Wednesday, June 29, 2005

George grooves with the Greatest Hits of the Sixties

In the climactic scene of Bruce Robinson's brilliant film Withnail & I, a local Camden Town drug dealer, Danny, attempts to pacify Marwood (the "I" of the film's title), who is suddenly gripped with a case of potent-cannabis-induced paranoid agitation ("the Fear"). In so doing, Danny meditates on how being really, really stoned is a metaphor for politics and for the end of the Sixties:

Sit down man, find your neutral space. You have done something to your brain. You have made it high. If I lay 10 mills of diazepam on you, you will do something else to your brain. You will make it low. Why trust one drug rather than the other? That's politics ain't it?

. . . .

If you are holding onto a rising balloon you are presented with a difficult political decision: let go while you've still got the chance or hold onto the rope and continue getting higher. That's politics man.

We are at the end of an age. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is nearly over. . . . . It is 91 days to the end of the decade and as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black.

In the film, Danny utters these words in the waning days of September, 1969. Shortly after this fictional event (on Nov. 3, 1969 to be precise), a very real (albeit fictional-seeming) Richard Milhaus Nixon responded to escalating unrest over the Vietnam War by giving his (in)famous "Vietnamization" speech. In it, Milhaus offered his own version of Danny's Balloon Thesis:

My fellow Americans, I am sure you can recognize from what I have said that we really only have two choices open to us if we want to end this war.

-I can order an immediate, precipitate withdrawal of all Americans from Vietnam without regard to the effects of that action.

-Or we can persist in our search for a just peace through a negotiated settlement if possible, or through continued implementation of our plan for Vietnamization if necessary - a plan in which we will withdraw all of our forces from Vietnam on a schedule in accordance with our program, as the South Vietnamese become strong enough to defend their own freedom.

Milhaus, of course, chose to hang on to the balloon: "I have chosen this second course. It is not the easy way. It is the right way."

Why do I once again trouble you, my one and only reader, with the dark name of Milhaus? Why do I disturb your dreams with the nightmare image of the melon-jowled trickster figure of U.S. History? Well, mon semblable, mon frère, I do this to you because our Commander-Cuckoo-Bananas-in-Chief positively channeled the old villain while exhorting his fellow 'mericans to please, dear Je-yay-sus, hang on to that balloon.

Let it not be said that "the greatest decade in the history of mankind" passed George by without leaving a trace on his booze-addled brain, for last night's speech was not simply a rerun of George's own greatest hits (although it certainly was that), it was a stunning rewrite of Nixon's November excrescence, which featured such Smash Hits as "the great silent majority" and (who can forget?) the "just peace." Trust me, dear reader, the process of reading the two pieces side by side rewards the effort -- the edification it provides is worth the nausea it provokes. For the more squeamish, I will offer the following Cliffs Notes primer on the similarities between the speeches.

First, a little context.

  • Nixon was facing mounting opposition to the Vietnam War, and decided to take to the airwaves to sell the policy of keeping U.S. combat troops in Vietnam until the "military forces" of "South Vietnam" were sufficiently trained to take over from the U.S. military the task of being systematically slaughtered by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. Bush is facing mounting opposition to the Iraq War, and decided to take to the airwaves to sell the policy of keeping U.S. combat troops in Iraq until the "military forces" of "the New and Sovereign Iraq" are sufficiently trained to take over the task of being systematically slaughtered by Sunni and nationalist insurgents, soldiers and officers from the disbanded Iraqi Army, and a collection of foreign and home-grown jihadis.

Now the speech. The similarities abound. I will pick some of the choicest morsels.

