might help lead a Democratic ticket to victory in the fall when his onetime mistress was due to give birth in a few weeks after this idea was floated, the proposal had one obvious flaw. In 2004, when Edwards ran with John Kerry, it was widely trumpeted by his supporters that as a Southerner he would help win North Carolina, and perhaps Florida, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, for the Democrats. As things turned out, the whole South (and mid-South) went Republican. In 2008, Obama won Florida, Virginia and North Carolina on his own; having Joe Biden, a Pennsylvanian serving from Delaware, was no particular plus.

                    Obama was also probably aware of an earlier case where a presidential hopeful committed himself to a running-mate before actually being nominated (or having the nomination locked up). In 1976, just before the GOP convention got underway, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, in the hope of gaining the support of enough delegates to overtake President Gerald Ford’s lead, announced that he would select Pennsylvania Sen. Richard Schweiker, regarded as a moderate-to-liberal figure, as his running-mate.

                    This choice generated little enthusiasm among the delegates Reagan sought, but it did upset his conservative base, with Sen. Jesse Helms urging the drafting of Sen. James Buckley to be Reagan’s running-mate instead. As a result, Reagan lost the nomination – though so narrowly that, though few liberal pundits believed it at the time, his ultimate journey to the White House was a sure bet.

                    For Obama to do something similar would have been a grave misstep; even if Edwards didn’t have the baggage he carried, had the Obama/Edwards ticket gone down to defeat in November 2008, it’s all but impossible that the Illinois senator would have been a viable candidate in 2012 or any time after. So, as the President looks back on 2008, he can rest assured that he made a wise choice.


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