This week marks the conflux of two remarkable presidential anniversaries - the 20th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson's signing of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which became the war flag that led to America's deepening Vietnam involvement, and the 10th anniversary of Richard Nixon's resignation to avoid impeachment over Watergate. They are worth noting because, for all the disappointment and hard feelings they aroused, some positive lessons have been learned - about the importance of character in leaders, the durability of the American political system, and the relentless momentum of a society to move on to new chapters.
Character. The simple facts - that one President, elected by one of the most lopsided victories in modern times, in effect resigned his political career by choosing not to run again, and that the other President resigned with 19 months remaining in his second term - establish an irrefutable case about their shortcomings. Ironically, traits for which they were praised led to their downfall. Johnson's ability to dominate Congress brought that branch eagerly along with him in passage of the Tonkin resolution, a maneuver that was later seen as a deceit. Nixon's will to win was tragically twinned with an inability to concede a mistake. It may best fall to future Shakespeares to describe the complex character of Johnson and Nixon. The leadership risks in their makeup were sensed by their opponents and even many of their supporters, but not until they acted them out in office were the risks unmistakably known. At the least, their careers give the lie to the notion that it makes no difference who is in the White House.
The system. The office of president has hardly been weakened by the succession of recent officeholders. President Reagan was not stopped from deploying troops in Lebanon or from putting his Central America plan in place. Because of Vietnam, Congress now checks a president's assertions more closely, as it should, but still yields him the benefit of the doubt when the call is close. Mr. Reagan is in a position to deal with the Soviets or anyone else if he so chooses. Watergate revealed how otherwise ordinary congressmen and lawyers could bring matters to the brink of impeachment and yet an orderly succession follow. It demonstrated the necessity to distinguish in a democracy between the office and its holder.
Society. It would be unfair to leave the record at that, however. The presidential period from the early 1960s to 1974 was generally one of Washington hubris and overreach that cannot all be laid to the careers of a few men. It was also a time of great accomplishment. At home the civil rights agenda was enacted , the environmental movement was launched; abroad, not only was the US entanglement in Vietnam started and ended, but there followed detente and Nixon's openings to China and the Soviet Union. The 1960s began with a prosperous economy that sputtered under stagflation and the oil shocks in the early '70s. Social tensions - urban riots by minorities, campus unrest, the polarities of the peaceful mass gathering at Woodstock and the police brutality at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago - seemed to seek out visible national personalities to dramatize them.
Not only did the leaders do better than is often acknowledged, so did the nation through that period. Per capita real income now is nearly twice what it was in the early 1960s - despite the economy's having absorbed the costs of environmental and other programs. But that was the nation's business at that time.
The business of today has to do with how closely to yoke two powerful American oxen, America's intensive high-technology drive and its desire for an impressive arms buildup. It involves equalizing the status of the two genders in society, not just the several minorities.
In the end, the careers of leaders, while interesting in themselves, may be a form of shorthand for portraying the progress of a society. Whatever good or ill they think of past leaders, democracies must choose new leaders. They must take their lessons from the past and move on.