August 25, 2017

1967. The White House's Credibility Gap

Johnson Administration Struggles to Sell Vietnam War Policy
"Secretary of Defense Robert McNamera pointing to a map of Vietnam at a press conference," April 26, 1965 (source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

February 28, 1967

The principal product manufactured in this national capital on the banks of the Potomac is "words." There are millions of things turned out every day by members of Congress. A flood of words emanate every day from Senate and House committees, from government departments and agencies, from the Federal courts, from the White House—all official, in one way or another.

The point is that words are supposed to be the tools of ideas, but neither words nor ideas have any meaning unless they are communicated.

Thus it follows that words must mean the same to both the speaker and the listener if the ideas expressed are to have a common meaning.

When the official Federal words mean one thing to the official uttering them, and the same words have a different meaning to the people across the land who hear them, there exists a situation which worries Washington.

It's called a "credibility gap," and it drives people like government officials and politicians crazy.

If all this sounds complicated, believe me, it is. Because in an open society such as ours, words and ideas are the lifeblood of free speech, the red corpuscles of our individual and national liberty.

There are said to be so many so-called credibility gaps in this town that, according to the publicity given them, Washington should look something like the Grand Canyon.

Actually, the alleged "credibility gap" has been turned into a political ploy, and considering the viability of the campaign promises that flood the country every two years, for one politician to accuse another politician of being incredible in and of itself strains credibility. In fact, we'd wager that most political candidates get themselves elected simply because there is a general public misunderstanding between what they say and what they do.

However, here in Washington the Federal government, meaning the Johnson Administration, is forced to take its credibility gaps very seriously. And as you know, the biggest problem these days is to explain the government's policies concerning Vietnam, a war that technically is not a war because it is undeclared.

The Administration's difficulties in the credibility area were vividly demonstrated the other day when Defense Secretary McNamara found it necessary to call a special news conference to explain that there is no credibility gap between the Pentagon and Secretary Dean Rusk in the State Department. Several newspaper reporters had been circulating the story that the Secretary of Defense was the leading "dove" in President Johnson's cabinet, while the Secretary of State was the Administration's leading "hawk."

It just isn't true, McNamara declared.

It seems that the reasoning behind these stories was a simple circumstance peculiar to the Washington scene. In the past several years, the Defense Secretary has been defending White House policies before the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, some of whose members have been demanding escalation and total victory in Vietnam. In answering these demands, McNamara has sounded comparatively most dove-like in supporting the Administration's limited bombing policies.

On the other hand, Secretary Rusk has been testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, whose chairman is William Fulbright of Arkansas, the leader of the so-called coterie of doves who demand that the US stop the bombing and seek a negotiated peace.

But when Rusk defends the same limited bombing policies in Vietnam, his arguments sound most bloodthirsty.

Anyone for semantics?

This is Bill Downs for ABC in Washington.