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Dom Sandbrook © 2001


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A Response to the Response to my Response to J. Carter Wood's Bastards in the White House

I am very grateful to J. Carter Wood for his lengthy consideration of my response to his article. Although I am conscious that many readers may be beginning to find this a rather tiresome and incestuous debate, I think there are still interesting questions to be discussed -- interesting to this writer, at least. I should also thank Comrade Wood for his inclusion of textual links to other web-based sources, an extremely useful device and one sadly quite beyond my capacity to reproduce.

On most points I suspect Comrade Wood and I agree far more than we differ, and are hope we are not living demonstrations of the tedious factionalism that too often divides progressive forces. I still believe, however, that he is too optimistic. Comrade Wood and I both see dark clouds, but he thinks there may be a hint -- just a hint -- of a silver lining. I see no such silver lining. He insists that "the absurdities of the current 'crisis' may in fact be the only salutary consequences of the Gore/Bush contest", but I do not see them as salutary consequences at all. I would currently estimate the chances of electoral reform, re-enfranchisement of black voters in the South, or reform of the Supreme Court to be nil. Bush’s opening salvos on abortion and the intrusion of churches into the realm of welfare leave no grounds for belief that he will offer even the most trifling sop to his critics, and I suspect that the American voters will simply sink back into their trough of affluent apathy. Comrade Wood also declares: "I think that having a clear foe controlling the government may help to coalesce various left organizations and might provide more clarity for drawing an oppositional strategy." I see no grounds for believing this whatsoever. There were those with similar feelings when Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were inaugurated in 1969 and 1981; indeed there were those who gloried in their triumphs because they thought this would herald a New Dawn for the American left. Of course, I hope that Comrade Wood is right and I am wrong. But I fear that he sees opportunities where there is only bleak despair, and I suspect the unpleasant consequences of the Bush presidency will be far more pervasive and important than any "oppositional strategy" sketched by a still fragmented and feeble left.

My main objection to Comrade Wood, though, is his continued misrepresentation of the history of the Democratic Party. I accept that this is not a subject that enthrals the majority of our readers and many are welcome to abandon this paragraph at this point. He maintains that the Democratic Leadership Council, the pressure group of Southern and other Democrats formed in 1984-85, which has included Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Joe Lieberman, is the progeny of the 1972 organisation Democrats for Nixon. There is simply no truth in this at all. He cites Christopher Hitchens as evidence. I yield to no-one in my admiration for Hitchens as a writer and a critic, but I would never call his reporting "typically trustworthy". Hitchens does not prove Comrade Wood’s assertion; he simply repeats it, so this is hardly evidence. In fact, there was no continuity in the two organisations, either in context, aims, or personnel. The Democrats for Nixon were led by Nixon’s own Treasury Secretary, the conservative Texan Democrat John Connally; most were Republicans by 1976, and certainly all were by 1980, when Connally himself ran for the Republican presidential nomination. The DLC was founded only in the wake of Walter Mondale’s election defeat in 1984 and its membership consisted only of Democrats. Its aim, to win back the Presidency for the Democrats, was entirely different from that of Democrats for Nixon. Why does this matter? It matters, first, because the historian or even the critic has some responsibility not to twist historical fact to his admittedly laudable ideological purpose. Second, it will not help us to understand why the Democratic Party is in the shape it is by pretending that it has been taken over by the Nixon White House. Comrade Wood asks: "What is the worth of pointing out [Clinton’s] participation in McGovern’s campaign?" I would reply: "Because it happened". Asking why and how the McGovern supporters of 1972 have become the corporate centrists of 2001 is rather more revealing about American politics than merely demonising them as Richard Nixon’s bastard offspring. Comrade Wood asks: "Are these people worthy of being defended?" I do not seek to defend them. Rather, I am arguing that Comrade Wood will draw up a far more incisive and convincing indictment if he sticks to the facts, acknowledges the complexity of recent political history, and steers well clear of what I am sorry to say is Christopher Hitchens’ excursion into fantasy.

As for my "statistics mongering", I still think it is interesting that vice presidents so are so rarely elected in their own right. I do not think that Gore lost because the historical statistics were against him. But I do think that it is a lot harder for vice presidents to be elected than most analysts think, and I think that the obstacles that a vice president faces, notably the charge of being a glorified bureaucrat and a "Washington insider", are symptomatic of the American distrust of the federal government and its officials. To my mind, the handicap of being Clinton’s vice president crippled Gore from the start and we cannot understand why the campaign unfolded as it did without taking it into account.


Dominic Sandbrook




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