So here’s a question that is not often asked. Which US president has been the most manipulative?
It’s not an easy question to answer. Some US presidents have been rated poorly by history. Others have become mythical in stature. But which one was the most manipulative? Which one bent the rules the most to secure an advantage over his opponents?
Some tapes that have recently come to life , as revealed by the BBC and The Atlantic, make a compelling case that Richard Nixon should be a front runner in the Manipulative President Award.Why Nixon? The tapes recently released by the White House have nothing to do with Watergate, but they do show that Nixon was already highly manipulative even before he ever became President.
Nixon became president when he won the 1968 election. He won against a weak Democratic candidate, Hubert Humphrey. But to understand what he did and why, we need to set the stage. In 1968, the topic for the US electorate was the Vietnam War. It had been raging on for 3 years already, and it was going to be the main political issue of the 1968 election. Antiwar protests were raging across the country, and the country wanted a leader that would resolve the war, one way or another. The sitting president, Johnson, had decided not to run, partly because he was likely to be beaten by senators such as Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy. So instead he threw his support somewhat covertly behind his VP, Hubert Humphrey, who got the nomination after a nightmarish convention that went back and forth more than a yo-yo.
Hubert Humphrey was a compromise candidate, with relative weak support across the board (the Mitt Romney of the times, if you like). The Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, was a stronger candidate than Humphrey, and he started the campaign well ahead of his opponent, thanks to a very smart campaign strategy aimed at the South. As the year progressed, though, Humphrey started to climb in the polls, eventually coming within striking distance of Nixon a couple of weeks before the election.
As the campaign came down to the wire, Johnson decided to gift the election to his VP. He ordered an end of the bombing in Vietnam, and the start of peace talks in Paris between South Vietnam and the North. With a few days to go in the campaign, and the prospect of peace in Vietnam, Humphrey surged in the polls and rose to a dead heat with Nixon.
One of Nixon’s main campaign themes had been that he was more capable of ending the war than Humphrey. If the Paris Peace talks succeeded in ending the war before the election, under the watch of a Democratic president and his VP, he knew that it was a given that he would lose the election by a wide margin. For Nixon to win, or even to be a contender, the Paris Peace Talks had to fail.
Nixon had a mole inside the Johnson administration and learned of the attempt to negotiate a peace well before it was announced (even before the participants had convened). He decided that he had to get a message to the South Vietnamese president.
He asked his senior campaign manager, Anna Chennault, to go to Vietnam and pass a simple message to the South Vietnamese president. The message was that Nixon was going to win the election, and that the South Vietnamese should withdraw from the Peace talks and refuse to deal with Johnson. In return, Nixon would ensure that the South Vietnamese would get a much better deal once he was President.
It was a brilliant manipulation. The South Vietnamese had their own reasons to be wary of the peace talks, and had heard that Nixon was indeed the front-runner (remember that until then he had been). Nixon couldn’t promise a victory to the South, but the promise of ‘a better deal’ was believable. And it was enough to convince the South Vietnamese to walk
away from the negotiations.
With the peace talks in limbo, Richard Nixon upped the ante on the election front. He lambasted Humphrey and Johnson – after all, they couldn’t even keep the South Vietnamese at the negotiation table! Nixon even offered publicly to go to Vietnam and try to help the negotiations.
And, ultimately, that was enough – he won by one of the tiniest margins of presidential victories – less than 1% of the popular vote.
Nixon’s manipulation had a significant impact. The war dragged on another 5 years, and Nixon in fact escalated the war into new geographies, costing another 20,000 American lives, and maybe twice that in terms Laotians and Cambodian and Vietnamese lives. In a very real sense, Nixon’s manipulation killed hundreds of thousands of persons.
So how did we learn of this?
Well, it turns out that Nixon was not the first president to use wiretaps. Johnson, the sitting president at the time of the 1968 election, had decided to bug the ambassador’s phone in Saigon, and had actually gotten recordings of Ms Chennault’s manipulation, including one where she pushed the South Vietnamese president to just “hold on through the election”.
Johnson now had the senior advisor to Nixon’s campaign basically destroying a US-brokered peace conference. His cabinet wanted to publicly accuse Nixon of treason, and to bring him and his campaign manager to justice. Johnson was livid, not only at the failure of the talks but at Nixon’s hypocrisy as he publicly claimed to be puzzled by the South Vietnamese move and his offer to go to Saigon to ‘help’.
But Johnson was worried about arresting or accusing Nixon, because revealing the manipulation meant also revealing that the president and the NSA had bugged the ambassador’s line and intercepted the call. Johnson was worried about the precedent of having the NSA intercepting calls, and the public reaction to that in the long term. Ultimately, he decided that publicly releasing the tapes was too damaging to the presidency, and instead called Humphrey – Nixon’s Democratic opponent – and gave him all the information needed to utterly destroy Nixon.
Humphrey now had the smoking gun – the tapes where the Republican nominee was sabotaging US interests and perpetuating a war, all in the hopes of winning an election. One call in the superheated culture of 1968, and Nixon was history. But Humphrey’s advisors had told him that he had closed the gap already, and was ahead of Nixon. Humphrey thought that the election was now his, and he worried about the impact of essentially accusing the Republicans of treason.
So Humphrey never made the call, and Nixon went on to win the election.
Ironically, we know all this because Johnson believed that the president’s life should be an open book, and recorded and stored all of his calls made while president, sealing them so that future generations would know what their president had done and why. It is through the release of the tapes that we learned of Nixon’s manipulation, the response of Johnson and the eventual non-response of Humphrey.
Nixon went on to become a good first-term president, winning re-election in 1972 in a landslide. But soon, of course, some of his other manipulations came to light in the Watergate scandal, which was another scandal involving secret recordings, and Nixon was forced to abdicate hours before he would have been impeached by the Senate.
We could devote a whole blog to Nixon’s later manipulations: using the IRS to harass enemies, bugging the offices of both friends and foes, and lying fairly shamelessly to everyone around him, and more. But nothing else he did ever really matched that early manipulation of the Peace talks, either in scope, scale, or sheer gumption. But unlike most manipulations which largely fail when they are discovered, Nixon’s manipulation worked despite being not only discovered but recorded, because his opponents were worried about revealing the sheer scale of the manipulation. Sometimes, in manipulation as in banks, being too big to fail has its advantages…
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