The day after Cuban invaders met bitter defeat on the beaches of the Bay of Pigs, Richard M. Nixon received a telephone call from the White House. "Dick," John F. Kennedy said, "could you drop by to see me?"
They talked in the Oval Office, Kennedy in his rocking chair, Nixon on a sofa near the fireplace. After venting his emotions about what had gone wrong, expressin both anger and anquish, Kennedy mused aloud about the presidency.
"It really is true that foreign affairs is the only important issue for a president, isn't it?" he asked the man he had beaten for that job. "I mean, who gives a s--- if the minimum wage is $1.15 or $1.25 in comparison to something like this?"
For Kennedy, the Bay of Pigs was a lesson in something every president must face: the use of power. His Cuban experience caused him to draw a different lesson about the proper implementation of force than has been drawn by others who occupied the White House. But no matter how a commander-in-chief defines it, the issue of the use of power remains critical for each.
Now it is Ronald Reagan's turn to prove that his method is best. Not that last week's example in the Mediterranean skies ranks as a real test of Reagan's presidential crisis management, nor as a measure of his firmness under fire. The White House and the media are trumpeting the event as giving great meaning on those scores. In reality, it was less than cosmic. We thumbed our noses at the Libyans, they spit back at us, and we splashed them. It was no contest from the beginning. We couldn't lose on this one.
Nonetheless, it was a significant and revealing presidential episode, one that brings genuine cheers, and doubts.
Presidents alwasy win applause when they demonstrate strength, even if their application is unsuccessful or unwise. Kennedy was stunned to find that his popularity soared after the Bay of Pigs disaster. He knew it should have dropped. Reagan's recent flexing of muscle over the air controllers' strike elevated his already high standing.
So, it seems certain, will his celebration of American might as displayed by the downing of two Soviet-made Libyan fighters.
It was more than celebration. Reagan clearly is determined to send a message to the world about his willingness to use American power, and now he has.
That aerial clash between U.S. and Libyan jets over the Gulf of Sidra didn't just happen. The president welcomed what appeared would be a good chance to prove U.S. military proficiency. As he noted afterward, Libyan planes for the last few years over waters they claim as theirs, a claim that we dispute. Deliberately sending U.S. fighters into that space posed a provocative challenge to which the Libyans likely would respond, and did, to our obvious pleasure.
As the president put it:
"We decided it was time to recognize what are the international waters and behave accordingly."
The lesson he wanted to impart hardly needed underscoring, although he did. It was twofold. America's response helped "impress the enemies of freedom," he said, and also let the world know that "America has the muscle to back up its words."
Questions about saber-rattling aside, the U.S. role of thunder is not entirely unwelcome. For too long the country has come to believe it was what its detractors accused it of being: a "paper tiger," to use the old taunting description of the Chinese communists, or a "pitiful, helpless giant," to use Nixon's political rhetoric when he was running a second, and finally successful, time for president.
The United States was neither. No one who witnessedf the massive expenditure of American blood and treasure over a generation, first in Korea and then in Vietnam, to say nothing of World War II, could truly argue about our willingness to use force promptly and powerfully. Debate was about our course of action, not our resolve. Doubts about our national will come later. Obviously, they have risen in recent years, with the shameful example of Iran and the hostages providing a searing impression of U.S. weakness that had to be expunged for the country to regain its self-esteem.
If the sudden flash of gunfire over the Mediterranean last week accomplished that, all to the good.
Not so positive was the playing out of a John-Wayne-at-sea role by the president, and the casual air with which he dismissed legitimate questions about whether he was as fully in command as he should have been.
Presidents love to play Caesar, and why not? They don the presidential cap, with all that braid, and the presidential jacket, with all that symbolic power it implies, the emblazoned Great Seal with warlike eagle and the rest. They accept the myriad salutes and stand at attention to the strains of bugles and drums. They take the helm of the great vessel and address the troops, offering homilies about doing their duty. They lift their binoculars, survey the maneuvers, and take pleasure in the firing of missiles, the launching of planes, the booming crack of the crashing of sound barriers, all for their benefit.
Surely everyone who held the job since George Washington, the gentle, saintly Abraham Lincoln included, enjoyed the tributes offered on their behalf. Besides, it's part of their job, and the people like and expect it.
It has, of course, its seductive side, and effective presidents must be on guard against it. A wiser, warier post-Bay-of-Pigs Kennedy was grappling with a proposal to dispatch an American combat team of 10,000 men to Vietnam, and told an adviser:
"They want a force of American troops. They say it's necessary in order to restore confidence and maintain morale. But it will be just like Berlin. The troops will march in; the bands will play; the crowds will cheer; and in four days everyone will have forgotten. Then we will be told we have to send in more troops. It's like taking a drink. The effect wears off, and you have to take another."
The sense one gets of watching our latest president from afar, and admittedly perhaps unfairly, is that he is especially vulnerable to the blandishments of the military and commander-in-chiefitis. It's like seeing him play a role he has performed many times before, but on celluloid, not, until now, in real life.
Added to this is a disturbing feeling about how surely he holds the reins of power. Exactly why his aides chose not to bother him with news from the Mediterranean when they first learned of it sometime between 10 and 11 o'clock at night, California time, remains a mystery. Even more puzzling, and still unanswered, is why they then chose to awaken him between 4 and 5 o'clock in the morning, six hours later, with the news.
Perhaps all this is of no consequence, but here's one citizen who says:
At the very least, wake him up next time.