LBJ, House of Cards, and more

     Kevin Spacey arrives at a special screening for season 2 of

    Kevin Spacey arrives at a special screening for season 2 of "House of Cards", on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

    We’re touching on several topics today, starting with the legacy of LBJ.

    The word from Texas is that the late president’s family is very very upset that people judge him harshly because of Vietnam. Luci, the 66-year-old younger daughter who’s trying to give her dad an image overhaul, said the other day: “Nobody wanted that war less than Lyndon Johnson. No matter how hard he tried, he didn’t seem to be able to get out of that quagmire. Not only did he not get out of it in his lifetime, but his legacy indeed has that weight of the world on it.”

    Oh boo hoo, where’s my violin?

    Spare us the willful amnesia. The truth is that Johnson wanted the war so badly, he misled the nation in order to fight it. Fifty years ago this summer, he was given sketchy intelligence that some North Vietnamese PT boats may have fired on two U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. The report was never confirmed, but Johnson seized on it anyway, and persuaded his supine Democratic Congress to give him a blank check for a wider war.

    Turns out, according to government records released in 2006, that the North Vietnamese attack never happened. But Navy aviator James Stockdale, writing a memoir in 1984, had already told us that: “I had the best seat in the house to watch that event, and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets. There were no PT boats out there. Nothing but black water and American firepower.”

    Johnson got his wider war – the napalm, the saturation bombings –  and he spent the rest of his tenure warning us that if South Vietnam fell to communism, all of Southeast Asia would be subsumed by the red tide. Tens of thousands of American names wound up on a memorial wall in Washington – a truly sickening sight, if you’ve never been there – all in the service of LBJ’s delusions. South Vietnam fell in ’75, but Southeast Asia did not. And today’s united Vietnam is hardly a commie backwater; it’s a mecca for American investment, and citizens are sipping Starbucks and gorging on Kentucky Fried Chicken.

    So what did our boys die for, anyway? Deal with it, daughters, your dad has the legacy he deserves.


    People ask, “Are you watching House of Cards?” To which I say, “Not anymore.”

    I’ve bailed not because the story lines are so cartoonishly preposterous, and not even because the “shocking” plot twists are so thigh-slappingly implausible. (Spoiler alert, for what it’s worth: Are we supposed to believe that a presumptive vice president of the United States can ditch his security detail and show up in disguise – glasses and a hat – on a Metro subway platform, whereupon he throws somebody in front of a moving train, and not a single video camera picks up his movements?)

    No, I bailed because the series is so humorlessly, terminally, deadeningly cynical about American politics. Everybody is either one-dimensionally evil or one-dimensionally inept; the only politician who wanted to do some good was killed off in season one. And in case we’re somehow too dumb to grasp the show’s message, congressman Frank Underwood (his initials are FU – get it?) instructs us by talking straight to the camera. It’s supposed to be a Shakespearean flourish, but it plays like Intrigue for Dolts.

    Still, I get why the show is popular, because it knows its audience. One fan, posting this week on the New York Magazine comment board, said it all: “I am very forgiving of House of Cards…It may be unrealistic, but I hate real politics.”

    There you have it. Hatred of Washington is so endemic these days – Congress recently had a nine percent approval rating – that viewers will happily gorge on a show that validates and deepens their hatred. House of Cards is in sync with the zeitgeist, and that’s not a compliment. We get the show we deserve.


    Real politics – even the scandal variety – is usually the antithesis of lurid. Take, for instance, this week’s document dump in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker has been dogged by various employee misdeeds. The press has been primed for a Walkergate, and any possible repercussions for his presumed ’16 aspirations. But, lucky for him, it looks like a snooze.

    Yeah, some Walker underlings got convicted for wrongdoing in the wake of a probe that ended last year. When Walker was Milwaukee County executive prior to winning his ’10 gubernatorial race, they did some political business while on the government clock. Big deal. That happens every day everywhere. That’s what Al Gore did in ’96, when he made Clinton re-election calls from government phones. And the big revelation this week was that Walker fired somebody who in a past life had modeled thongs. House of Cards would surely love that one – in the climactic scene, congressman Underwood would strangle the woman with a thong – but it appears that the document dump won’t do Walker much damage….

    Assuming that future dumps aren’t worse. With Chris Christie at the mercy of new disclosures, the last thing Republicans need are two presidential prospects laboring under a cloud. An old pal of mine quips that the new GOP ’16 slogan could be, “Vote for ___, unless something else comes out.”


    On reflection, it appears that Monday’s post – about President Obama selling ambassadorships – featured one example too many. It’s true that his first-term ambassador to France, Charles Rivkin, was a big fundraiser for the ’08 campaign. As I so stated. But Rivkin was actually a rare fundraiser with strong diplomatic qualifications. He spoke French, dealt with the French frequently during his media business career, and hailed from a diplomatic family (his dad was a three-time ambassador, in Luxembourg, Senegal, and Gambia).

    Obama lucked out with Rivkin. But selling ambassadorships is still a cheesy tradition. As Steven Kashkett, a Foreign Service officer and ex-veep of the American Foreign Service Association, told The Atlantic magazine: “Why is ours the only profession where it’s considered acceptable to appoint someone without any experience?”


    Sid Caesar, the TV comedy pioneer who died at 91 last week, sat with me for an interview way back in 1988. He talked mostly about the rise and fall of the Catskill Mountain resorts, but I still recall (and quoted at the time) his parting words: “This life we have is not a dress rehearsal. So, enjoy.”

    True that, Sid.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1


    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal