As it is generally understood, the "republic" established when the federal Constitution became effective in 1791, was intended to establish a government which reflected the will of the governed. Although the definition of "the governed" was fairly limited at the time, certainly through the establishment of women's suffrage in the twentieth century, the need of the people we elect to reflect that consensus, subject to the limits placed on majority rule by the protections established by the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment, has served this country very well and allowed us to remain politically stable for a very long time.
Nonetheless, we have often been tested in eras when government has spent too much time speaking to itself and not listening to the governed. In the current version of this, this myopia and failure to consider the discontent that is everywhere, has been aided and abetted by a timid and cowardly "press" which has, in many respects, forgotten what their obligations are to maintain this republic as intended by the founders.
In particular, as the Vietnam War seemed to suggest that the government in all three of its national branches, and the other governments that comprise our nation, had fallen out of touch and no longer represented huge segments of the population, this Iraq adventure may be even worse.
During Vietnam the country was truly divided. Really, anyone who seriously considered the matter as of mid-1967, I suspect, knew that there were both significant reasons we were there, and a substantial reason we should leave. The North Vietnamese government, and their allies in the south may have had some anti-colonial basis, but by mid 1967 it was clear they had become pawns to one degree or another, of the desire of the communist governments of China and the Soviet Union to spread whatever empire they were imagining to the former French colony of Indo-China. The South Vietnamese government, a phony, corrupt creation of the former colonial power, then the United States, represented nobody but themselves and were not a good advertisement for what we thought we have to offer.
But there we were. And in the relatively innocent times that those days were, only slightly more than 25 years since we entered World War II, a withdrawal in the face of a determined enemy seemed wrong; almost as if we would be repeating the mistakes of Chamberlain in attempting to appease Hitler before that war. Yet it was a mistake to try to fight a war that nobody who lived there had much of a stake in, except those who decided to work for our country or to take advantage of our presence.
That division, though, caused an enormous cleavage in this country. Those of us not in the military were either for the war or against it, and, at times, it seemed like the country was evenly divided.
By the time it all ended, of course, in 1975, the country had unified behind the position that of it were ever a good idea, it was no longer. And so it ended. Horribly. Those of us around at the time have never quite gotten the images of people being kicked away as they tried to board helicopters at our embassy in Saigon in a vain attempt to get out before the North Vietnamese government became that of the whole country.
We do not have the cleavage of 1967 or 1968 right now. We have skipped all the way to 1975. This time, though, the government is not accepting the reality that the public has. The government of 1975, a wobbly facsimile of what Presidents Johnson and Nixon ran, was reeling from the forced resignation of the President and the installation of the bland Gerald Ford in his place.
That President still had the structure of Nixon’s government with some holdovers such as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, but it had a few of its own folks who watched in horror as the weakened government could not resist the will of a people tired of the war, tired of Watergate and Nixon, and trying to forget both.
Those people Ford brought into this mess: his chief of staff, and then defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, Rumsfeld’s deputy, Dick Cheney, who became chief when Rumsfeld went to the Pentagon, came back to government, first under Ronald Reagan, but then, supremely victorious under this President Bush, and they were determined now not allow what happened then, to happen again.
And they knew how to prevent it. Just what levers to push, what frights to put into the opposition party, the press and broadcast media, and the public at large. They have succeeded to one degree, at the least, but they have brought us back to 1975, without Watergate, and this time they are determined not to let the public push them around.
The cost has been significant and, honestly, it is worth considering whether our nation can survive it. Thomas Jefferson believed that every so often a revolution against the established government was necessary because otherwise it just becomes an arm of something other than the people’s will. There are times when government must lead the people from prejudices, mistakes, the tyranny of the majority and the like. Sending its children to war is rarely, if ever, one of the things it should do, however, unless that is truly what the country wants.
It was not in 1975 and it is not now. In a sense, Watergate saved the government from a reckoning of the consequences of continuing a war the country had decided to abandon. The resignation of the President seemed to be a sufficient salve to an angry public. Perhaps the replacement of the current President a year and a half from now will serve the same purpose. I am not so sure.
I watched bits and pieces of the so-called filibuster against the war over the summer. It was not remotely as informative and galvanizing as the Fulbright hearings on the Vietnam War which all but ended Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. But what was clear is that everyone was simply going through the motions: very few Senators took positions other than the ones they were expected to take. There was very little courage shown, though many interesting views were expressed.
The upshot was, in my view, only to stick the government’s thumb in the public’s eye even more. That public, for better or worse, (and this is not an easy question we face) wants this to end; the government, to one degree or another, apparently does not; at least not enough to do anything about it or even to rationally explain why not (though, in truth, there are several). They enrage the public by this inaction and an enraged public is not the sort upon which a stable government can long survive.