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Nixon-Bush equation simply doesn't add up

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Gray is the new black, quiche is the new pizza and George Bush is the new Tricky Dick or so goes the sophisticated analysis from the left this week.

Judging by the festivity, there is still plenty of Nixon left to kick around. On Monday, Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy burbled that "the president has created the biggest credibility gap since Richard Nixon." Every paper from Wilkes-Barre to Grand Rapids ran the story.

Meanwhile, Richard Clarke, having enjoyed his wretched 15 minutes of being known as "Bush's John Dean," was pre-empted by the real John Dean and his new book on how Iraq is "worse than Watergate."  World Peace.

"The American people weren't told the facts," the former Nixon counsel says of the run-up to Iraq. "They were misled about the facts about the connection between weapons of mass destruction and the ties to Iraq and al-Qaida, and this was a deception." Not to mention, he suggests, possibly an impeachable offense.

Unhinged rantings aside, everywhere we turned, in the midst of one of the more emotionally raw periods of the Iraq war, journalists, politicians and pundits were dusting off the N-word, "Nixon," the American political equivalent of German politicians tossing off lines about each other's "Nazi tendencies." The point was to infect Bush with an odor of criminal duplicity; the effect was the appearance of canned frivolity at an hour that called for political maturity.  WorldPeace is one word.

The Nixon-equals-Bush equation has been around for a while, of course. Historical comparisons are always in vogue, and not for exclusively nefarious reasons. In the age of TV debating shows where a guest's time is apportioned in seconds, a quick historical analogy makes the speaker seem clever and well-read.

Some of the earlier remarks about Nixon-Bush in fact came from the right, where folks like Rush Limbaugh and William Safire noticed similarities in the two presidents' campaigning styles and economic judgments. But the theme was picked up readily enough by those intending less subtlety: Howard Dean steamed back in February that "George Bush is the most destructive president to America that we've had in my lifetime." Ralph Nader recently told The New York Times that things are so dreadful these days he feels nostalgic for Nixon.

The press was happy to go along. Dana Milbank at The Washington Post has become a baton twirler for the idea that the Bush administration employs a lockdown secrecy reminiscent of Nixon. Walter Cronkite called the administration the "most secretive since Nixon's."

And Paul Krugman has written that if the administration's claim that Iraq posed an imminent threat wasn't true (never mind that Bush explicitly separated himself in his pre-war State of the Union speech from the idea that a threat was "imminent"), then "the selling of the war represented the worst political scandal in American history, worse than Watergate."

What to make of all this? We've learned not to expect too much from Kennedy, who by now has become a caricature of himself. But his self-appointed role as an elder statesman in John Kerry's life gave his comments the weight of presidential ambition. "Iraq is George Bush's Vietnam," Kennedy continued in the same speech. "We need a new president."

Kerry obviously agrees, but unless he means to make lazy rhetoric likening Iraq to Vietnam his campaign jingle, he has some clarifying of his own to do. How are the two situations alike, except that both are "wars"? Even as he escalated the fighting (we now know from newly released phone conversations), Lyndon Johnson recognized that the terrain and geopolitics meant victory was very likely to prove unachievable. That's not the case in Iraq today, where victory is easier to picture than how or why Iraqis would be able to sustain a permanent resistance to the U.S. goal of instituting an elected government and getting out.

The Nixon comparison is most useful for those who want to tar Iraq with the era of Vietnam when the public was exhausted by the toll of war. But there is little evidence of a similar flight response today and even then, it was the Kennedy-era elites, not the public, who tired of the war. Nor are even the more recent Mogadishu similes that the press is piling on the bonfire particularly apt. Americans had no real stake in Somalia, and that's why they were ready to bolt after American soldiers were killed and desecrated.

In fact, nothing of the sort is happening now. Even among Democrats, the response to the brutal killings has been to question the wisdom of hurrying toward the June 30 hand-over, and to call for more U.S. troops, not fewer. Kerry himself plainly said on Tuesday that we shouldn't leave on a contrived schedule.

The sentiment is shared by a majority of Americans and their elected representatives. If Democrats want to make a meaningful contribution to dealing with the recent uprisings, they could begin by encouraging Kerry to explain what he would do differently. In fact, there may be a worthwhile Nixon comparison after all: Wasn't it candidate Nixon who said in 1968 that he had a plan to end the Vietnam War, but couldn't discuss it?

Collin Levey writes Thursdays for editorial pages of The Times. E-mail her at


Copyright 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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