Why not a secret budget deal?

WASHINGTON -- As much of this capital city warns of approaching Armageddon if the current government shutdown continues, it may be instructive to recall how a more perilous fate was encountered 41 years ago, and how it was averted.

That would be the confrontation of October 1962 when the Soviet Union installed intermediate-range missiles on Cuba, and President John F. Kennedy established a naval blockade of the island that in the end persuaded Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev to remove them.

Then as now, a major problem was finding a face-saving way out of the crisis for an adversary who took threatening action and then faced unacceptable consequences when the opposition dug in and declined to back off.

That terrifying international game of chicken was, of course, far scarier than today's war of nerves between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner. But the way it was resolved could provide some instruction to these two locked-in adversaries in their less lethal stare-down.

At the time, Secretary of State Dean Rusk was said to have remarked: "We're eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked." The reality, however, was more nuanced, with later details coming to light challenging the initial notion of who did the blinking.

As the world watched and worried, Attorney General Robert Kennedy privately told Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin that his brother was ready to pledge secretly that if Russian missiles were removed, there would be no U.S. invasion of Cuba. Also, RFK reported to him that, without public disclosure, American missiles in Turkey aimed at the Soviet Union would be removed sometime later.

The distinction was not that there were no negotiations, but that they occurred secretly with the caveat that the details of the deal would also remain secret. The arrangement enabled Kennedy to come off publicly as the steely winner, even as Khrushchev was able to tell his associates at the Kremlin that he had extracted the price of the removal of the U.S. missiles from Turkey.

The facts finally came out years later when JFK's speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, told a Moscow retrospective on the crisis that he had pointedly edited out the deal from Robert Kennedy's Missile crisis memoir, "Thirteen Days," and other studies chronicled the secret resolution.

In the current Obama-Boehner confrontation, the House speaker has repeatedly argued that the president has been unwilling to negotiate on the House Republicans' demand that Obama's health-care insurance act be defunded. Obama has responded publicly that he would be willing to negotiate on possible changes in the law, but not, as he has repeatedly put it, "with a gun at my head."

So the question emerges: Why can't the two of them arrive at a secret, unannounced deal whereby Boehner lets the budget bill now held hostage go the House floor for a vote unencumbered by any reference to defunding Obamacare, with the president secretly agreeing to negotiate on it later? That, after all, is what he has offered all along.

Boehner could dodge accusations from the GOP's tea party faithful that he had "blinked" by continuing to say he wanted the health-care law defunded or changed, but that he had been steamrollered. The way things are going now, it seems probable in any event that there would be enough fed-up Republican moderates in the House to join a solid Democratic majority there to break the logjam on the budget and the shutdown.

The little history lesson on the Cuban Missile Crisis only confirms that the art of diplomacy, at least when it comes to domestic political matters, seems to have been completely abandoned in the mutual hostility that has grown these days on this and most other disputatious issues on the nation's plate.

In the current poker game, the time has long passed when Boehner and the House Republicans should have realized they have been holding only a pair of deuces or treys, and folded their hand through some such unannounced arrangement. Then Washington and the rest of the country could go on to the next manufactured crisis, or learn some common sense from how this one has played out.

(Jules Witcover's latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.)

(c) 2013 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.
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