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A Modest Proposal for the Cardinal’s Conundrum Print E-mail
By Joseph Wood   
Saturday, 18 August 2012

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, gives the impression of a man who thoroughly loves his jobs.  In June, I attended a Mass at St. Patrick’s in New York City, where he celebrated.  He is a gifted homilist and powerful teacher.  Whenever I’m in an audience, I resist nodding in agreement with the speaker.  In this case, the urge was overwhelming for most of us in the pews.

But just occasionally, Cardinal Dolan must allow himself some doubt about the joys of the “public square” aspects of his role.  This has been one of those weeks.

In October, Cardinal Dolan will host the annual Al Smith Dinner.  Smith was a New York governor and the first Catholic nominee for president.  He worked himself up the ladder in a classic American success story:  after his father’s death he had to take menial jobs, but kept moving up.  Although tied to the infamous Tammany Hall machine, he steered clear of corruption and won repeated reelection as governor.  He died in 1944.

The annual October charitable dinner named for Smith began in 1945 under Cardinal Francis Spellman and has continued under subsequent New York archbishops. Some believe that Cardinal Spellman used the fact that Smith died in October to place the dinner prominently in the fall election calendar.

In several presidential election years, one or both candidates from the main parties have appeared:  Eisenhower in 1952, Nixon as vice president in 1956, Kennedy and Nixon in 1960, Johnson in 1964, Humphrey (and his boss LBJ) in 1968, Ford and Carter in 1976, Carter and Reagan in 1980, Reagan in 1984, George H.W. Bush and Dukakis in 1988, vice presidential candidates Kemp and Gore in 1996, Bush and Gore in 2000, and McCain and – gulp – Obama in 2008.

What that parade of names says about the state of American politics in the last sixty years, I leave to the reader’s judgment.  But they outline the tradition that Cardinal Dolan was looking at when pondering invitations to this year’s dinner.

Which brings us to this week’s controversy.  President Obama and Governor Romney are this year’s speakers.  The invitation to President Obama for his second appearance has ignited a storm of debate and delivered charges of scandal to Cardinal Dolan’s doorstep. 

These charges are serious, and in some cases come from serious people.  A good friend, very respectful of Cardinal Dolan and not on the fringe, thinks this is a tremendous mistake that will haunt the cardinal and the Church for years, weakening our ability to make our case for religious freedom and the culture of life.

In his blog this week, Cardinal Dolan accepted the criticism but defended his decision.  He sees the dinner as an opportunity for civil dialogue, one where no one who espouses views contrary to Church teaching will be honored.  He noted that Jesus dined with sinners.

Cardinal Dolan’s critics respond that Jesus also called sinners out and that the invitation creates confusion among the faithful as to what the hierarchy actually believes and values.  It’s easy to predict that the press coverage will show the cardinal and the president joking together, as if the deadly serious questions between them are not really all that important.


Obama speaks at the 2008 Al Smith Dinner

Plenty of previous Al Smith dinner invitees have differed with the Church on core Catholic teaching.  Whether attending the dinner led them to reconsider their views is an open question.  Evangelization is an uncertain activity.  But the dinners came and went, usually as light events.  They provide a break from the heat of the campaign season.

Still, it speaks volumes that American politics is now at a point where bringing together the two main presidential candidates for an evening of conversation and levity, benefiting charitable causes, creates a question of real scandal for the Church. 

There is considerable irony in the fact that Al Smith was a proponent of the early progressive movement, whose trajectory has led to the most prominent progressive of our day, Barack Obama. 

The controversy highlights just how difficult the Church’s position has become. It’s arguable that the Church’s support for large state welfare programs and the bishops’ accommodation of Catholic politicians who themselves deviated from Church teaching on crucial questions like abortion have in some measure created the current problem.

But the Church may now be in a position where the political choices on offer are based on fundamentally different conceptions of the human person and natural law that make dialogue on all but marginal issues impossible. 

Cardinal Dolan is testing that proposition. 

President Obama is not the first Al Smith speaker to find himself in conflict with Catholic authority.  President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq against the advice of John Paul II.  The line between acceptable differences on prudential policy questions and scandalous rejection of Church teaching can be unclear.  But the charge this time is that Obama has effectively sought to render the Church’s public ministry and works impossible, crossing a line between respectful differences and autocratic repression.

If I might presume to suggest it, Cardinal Dolan might consider noting the difficult position and the serious risk of scandal, which he cannot allow to go unchecked.  He might then reschedule this year’s dinner until November, after the election – less interesting for the candidates, but less likely to confuse the faithful.  In so modifying the 67-year-old tradition, he would make a strong statement about the unique dangers of this moment.

