Monday, November 2, 2009

Cheerleading and Unwarranted Optimism

I learned during my random reading this morning that cheerleading was invented 111 years ago today. At the University of Minnesota of all places, which makes me either proud or embarrassed or both. There are no cheerleaders or former cheerleaders in A Book of Ages. George W. Bush's cheerleading career was edited out last fall. W. did have an interesting rollercoaster life, full of cautionary notes and alarming incidents. He might have been an excellent baseball commissioner.

It was on this day in 1967 that Lyndon B. Johnson and his privy counselors decided that Americans should be fed a sugar-coated account of "progress" in the Vietnam War. Cheerleading began almost immediately. The daily briefings began to sound chirpier, more upbeat, like something being written by a chamber of commerce booster or a public relations writer.

The war was a trap Johnson had been caught in. After Truman's experience at the hands of the McCarthyites no Democrat dared step back from a fight, afraid of being labelled "soft on Communism". So in we waded, right up to our necks. Johnson didn't send himself or his wife or daughter to fight and die there, but he did sacrifice his beloved Great Society to avoid losing a war. Vietnam has become a metaphor for avoidable failure and political quagmire, taking the place of the term "albatross" which had been put into service by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the 1800s.

The unnecessary war is a recurring theme in A Book of Ages, seen through episodes in the lives of LBJ and JFK, Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. who got into fights over it, Daniel Ellsberg, and Richard Nixon who sent his plumbers after Ellsberg, and Bob Woodward who told us about the plumbers, and Henry Kissinger who won a Nobel after washing his hands thoroughly, and Walter Cronkite and one Lieutenant Calley. We see Lieutenant Calleys in every war. A sad business all around, but probably no more rife with cockups than any war, except that it was foolish to begin with. Like Iraq, some say. Which should remind us why we need newspapers and clear eyed journalists, even though they are expensive to send places. They are our eyes and ears.

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