On The Making of the President 1972

I recently finished reading The Making of the President 1972 – A narrative of American politics in action – by Theodore H. White.

Below are key excerpts from this book that I found to be particularly insightful:

He recognized best, and spoke most clearly, for how Americans chose to live at home in their neighborhoods-or, at the very least, he persuaded an astounding majority of Americans that he understood their emotions and needs better than his rival. With his victory, he believed in all sincerity that he had been given a mandate to reorganize the American government to make it more responsive to what the voters had shown they wanted. The after-fact that this genuine mandate might be denied him by Watergate, by the frightening way he had let his own appointees use his purposes to flout law—that is a story this book will inescapably, later, come to. But the book begins with how the people saw their leaders, and how the leaders saw then: people, in America in1972, when the and how;he leaders saw then: people, in America m 1972, when the postwar world was coming to an end—and how the people chose Richard Nixon.

Roosevelt had come of the patricians and rarely soiled himself with the nitty-gritty of mechanical politics. Roosevelt campaigned in another time, almost m another country. Large of vision, buoyant of spirit, steeped in history by family and blood, the lordly Roosevelt left it to his lieutenants to deal with the wards, the townships and regional power brokers, then pasted up his electoral votes, as he did the stamps his dealers brought him, in his album. It was quite clear always to Roosevelt what he was dealing with and what he had to do—and he did it easily.

The world of the 1960’s-which the liberals had dominated m America-was changing so rapidly that by the beginning of the 1970’s America—was changing so rapidly that by the beginning of the 1970’s change had created a climate of schizophrenia in liberal thinking, almost a civil war among thinkers who came of the same tradition. Always, since the time of Washington and Jefferson, three great permanent issues have dominated American politics-foreign policy; the clash of the races; and the managing of the economy. In the 1960’s, however, a liberal administration had accepted the war in Vietnam – and its unfurling had then split liberals from top to bottom. Liberals had championed the Black Revolution—and been unable to cope with its results. Liberals had masterminded the great boom of the 1960’s—and not foreseen its effect on manners and morals.

Well, Mr. Nixon liked Andrew Jackson—Jackson took on the banks. He liked Lincoln—Lincoln took on slavery and the cause of the Union. He liked Grover Cleveland—Cleveland took on the Congress, and restored the power of the Presidency which had been lost by Andrew Johnson. And Teddy Roosevelt—he had taken on the trusts and vested interests. And Wilson—Wilson took on the Senate and the isolationists. And Franklin Roosevelt. The common denominator, said the President, was that they accepted controversy and they made things move, they wanted progress. “There’s a role in life for men like McKinley, good men,” said the President. But he. Nixon, didn’t want to be like McKinley, nor like Eisenhower. He wanted to be a leader.

Statistics had once been a clearly marked area of scholarship, where economists, sociologists and planners held intellectual squatter’s rights. Now the numbers were a new staple of journalism. The Bloody Thursday figures fitted into the middle pages of the newspapers, as did the numbers on traffic, schools and tobacco use. But the high-impact figures —unemployment, prices, crime—were front-page news everywhere, as well as natural stories for the television evening news. Slowly, one tried to explore the numbers, for they had become the fashionable way for politicians to demonstrate a grip on reality. And one learned that there are real numbers and phony numbers.

Each decade in American life has a Sacred Issue to which all politicians must pay lip service. In the 1950’s, the Sacred Issue had been Defense and Anti-Communism. In the 1970’s, it seems certain that it will be the cause of Environment. In the 1960’s, however, the Sacred Issue was Education-and the Census of 1970, reporting on youth, Issue was Education—and the Census of 1970, reporting on youth, measured the mania for education which had swept American society in the previous decade.

One could best explain the nature of this struggle in 1972 by making an imaginary diagram of the American power structure at the tum of the century and comparing it to the American power structure as the postwar world came to its end. In 1900, as William McKinley prepared for his second term, the American power structure could be described in pure Leninese. At the pinnacle of power was Wall Street-finance. Wall Street centralized American national action—it decided where mines would be opened, railways built, what immigrant labor should be imported, what tech-railways built, what immigrant labor should be imported, what technology developed. it immigrant labor should be imported, what tech-discussion. At a second level was the Congress of the United States—doing the will of the great financiers, enacting the necessary laws, repelling the raiders of prairie discontent. On a third level was the series of largely undistinguished men who until 1900 had held the figurehead office of President of the United States for thirty years; their chief power, beyond the expression of patriotic piety, was to deploy a minuscule professional army and navy against Indians and Spaniards. The American clergy exercised some moral power, best expressed in such issues of national political importance as temperance. Behind came all the other power ingredients—a decorative Supreme Court, the early labor unions, the corrupt big-city machines, the universities. Then the proprietary press—for the press was then a proprietorship, something owned by businessmen for making money. By 1972 the power structure had entirely changed. The most important fall from power had happened to finance; businessmen might get fat, as they still did in 1972, by wheedling subsidies from national or state governments, but they were now a lobby that came hat-in-hand before a legislature and executive to whom once they had dictated. Labor, big labor, had risen to almost equal political power. The clergy had declined in power even more than big business. Congress, too, was a major loser in the power game—seventy years of domination by vigorous, aggressive Presidents had reduced its self-respect and, even more critically, the respect of the public. The Supreme Court had reached a peak of control over the national agenda m the 1960’s; but its power was beginning to fade again as the seventies began. Universities were among the big gainers in the power hierarchy—universities now were among the big gainers in the power hierarchy —universities now But the two greatest gainers in the reorganized power structure were the Executive President and his adversary press, or, as one should more properly phrase it in modem America, the “press-television complex.” Both tried to operate under what they considered traditional rules, but American life had made that impossible.

The story of Watergate was only one of a number of major stories in the election of 1972. As it unraveled, it was to become a story of 1973 and would fit better, someday when all was known, into a story of the use and abuse of power in a modem state. The elections of 1972 were determined, basically, by the record Richard Nixon had written in the understanding of his people—and his chief adversary was not in the understanding of his people—and his chief adversary was not understood and spoke for the people better than he did himself. On this immediate level of contest, Richard Nixon won. The people preferred Richard Nixon.

The Watergate affair is inexplicable m terms of older forms of corruption in American history, where men broke laws for private gain or privilege. The dynamics of its irrationality are compounded further by stupidity. The men involved were involved at a moment, in 1972, when history was moving their way. They were trying to speed it by any means. history was moving their way. They were trying to speed it by any means, that, as history may record, compounds their personal felonies with national tragedy. For it would be no less than national tragedy if men came to regard the election of 1972 as fraud; or attempted to reverse the verdict of the people at the polls on the technicalities of a burglary, in a spasm of morality approaching the hysterical.

The Democratic Party, which called itself the party of the future, had become, in their eyes, the party of the past. They turned instead to Richard Nixon, affirming the change of direction he declared he was giving to government—a restraint on the power and reach of the Federal state into daily life. However his use of the power of state may be defined in the months or years to come, use of the power ot state may be defined in me months or years to come, For this time, they preferred to live their own lives privately—unplagued by moralities, or war, or riots, or violence. In the alternation of the sequences of American history, in the cycle between poetry and pragmatism, in those generational shifts of mood characteristic of the adventure in democracy certainly the ideas of the minority who voted for McGovern would come into then: time again. Those ideas still stirred in the spirit of the nation. But until those ideas had new form, new shape, new perspective, the majority of Americans would not be called out to march in their cause. Such was their mandate in 1972.

An educative read on American history and politics.


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