  • Milhaus pretends that he is executing a new policy of working to hand over the fight to the South Vietnamese: "[W]e are Vietnamizing the search for peace. . . . . Under the [Vietnamization] plan, I ordered first a substantial increase in the training and equipment of South Vietnamese forces. . . . . Under the new orders, the primary mission of our troops is to enable the South Vietnamese forces to assume the full responsibility for the security of South Vietnam." Dubya pretends that he is executing a new policy of working to hand over the fight to the Iraqis: "Our strategy can be summed up this way: As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down. . . . . Our task is to make the Iraqi units fully capable and independent. We're building up Iraqi security forces as quickly as possible, so they can assume the lead in defeating the terrorists and insurgents." Well, this worked so swimmingly from 1968-1975, why not give it another whirl, eh?
  • Milhaus sez, we're making progress: "And now we have begun to see the results of this long overdue change in American policy in Vietnam. [Et lying-ass cetera, et lying-ass cetera.]" Dubya sez, we're making progress: "In the past year, we have made significant progress. [Et lying-ass cetera, et lying-ass cetera]. "
  • However, Milhaus sez, timetable bad: "I have not and do not intend to announce the timetable for our program. . . . . [The enemy] would simply wait until our forces had withdrawn and then move in. . . . . [And if we withdraw troops] our allies would lose confidence in America. Far more dangerous, we would lose confidence in ourselves." However, Dubya sez, timetable bad: "Some contend that we should set a deadline for withdrawing U.S. forces. Let me explain why that would be a serious mistake. Setting an artificial timetable would send the wrong message to the Iraqis, who need to know that America will not leave before the job is done. It would send the wrong message to our troops, who need to know that we are serious about completing the mission they are risking their lives to achieve. And it would send the wrong message to the enemy, who would know that all they have to do is to wait us out." (OK, let's give Dubya's speechwriters credit for coming up with a reason or two that didn't appear in Nixon's speech.)
  • Milhaus sez, I really, really do want to bring our troops home, but we have to defeat this boogeyman first: "There are powerful personal reasons I want to end this war. . . . . I want to end the war to save the lives of those brave young men in Vietnam. But I want to end it in a way which will increase the chance that their younger brothers and their sons will not have to fight in some future Vietnam someplace in the world." Dubya sez I really, really do want to bring the troops home but we have to defeat this boogeyman first: "I recognize that Americans want our troops to come home as quickly as possible. So do I. . . . . We have more work to do, and there will be tough moments that test America's resolve. We're fighting against men with blind hatred -- and armed with lethal weapons -- who are capable of any atrocity. . . . . They will fail."
  • Milhaus sez, we've been in some tight spots before, but by gum we always pull through 'cuz we're Americans and are therefore always right: "We have faced other crises in our history and have become stronger by rejecting the easy way out and taking the right way in meeting our challenges. Our greatness as a nation has been our capacity to do what had to be done when we knew our course was right." Dubya sez, we've been in some tight spots before, but by gum we always pull through 'cuz we're Americans and are therefore always right: "America has done difficult work before. From our desperate fight for independence to the darkest days of a Civil War, to the hard-fought battles against tyranny in the 20th century, there were many chances to lose our heart, our nerve, or our way. But Americans have always held firm, because we have always believed in certain truths. We know that if evil is not confronted, it gains in strength and audacity, and returns to strike us again. We know that when the work is hard, the proper response is not retreat, it is courage. And we know that this great ideal of human freedom entrusted to us in a special way, and that the ideal of liberty is worth defending."
  • Milhaus makes a pit stop at the last refuge of the scoundrel before wrapping up: "I know it may not be fashionable to speak of patriotism or national destiny these days. But I feel it is appropriate to do so on this occasion. Two hundred years ago this Nation was weak and poor. But even then, America was the hope of millions in the world. Today we have become the strongest and richest nation in the world. And the wheel of destiny has turned so that any hope the world has for the survival of peace and freedom will be determined by whether the American people have the moral stamina and the courage to meet the challenge of free world leadership." Dubya makes a pit stop at the last refuge of the scoundrel before wrapping up: "This Fourth of July, I ask you to find a way to thank the men and women defending our freedom -- by flying the flag, sending a letter to our troops in the field, or helping the military family down the street. . . . . At this time when we celebrate our freedom, let us stand with the men and women who defend us all."
Tomorrow, perhaps, the differences and why they are illuminating. In the meantime, we're stuck clutching that balloon, which ain't goin' anywhere good.

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