The event planners will protest.  But bigger changes are made to bigger events regularly, and the logistical difficulties will underline the seriousness of the situation.

Cardinal Dolan has asked for our prayers, and we should respond generously.  And we should listen in the coming months to what he and the bishops say at this critical juncture for how the Church speaks truth in the public square.


Joseph Wood teaches at the Institute of World Politics in Washington.

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Comments (35)Add Comment
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written by kristinajohannes, August 18, 2012
Joseph, I think this is a good idea. I second it. Doing it after the election seems like a good way forward, not just for this year but into the future.

This not only avoids the possibility of scandal and misuse of the occasion in the campaign, but it could also be a forum for the former candidates to at least publicly shake hands after a bitterly fought campaign.

Perhaps this handshake could actually become the highlight of the dinner each year. Thus would true statemanship be on display and might even contribute to more civility which seems to be a goal here.


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written by Don, August 18, 2012
The objection that Our Lord Jesus ate with sinners is not ad rem. No one - Cardinal Dolan included - knows the state of President Obama's soul.
The question is the public act of inviting President Obama to this banquet and the scandal that causes.
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written by Dave, August 18, 2012
It's nice to see this matter address on the pages of The Catholic Thing. The bishops of the American Church have made known, on the USCCB web page, in their writings to their dioceses, and through other outlets, the grave assaults to religious liberty launched by President Obama and his Administration, singularly and uniquely in American history. There is precedent for not inviting candidates -- Kerry in 2004, Clinton in the 1990s come to mind; if ever that precedent can have been honored, this was the time. I cannot help but think that the invitation, and the photos of Cardinal Dolan yucking it up with the President who presses for unlimited abortion, including partial-birth abortion, unlimited sterilization, a definition of marriage in defiance of natural law and the teachings of not only the Catholic Church but of virtually every religious institution everywhere, -- for starters on a list of the assaults -- will be seen by Catholics who support Obama as endorsement of their choice, and by Catholics who attempt to advance the Church's doctrines on the sanctity of life as abandonment of them by the general leading the charge.

Whether Cardinal Dolan knows it or not, he has gravely damaged his standing with those laity upon whom he and his brother bishops have been relying to press the case in the public square. Now when we look at him we have fallen back from "at last!" to "maybe..."

What's done is done: there's no punting on the dinner until after the election. So yes, we ought to pray for Cardinal Dolan, beginning with "Lord, have mercy..."
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written by rtjl, August 18, 2012
I think the invitation is a mistake. The Bishops have finally begun to provide clear and effective leadership on life issues, joined ranks and issued a clarion call to the faithful. The faithful took heart and were rallying around the bishops. Now this move will signal to the faithful that the bishops weren't really serious after all and didn't really mean what they said about not honoring pro-abortion political leaders. Good luck with getting pro-abortion politicians and other dissenters to take you seriously now and good luck with the next "clarion" call.

Even more troubling are the questions, "Does this mean that all the rhetoric from the bishops has been just that? Are they in fact almost ready to cave on the question of abortion and other life issues? Is all that is necessary for this to happen the consistent application of a little more political pressure?"
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written by Grump, August 18, 2012
Since when has the Catholic Church been divorced from politics? The Church's history is replete with instances of popes and cardinals mixing and meddling in the affairs of State so Dolan's "gamble" is anything but. Nothing like covering both sides.

If Dolan were not an archbishop, it's easy to imagine him as a pol, backslapping, glad-handing and yukking it up with the elite and voters of any stripe.

Profiled a couple of years ago on 60 Minutes, Dolan smilingly schmoozed with interviewer Morley Safer between shots of him joking with his entourage and the crowds, posing for the tabloids and otherwise very much at home in secular settings.

So it comes as no surprise that he would invite the iPad "Christian" Obama and the Mormon magic underwear-donned Romney to a largely meaningless event to elicit a few laughs and lend the appearance of civility that is all but absent before and after. The next day all the graciousness will vanish as the two candidates will return to the gutter as usual.

It has already been reported that $500 million has been raised by both sides so far in "campaign contributions," a euphemism for bribes, with tens of millions yet to be raised in what has to be the most corrupt political system ever devised by man.

One supposes that the only good thing that might come out of the Al Smith Dinner is that someone truly deserving will actually benefit from the proceeds. And for this Dolan cannot be faulted.
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written by DS, August 18, 2012
The Cardinal believes that his flock, too, is capable of distinguishing faith from civility. I appreciate his example, judgment and trust.

