On the wall of my bathroom is a framed Time magazine cover of its Man of the Year for 1965: a statue in mottled stone of Gen. William Westmoreland, then the hero of Vietnam. In the last few days, I've looked at that picture as I never have before. It may not teach a lesson, but it certainly offers a warning.
That warning, so prosaic as to be trite, comes down to this: No one can know what will happen in a war. And yet, for all our experience, we have the spectacle of some of the usual suspects forecasting not only the course of the war but its political consequences. From the "Hot Line," a daily political newsletter, comes a compilation of quotations (originally printed or spoken elsewhere) from people who seem to know everything except when to keep their mouths shut.
On the presidential prospects of Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who thought a war should be delayed, we get a rush of instant judgments. "Nunn benefits from this," says pollster Stanley Greenberg. Another pollster, Geoff Garin, says that Nunn "probably made some converts in his own party." Ed Rollins, a Republican campaign official, begged to differ. "I think he's the biggest loser in all of this." Precisely correct, opined another Republican, pollster Linda DiVall: "Nunn is a loser."
Having considered Nunn, the "Hotline" then reported what had been said about other potential presidential candidates, including what the war has done for President Bush's reelection chances. At least in print, not a one of these experts noted that when Time elevated Westmoreland to its self-created pantheon, Lyndon Johnson was president, having been elected by a landslide in 1964. By 1968, his presidency was in ruins.
I assume that here and there was an expert who took a pass -- a kind of no-quote quote, which, for the press, makes the approximate sound of a tree falling in the forest when no one's around to hear it. Let the record show, though, that some of the experts I consulted said it was just too early to tell. They wondered where their loquacious brethren were that spring night when Johnson said he would not seek reelection.
Some of these quotations reflect the conviction, validated by experience, that what counts most in the media age is not to be right but merely to get into print or on the air. Few people, including journalists, ever go back and check what was said. The same might be said for journalists themselves. Being a columnist is a lot like Erich Segal's line about being in love: You never have to say you're sorry.
But at the same time I think some of these quotations reflect a naive, American view that events are both containable and controllable. There is a sense that this will happen, and then that will happen and a certain outcome will be achieved. If anything, that conviction has been deepened by computer simulations. See: there's the outcome.
But life is seldom so neat. Just as surely as Sam Nunn's thinking now seems to have been wrong (What could he have been thinking?) so will George Bush's (or Sen. Albert Gore's) if this war turns into an American debacle. Anyone with any memory can tell you about Ernest Gruening and Wayne Morse, the two senators who voted against Lyndon Johnson's Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Within years, they went from being considered a bit nuts to downright prescient. Let's put it this way: Almost alone in that Senate, they would not, years later, have changed their vote.
America is now engaged in a vast, dangerous and somewhat unpredictable undertaking. So many historical precedents can be used as analogies that history has been reduced to babble. Even Vietnam, so recent and so well documented, turns out to have been a national "Rashomon" experience. The lessons I got from that war -- the lessons that tugged, puppy-like even as I concluded that war, not sanctions, was the only way to get Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait -- are now said to be without foundation. I am now told we lost in Vietnam because the military was hobbled and the press irresponsible -- not, as I thought, because we had no business being there and the enemy was indomitable.
Nothing original can be said about war. But certainly in the long run wars are unpredictable enterprises, and what seems like defeat can, with the proper political slant, be made into victory. (Ask an Egyptian who won the 1973 war with Israel.) But in Washington and elsewhere, we have a group of people who not only seem to know how the war will turn out but what its consequences will be a year or so down the road. I invite them all, singly, into my bathroom. In more ways than one, it's the appropriate place for their quotations.