NIXON AND JOHNSON (BORIS): HOW TO SUCCEED BY BEING CRAZY!
In 1969, Richard Nixon, the Quaker boy from Whittier (he had been born there in 1913), finally won the presidency he had long sought. Richard Nixon was angry. Richard Nixon was almost always angry. He was socially and physically awkward. (Long ago in a bar in Washington, I had a conversation with Paul Newman the actor about Nixon. Newman ended it by saying that, “a man who plays third string football in high school and in college will always be a screw-up”.). Richard Nixon did go out, very unsuccessfully, for football but he was not a screw-up (he was offered a full academic scholarship to Harvard but felt he had to turn it down because he didn’t have proper clothes). He was humorless, hard working and driven. He was driven because he came to believe that he was a “man of destiny”. It was his destiny to deal with the communist challenge, to set the world right.
When he finally reached the White House in 1969, the country was bogged down in Vietnam. Nixon believed that his real role was to develop a workable relationship with the Russians and with the Chinese. Part of his strategy was to get the Russians and the Chinese to pressure their fellow communists in North Vietnam to come to the bargaining table. To do that Nixon was willing to appear to be unpredictable, crazy. In July of 1969, Nixon sent Leonard Garment, a lawyer and White House Counselor to Moscow to convince Leonid Brezhnev that Nixon was a “mad man, unpredictable and capable of great brutality”.
It didn’t work. It didn’t work because the North Vietnamese, although they used communism as a kind of ideological framework, were really Vietnamese nationalists whose leadership was willing to let huge numbers die if it meant that their country was ultimately united. Threats from China, a historic enemy, or from the remote far off Russians did not deter them. And, if the Russians were overawed by a potentially brutal American president, they failed to show it. They were, after all, the product of centuries of brutality.
Now, fifty years later, we see a parallel to Nixon’s “crazy strategy” alive and well in England. Richard Nixon never got to Harvard but the well-placed aristocratic Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson certainly got to Oxford where he was a star (if you want someone who can converse easily in Latin, he’s your man). Johnson’s professional and marital career clearly signals that he is willing to be a rule breaker. His willingness to defy moral convention probably has strengthened his negotiating hand.
Boris Johnson seems to have little doubt that he belongs at 10 Downing Street, that he was always destined to be there. Just as Nixon earlier lied freely about his huge secret bombing raids in both Cambodia and in North Vietnam, Johnson felt free to lie about advantages to be gained with a hard Brexit (withdrawing from the European Union would save a mythical 350 million pounds a week that could go to the National Health Service). The truth is that with a hard Brexit the United Kingdom could also be returning to a near economic Stone Age. For both men, ends have justified means.
And like Nixon fifty years earlier, Johnson, who seems to favor the historic heroics involved in simply casting off from Europe, is willing to play a little bit crazy to get his way. He knows that the European Union leadership in Brussels fears the huge economic disruption that a hard Brexit would bring. His predecessor Theresa May struggled for three years to get an agreement that Brussels and her own parliament would sign. She talked about a clean break but it was clear that she would never willingly accept one.
Now, Boris Johnson, whether he really wants the United Kingdom to be out in the Atlantic alone, as crazy as that would be, certainly appears to be willing to go there. And, suddenly the EU leadership in Brussels finds itself willing to accept an agreement very much like the ones it previously turned down. And, the British parliament which repeatedly voted down Theresa May’s agreement now seems to be seriously rethinking their previous rejection. Johnson’s irrationality seems to be working.
The outcome of all this is still unclear. The parliament, given only three days to look over the documents of separation, has refused its approval. The time to consider had to be extended. The Prime Minister is threatening a new election in December forcing the parliamentary members all to go out and run again. But, there certainly has been progress and that progress is directly attributable to the unpredictable Johnson.
Richard Nixon and Boris Johnson are very different men born in different times in radically different circumstances. Both grew up to view themselves as shapers of destiny. Richard Nixon made it clear that he cared a great deal about his “mission”. He was clearly willing to leave behind conventional morality to achieve his goals. Part of Johnson’s strength is that his real goals seem more opaque. He can go with an agreement or without one. He doesn’t care, and his not caring forces others to act to avoid disaster. His advantage is that he may be “crazy” but there is no way for others to be sure. It forces those others to become the responsible ones.
To use irrationality as a weapon requires real credibility. Fifty years ago it would have been very difficult for any national leader to believe that the very buttoned down conservative Nixon was really “crazy”. Boris Johnson may succeed because people really do believe he is perfectly willing to act irrationally. To really lead, a nation’s policy makers should be rational. It also at times may be rational to convince others that they are not.