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written by Frank, August 18, 2012
Keep your friends close and our enemies closer. What we have here is not a failure to communicate but one very high stakes kabuki dance whose principal players are smart, cagy, and are facing one another with cards neither is willing to show to anyone...yet. Timing is everything of course. All of us would be more satisfied if Cardinal Dolan had publicly thrown by denying Obama an invitation followed up by a statement which would in effect be saying, "This far and no more." Accordingly, Cardinal Dolan's blog response is a bit lame. An influential shepherd for certain but we should also remember that Cardinal Dolan is also a theological scholar so he knows the difference between dining with sinners and aiding and abetting the Pharisees to which Obama is of the latter and not the former. Thus, I think his blog statement is a legitimate smokescreen for a larger set of issues and tactics. All is not what it seems. Cardinal Dolan is keeping this one close to the vest. The information and intelligence at his disposal is great and sometimes to quote Churchill, "The truth must be couched and wrapped in layers of lies. By keeping all of this close hold, we are not involved and of course, this is the source of our grousing. So, I'll reluctantly back Cardinal Dolan's play on this one. One is holding four kings and the other is holding four aces. One thinks he's got the better hand and the other knows he's got the winning hand and neither sinner don't hold a royal flush. There must be some element of doubt in all of this. Yup...it's High Noon folks. My money is on Cardinal Dolan. What he has on his side is as they say, "not of this world," and Obama has his ego, his narcissism, his hubris, and vindictiveness. In the end, Obama loses, hands down.
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written by Manfred, August 18, 2012
Why do you deliberately not mention that Cdl O'Connor refused to invite Bill Clinton in 1996, and Cdl Egan refused to invite John Kerry in 2004? This "oversight" is obvious and gives your premise away. When Helen Gurley Brown, with her sordid reputation, came to Cdl Hayes H.S.in October, 2010, to donate $1 mill. to the school, who was there to take her in his arms? Cdl Dolan. This Dinner invite is all about MONEY. If the Cdl refuses to cancel this Dinner, then every invited attendee should cancel his appearance. The Cdl has been chastised by Fr. Pavone and Priests for Life, Fr. Boquet of Human Life International and Judy Brown of the American Life League. These are the people in the trenches, not the fat Catholics, since Roe v. Wade. Think of the Marchers for Right to Life journeying to D.C. every January 22nd (yes! winter time) to march in defense of life. Think of the same-sex MARRIAGE plank to be inserted in the Deocratic platform this year. Think of the chaplains in the Armed Forces who are being told You will teach the troops what WE tell you or you will be discharged from the Service. And the archenemy of EVERYTHING DECENT has been invited to a dinner of this magnitude by the president of the USCCB. What a G.. damned disgrace!
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written by Achilles, August 18, 2012
Manfred, do you know of Fr. Chad Ripperger? He is a very good FSSP priest. When I hear him speak, I think of you. You remain in my prayers- please pray for me.

Obama is the scariest person I have ever had the displeasure of listening to and in my estimation, hardly worth a grain of sand, the worst president in US history precisely because he is so unAmerican. I can't fathom what to think of all this.
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written by Mack, August 18, 2012
One disagrees with a cardinal only with much misgiving. I still wish he wouldn't do it.
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written by Jack,CT, August 18, 2012
Silly people learn "Tolerance", and TRUST our leaders!
for Gods sake relax! He is a hero to respect "Diversity"
and we can agree' to disagree'. What ever happen to cival
disagreements? Calm dowm friends he is a wonderful and holy man.
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written by Just Wondering, August 18, 2012
I was just wondering what there is to discuss in terms of the vote on November 6th. One party stands for! the culture of death--it has abortion and the destruction of marriage in its platform. Voting for this is surely to be on the side of evil.
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written by sd, August 18, 2012
While initially perplexed by the decision, I trust Cardinal Dolan as a man of prayer who, no doubt, has taken extraordinarily seriously both his decision and the objections of other Catholics. He is first and foremost ordained to the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and a shepherd of souls. If he has prayerfully decided that the invitation, perhaps, gives him an opportunity to lobby/counsel Obama, then so be it. The American Church has been very clear re where it stands on Obama's policies, so I'm just not seeing that this will call that into question.
Let the Cardinal do what he does so well--be himself!--and let's see what the Holy Spirit brings about in this encounter. It could arguably save some souls.
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written by Peter's Sword, August 18, 2012
Achilles/Manfred: It's interesting that Achilles should mention the FSSP. Catholic orders like the FSSP (and the SSPX) exist because they've already written off people like Timothy Dolan and the "state churh" he represents. The SSPX is openly defiant about it, while the FSSP is rather delicate about it.

