Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Ghosts of White Houses Past

For those of us amateur presidential scholars out there, yesterday proved to be a bonanza of ghosts from the past.

First, the ghost of Dick Nixon continues to haunt, with the Nixon Library releasing 265 new hours of recorded conversations in which Nixon purportedly "rails against Jew, Blacks, Italian-Americans and Irish Americans."

“The Jews have certain traits,” he said. “The Irish have certain — for example, the Irish can’t drink. What you always have to remember with the Irish is they get mean. Virtually every Irish I’ve known gets mean when he drinks. Particularly the real Irish.”

Nixon continued: “The Italians, of course, those people course don’t have their heads screwed on tight. They are wonderful people, but,” and his voice trailed off.

A moment later, Nixon returned to Jews: “The Jews are just a very aggressive and abrasive and obnoxious personality.”

Of course, taken out of context (which most of the media coverage is), it's hard to discern exactly what Nixon was "railing" about. Often these tapes from the secret recording system in the Oval Office have been used to portray Nixon as much more of a bigot than his other words and deeds would indicate.

For example, "Only Nixon could go to China"? And was anyone else more adept at dealing with the Russians (shades of the current renewal of the START treaty, mentioned below)? And didn't we just celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which Nixon himself started?

Nonetheless, I'll bet the ghost of 37 was having a good laugh in the Oval Office yesterday alongside 42 and 44 (Clinton and Obama) as they commiserated over the latest tax brouhaha on Capitol Hill. What followed after their meeting, and captured live for 90 minutes in the White Hours briefing room, stunned reporters and presidential scholars alike.
They have been foes and they have been, kind of, friends. And on Friday afternoon, President Obama and former President Bill Clinton walked unexpectedly into the White House briefing room for a news conference that was part surreal flashback, part one-two political punch.

With Mr. Obama standing largely silently at his side, Mr. Clinton took over the lectern to lend his backing to the tax compromise the White House reached this week with Republicans. And then Mr. Clinton went on, for half an hour, answering questions and holding forth on topics from triangulation to Haiti to the mortgage crisis and the nuclear arms treaty with Russia.

Even after the 44th president excused himself and left the room, the 42nd went on. On cable TV, Mr. Clinton’s presence in front of the blue backdrop with the White House logo was familiar, as were the wagging finger and the occasional bitten lip.

I'm embedding the video (30 minutes of it, anyway) because it really is some of the funniest television you'll ever see. Jump to around 10 minutes when Obama finally decides to leave, and Clinton tells him to "please go."

As Clinton kept going for another 90 minutes, the Twitterverse exploded in comments.

Christina Bellantoni of Roll Call offered: “Wow. I looked at my TV and its 1999.”

And Michael Goldfarb, a conservative strategist, sent in that he was “watching with no audio at the bar – Did Obama just resign?” He added moments later: “Can someone please ask about Vince Foster?”
LOL. It really was a surreal moment. All the lip biting, chin in palm, jaw jutting was like he'd never left!

If the walls in the White House could talk...

UPDATE: A couple of emails reminded me that George W. Bush is back from the hinterlands as well with his new book "Decision Points." Of course I saw the coverage and read excerpts, probably my favorite being the one discussing becoming a former president:
"Barney spotted our neighbor's lawn, where he promptly took care of his business. There I was, the former president of the United States, picking up that which I had been dodging for the past eight years."

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