Shakespeare said that “what’s past is prologue,” and the older you get the longer your prologue becomes, so you have to forgive me — as I edge inexorably closer to 60 — for seeing portents and omens of our country’s willful blindness today in my own callow youth.
Transport yourself back 40 years, and consider the lessons to be learned from another presidential election year — 1972 — when America had to choose between squeaky-voiced war hero George McGovern and the incumbent presidential sociopath, Richard Nixon. Millions of Americans were eager to prove they hadn’t made a mistake by electing Nixon on his promise to “end the war” in Vietnam, so they decided to give him four more years to figure out a way to end the war which he had instead escalated. In other words, they were voting for more hope, and please dear God, more change!
McGovern, who died this month at the age of 90, was a horrible campaigner and very likely would have been a horrid president, but to a 17-year-old high school senior, he was the only alternative to a president who was transparently mendacious and seemed to run the White House like a Roman emperor whose own thuggish deeds made him ever fearful of being stabbed in the back.
When it comes to willful blindness, however, it is hard to know whether the electorate of 1972 or my own bookishly liberal self was more guilty.
The voters, by a huge margin, re-elected Richard Nixon despite being reasonably well-informed that his White House had engineered a felonious assault on the integrity of the nation’s electoral process by breaking into the Democratic national headquarters at the Watergate Hotel on June 17, 1972, and then spinning an elaborate cover-up in order to cover their butts. In retrospect, it is obvious the voters were casting a nostalgic vote for the president they thought they had elected in 1968, not the real president they were stuck with in ’72.
But that willful blindness pales in comparison to my own back in 1972. I vividly recall my youthful exuberance at the breakfast table that cold Election Day morning when I declared to my mother my confidence that the American people would make the right decision when they entered the voting booths and vote for McGovern — a double-digit lead in the polls for Nixon notwithstanding!
My awakening came later that night, when Nixon won by not just double digits, but by 23 percent! So much for my future as a political prognosticator. Among the wide expanse of 50 states, poor McGovern was only able to plant his flag in the liberal stronghold of Massachusetts.
But for those other 49 states, an awakening was also not long in coming. Just two months later, the first convictions were obtained for the so-called White House “plumbers” who had broken into the Watergate, and by the summer of 1973, the nation stood transfixed in front of our then mostly fuzzy-screened black-and-white TVs as folksy Sen. Sam Ervin schooled the Nixon White House in honesty, integrity and responsibility. In essence, he was also schooling the American public, which had failed to do its due diligence prior to re-electing President Nixon. Indeed, among Nixon’s unindicted co-conspirators in the shame brought upon the nation by his resignation in 1974, were the mass media and the huge majority of voters who had refused to comprehend the significance of the Watergate scandal before they voted in 1972.
Which brings us around full circle to 2012.
We have another president who has reneged on his promises, and another imperfect challenger. You’ll remember surely that it was President Obama who was going to set a new tone in Washington, D.C. — who was going to rise above partisan politics and return civility to civil discourse. That was apparently before he discovered that he would be running against Gov. Romney, whom the president has now characterized as a liar and a “bulls---ter.”
Despite the vast chasm between this president’s promises and his achievements, however, much of the American public remains enamored with him just as they were with Nixon, and seem intent on “casting a nostalgic vote for the president they thought they had elected” in 2008, rather than facing facts as they exist in 2012.
In particular, for the past six weeks, it has become increasingly apparent that the Obama White House misled the American public and the world about the events that transpired on the night of Sept. 11, 2012, in Benghazi, Libya, when our U.S. ambassador and three other Americans perished in a terrorist attack that lasted seven hours.
We were told in the first days after the attack that the deaths were an unfortunate result of Muslim anger that had been fomented in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East because of reaction to an amateurish YouTube video that mocked the founder of Islam. This false story was trumpeted across cable news screens and in all of our nation’s newspapers. We were told that same story by UN Ambassador Susan Rice, Hillary Clinton and the State Department, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, and even two weeks later by President Obama when he addressed the United Nations. Anyone who didn’t toe the line was mercilessly mocked and vilified. That included Mitt Romney, who issued a brief statement on Sept. 11:
“I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
The line about how the White House had sympathized with those who waged the attacks was considered to be a low blow by the left-wing mainstream media, so they put out a counterattack that accused Romney of “playing politics” with the tragedy. Somehow, the mainstream media didn’t notice that Romney was also right, and that our highest U.S. officials really did seem to be sympathizing with the attackers, giving them cover with the bogus story about the so-called anti-Muslim movie inflaming passions.
Even to this day, six weeks later, there seems to be a concerted effort to obfuscate the facts of what happened in Benghazi and to hope that the whole thing will go away until after the election — and presumably the re-coronation of Emperor, er, President Obama.
But every day, more and more evidence comes forward that the White House and State Department knew from Day One that the attack on our ambassador was a precisely organized al-Qaida operation, and that moreover the White House did nothing to stop the attack — either in advance by implementing adequate security procedures or even in real time when there was a seven-hour window to send in military support for the ambassador to save either him or two other Americans who died late in the conflict.
Yet this story is not on the front pages of America’s newspapers every day. It is not being investigated by Congress on live TV. It was barely important enough to discuss at the three presidential debates, and no one — not even Romney — seemed to want to ask the all-important question that Sen. Ervin asked the nation 40 years ago:
“What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
This is what makes me think of those godforsaken days of Watergate. How blind we were, America! How unwilling to see the truth about a corrupt administration and a lying president!
And now here we are again, with a popular president who may very well win re-election despite the seriousness of the accusations made against him (though certainly by a much smaller margin that President Nixon did). The nation is divided and polarized, just as it was in 1972, and some people cannot bring themselves to think the worst of President Obama, no matter how damning the evidence is.
But one thing is certain. Just as Nixon could not escape the whirlwind of Watergate merely by winning an election, neither will Barack Obama avoid the judgment of history and the American people for what happened the night of Sept. 11, 2012. And as Nixon discovered to his chagrin, sometimes the sword of that judgment is terrible and swift.