I was kind of caught off guard by this story and wasn't even aware of the previous situations surrounding the Al Smith Dinner in 1996 and 2004. Quite frankly, I had been under the impression that they had stopped holding the Al Smith Dinner years ago. Most of the people who really matter in the fight for moral truth and to protect our God-given rights probably never heard of Al Smith, or this silly annual event that bears his name. They're busy standing on line outside of Chick-fil-A at least once a week, supporting a fundamentalist Protestant CEO who wouldn't waste his time with such nonsense himself.
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written by Howard Kainz, August 18, 2012
The problem is that the Democratic Party, which until recent elections, was the party of liberals and "progressives," has now become unequivocally the party of abortion. Being pro-abortion is now a litmus test for acceptance and mobility within the Democratic Party. The DFLA (Democrats for Life in America) is now vainly trying to get the party to accept a "big tent" proposal which would honor and respect pro-life members and pro-life initiatives. At this point in political evolution, to be a pro-life Democrat is an oxymoron.
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written by Ben Horvath, August 18, 2012
I hope the Holy Spirit is behind the Cardinal's decision because I can not see there is any good reason to invite and include Obama using human reason.
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written by Jack,CT, August 18, 2012
Just Wandering?, if you walk in the room and conversate
with the President does that equal a vote? "Just Wandering?"
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written by 2+2 does not equal 5, August 18, 2012
Sorry, this article does not convince me that Cdl. Dolan really knows what he's doing (at least in the good sense). He has already admitted the failure of Catholic catechesis over the decades and his part in it, and we're willing to credit him with some shrewd positioning with this blantant "sieg heil" event? No way! We have been too tame with our acceptance of USCCB's fifth columnry for too long, culminating with our failure to call out the shilling for Obamacare as a ruthless selling out of American Catholics to the gulag.

I remember reading about Cardinal Richelieu in high school and wondering how the heck he was able to machinate politically the way he did - now it's obvious - he used his red cape as a mantle of protection from the objections of his own sheep. We have no way of knowing the state of any given scandalous cleric, but Dante has spared no elegance in describing their special domicile in the Inferno.
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written by DDPGH, August 18, 2012
Excellent proposal, Mr Wood. It allows a nod to the current unprecendented oppressive attempt by the federal government against religious freedom since the Constitution was ratified. But it also confirms the dignity and worth of every person, friend or foe, and the formidible grace experienced through the Church's evangelization.
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written by 2+2 does not equal 5, August 18, 2012
Further, Romney is very much a part of the problem and I would wager he is much relieved for the Al Smith distraction this week otherwise folks might pay more attention to the Dump Romney as the Nominee movement.

Rather than waiting till November (and still signaling that any of these after-birth-aborters or abortion-waste-collector candidates are acceptable to Catholics), Cardinal Dolan should either cancel the dinner or invite only 100 percent prolife candidates, and let the chips fall where they may. That would be really leading the flock.
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written by Seanachie, August 18, 2012
BEWARE...Cardinal Dolan is playing Checkers while Obama is playing Chess!
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written by Deacon Ed Peitler, August 19, 2012
Until now, most of the criticism of Card Dolan for his invitation of Obama to the Al Smith dinner has focused on Obama and what advantages his presence might gain him politically. But I think the Cardinal has a larger and more serious problem on his hands which is the Body of Christ.

It should come as no surprise to no one that Obama and the Progressives in the Democrat party (with complicity from many within the Catholic Church itself) has made a decided effort to divide Catholics against one another. This then neutralizes the effect of Catholics when it comes to being a power voting bloc. Unfortunately, Dolan has played into Obama's hands. He has managed to divide Catholics one against another. For proof, just look at the voluminous opinions for and against this dinner invitation.

The bishops of the USA, with Cardinal Dolan as their Conference president, managed for the first time in a long time this year to unify Catholics and follow their lead on the issue of religious freedom which was being imperiled by the Obama administration. This resulted in the wide support for the Fortnight for Freedom. Now, however, with this dinner invitation, Cardinal Dolan will have managed to cause a divide among Catholics at a crucial time in the fight for our religious liberty. The consequences are potentially serious. And will it all have been worth the price of a dinner invitation and a bit of civil discourse? No.

"That they may be one, Father, as you and I are one. That they may be one in us." It is a serious matter when this unity is jeopardized.
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written by Maggie Louise, August 19, 2012
It is not so much that we are eating our own, Jack, as that a large number of us feel as if we have been thrown to the wolves for their consumption, just when we thought that a degree of unity and mutual support had been achieved, as many have said. None of us are happy to find ourselves on the other side of the fence from our shepherds while the wolves snarl at us and bare their teeth..

