President Obama Upsets the Swift Boaters

Weigel
Reporting on Politics and Policy.
July 26 2013 5:50 PM

President Obama Upsets the Swift Boaters

159514319
Opposing views of Ho Chi Minh are not always self-evident.

Photo by Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images

If you don't consume much conservative media, you're probably unaware of the president's latest Crippling Gaffe. On Thursday, after a meeting with Vietnam's President Truong Tan Sang, the president told the reporters at the photo spray that his counterpart brought a letter Ho Chi Minh once sent to Harry Truman.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

"We discussed the fact that Ho Chi Minh was actually inspired by the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the words of Thomas Jefferson," said the president.

Cue the outrage. Fox News ran a NEWS ALERT telling viewers that reaction to this gaffe was simmering.

Advertisement

"Was it a slip of the tongue?" asked Shannon Bream. "Was it prepared and calculated?"

"Either it's a gaffe," said analyst Chris Stirewalt (whom you might recall from his election night 2012 shutdown of Karl Rove), "and the president doesn't know ... who Ho Chi Minh really was, or what he really did—he may not have studied that—the other possibility was that he was being morally flexible or facile."

The letter in question is widely reprinted; in it, in February 1946, Ho asks President Truman "to interfere urgently in support of our independence," on behalf of his Soviet-aligned force and against the French. Truman didn't do it, obviously, even though Ho had courted American support by—yes—quoting the Declaration of Independence. My friend Asawin Suebsaeng brings the clue-hammer on what I thought was pretty well-known episode.

But the context of that episode matters. Ho was praising Jefferson when he wanted something from the U.S. In power, as Stirewalt says, he proceeded to execute Trotskyites and engineer Soviet-style land reforms that led to inevitable starvation. He praised the Declaration, not the Constitution, as Obama says. As a way of being diplomatic, the president was clearly endorsing a left-wing view of Vietnam that was dominant before his 10th birthday. That was how the president chose to bond with the Vietnamese president—by going along with the view that the Vietnam War needn't have happened had America embraced the country earlier.

Lucky for the White House, the outrage so far as been pretty rootless and gone over the heads of people who don't care to refight this. "This is a slap in the face to those who served — and especially those who paid the ultimate price for freedom during that dark time in history," said Texas Rep. Sam Johnson, a former POW. "Let me tell you, there was nothing ‘free’ about my seven years in captivity in Hanoi — more than half of that time in solitary confinement." What did Obama say about freedom? Nothing, but I assume Johnson heard in his head the voices of anti-war activists calling Ho the "new George Washington." And there's nothing he can do, really. The occupant of the White House is more sympathetic to that view than to the view that the war was right and winnable.

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

TODAY IN SLATE

Culturebox

The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers

Education

Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Dear Prudence
Oct. 23 2014 6:00 AM Monster Kids from poorer neighborhoods keep coming to trick-or-treat in mine. Do I have to give them candy?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 8:51 AM The Male-Dominated Culture of Business in Tech Is Not Great for Women
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 9:00 AM Exclusive Premiere: Key & Peele Imagines the Dark Side of the Make-A-Wish Program
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.