Yesterday Christopher Beam of Slate discussed some historical precedents for the action that President Obama took in recent days when he appointed Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah, a prospective candidate for the GOP’s presidential spot in 2012, as Ambassador to China.
Beam refers in particular to the appointment made by President Kennedy on August 1, 1963, when he chose Henry Cabot Lodge Jr, the 1960 Republican vice-presidential candidate, to replace Frederick Nolting as American Ambassador to South Vietnam. At the time, Richard Nixon was still in the political wilderness after his defeat in California in 1962 and his subsequent “you won’t have Nixon to kick around” remarks, and Lodge was the favored figure among moderates who hoped to find a candidate for 1964 less polarizing than Gov. Nelson Rockefeller on the left or Sen. Barry Goldwater on the right.

Kennedy’s appointment of Lodge had a twofold advantage: it reminded the world of the Cold War maxim that “politics stops at the water’s edge” and it more or less confirmed Lodge in his disinclination to actively seek the Presidency in 1964.

Beam goes on to say that “after Kennedy’s assassination, Lodge came back and launched an unsuccessful run for the Republican nomination.” It sounds like the young reporter, three years out of Columbia, needs to sit down with a copy of Rick Perlstein’s Before The Storm. Lodge was never a declared candidate in 1964. After issuing nearly Shermanesque statements that he would not run or seek the nomination (though he did not prevent supporters from putting his name on primary ballots where his stated consent was not needed for that purpose) the ambassador won the New Hampshire primary in February 1964 as a write-in candidate, following a well-financed blitz by his Boston-based supporters. (Goldwater came in second in this contest and Rockefeller third, with Nixon, as an undeclared write-in candidate, finishing a fairly strong fourth.)

But even after similar victories in Massachusetts and New Jersey, Lodge remained in Saigon and made no concrete move to secure the nomination. He finally resigned his post at the end of June 1964 and returned to the United States, but by that time Goldwater had almost completely sewn up the nomination and desperate attempts by GOP moderates to deny it to him focused on Gov. William Scranton.

Beam also declares that “Nixon completed the process [of bipartisan support of the Vietnam War] by doubling down.” This is quite a mystifying statement. It was Lyndon Johnson, with the support of both parties in Congress, who escalated American involvement in Vietnam in early 1965. By contrast, Nixon was the President who completed, in phases, the process of de-escalating and concluding the conflict, in the face of resistance from a Democratic-controlled Congress which had many members who sought unilateral and immediate withdrawal from Vietnam. You have to wonder what the history books said in his classes up in Morningside Heights.