"Betrayal" is not too strong a word to describe how we feel--doubly so because of its source.
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written by rosemary, August 19, 2012
Yes, please reschedule it.
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written by Bill Russell, August 19, 2012
Dolan: Richelieu without the manners.
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written by Jon S., August 19, 2012
You are right, Maggie Louise. The truly Catholic thing is not to so respect the office of bishop that one is uncritical of the prudential judgments of the person holding the office.

And, Mr. Wood, please note that it was a prudential judgment of Pope John Paul II on invading Iraq with which George Bush disagreed, as did many orthodox Catholics. Unlike Barack Obama, George W. Bush agreed with the pope on the intrinsically evil nature of abortion, embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage.
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written by Jack,CT, August 19, 2012
Dear. Maggie
I humbly disagree. I do not feel what the
Cardinal is doing is a "Betrayel", yet building bridges.I hope we can all come to this common agreement, we Love our Cardinal and no matter the degree of disagreement we have
we are all "in this together". I do see your side of the
arguement and I wish this whole thing did not happen.
So we can agree "no matter what", we
are all in this together!, Thanks for your response
God Love you and Bless you
Jack
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written by Graham Combs, August 19, 2012
Nellie Gray died this week and it sets many of us again to asking whether inviting pro-abortion candidates is acceptable. If a candidate condoned the trafficking in humans for slave labor and worse because as in the Sudan "it is an internal affair" or one's understanding of free markets would that be acceptable? I saw many Darfur t-shirts here in South East Michigan but none when the news covered the enslavement of women and children during Islamic North Sudan's invasion of the South. I wish the Church were more focussed and more appreciative that sometimes "polarization" cannot be avoided. Moral clarity in political debates often is only recognized in the past. No one would question whether the deaths of over 600,000 Americans native-born and immigrants in the Civil War was necessary to end slavery. Too many Catholics I meet are of the "it's all good" inclination. It isn't all good and hasn't been all good for decades. And the Bishops' Conference needs to say that again and again.
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written by ROB, August 19, 2012
Dolan asked us to fast for a fortnight in response to the HHS mandate. We did. A few months latter he intends to hobnob with the very author of the mandate. We are to respect that? Study the backgrounds of the men who constitute the Board of the Al Smith Foundation, the dinner's sponsor. These grandees have made fortunes at the intersection of the Church and politics, largely Democratic politics. It will be Dolan's misfortune to be seen sharing the glass with Obama, but it will be a boon to the egos and careers of these men. If they had the interest of the Church foremost they would advise Dolan to cancel the dinner. I wouldn't place a bet on that happening
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written by Arnobius of Sicca, August 19, 2012
"Only Nixon could go to China" is an old statement which had some real truth to it. The late president's anti-communist credentials were so strong that nobody could accuse him of being "soft on communism."


I believe the same sentiments are true here. Cardinal Dolan is well established in his opposition to the Obama administration's policies and could not be reasonably accused of softness.


I also believe that it would be hard to imagine any Catholic voting for Obama doing so with invincible ignorance. Willful self deception and vincible ignorance seem more likely.


I don't have a problem with the modest proposal made here, but we should avoid causing our own scandal by bashing the cardinal and allowing our enemies to believe there is a rift among the faithful.
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written by Chris in Maryland, August 20, 2012
Barack Obama is waging open war against The Body of Christ. He wages war against the lives of unborn children. He wages war against the free expression of Catholicism in The United States. He steals income from families with learning disabled children and uses it to buy contraceptives for those who serve him. He has declared to the world that he will confine Catholics to their parish churches, and he threatens all who dare oppose him with the loss of their income, their licenses, their businesses and their liberty.

Supping with one's opponent is a mark of civility.
Supping with the enemy is a mark of servility.
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written by 2+2 does not equal 5, August 20, 2012
Nixon/China is an example that's so bad it's good. Nixon was Rockefeller bought and paid for. His HUAC phase may have build his conservative resume, but he became controlled opposition for Rockefeller at least before his election in 1968, upon which he immediately appointed Rockefeller goon Henry Kissinger. Nixon kissed up to Soviet Union and to China, and look where that has brought us to today. Nixon opened the floodgates to abortion, ditto. I won't mention the many other bad policies he made, but he was no conservative and his ousting via Watergate was simply Rockefeller pulling the hook on one kabuki act in order to place another stooge on stage.

Yes, only Nixon could have gone to China.
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written by Jack,CT, August 27, 2012
Are th>>>>>>>>>>>> e "arm chair critics done?

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