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One of life's larger realities

During all the controversy surrounding President Clinton's meeting with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, I have been thinking about a passage in Michael R. Beschloss' splendid new book, Taking Charge, the edited and annotated volume of secret tape recordings of phone calls and Oval Office conversations of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

On Jan. 13, 1964, less than two months after the assassination in Dallas made him president, Johnson is talking to his Senate mentor, Richard B. Russell of Georgia, the pillar of conservative common sense and at the time possibly the single most influential Democrat on Capitol Hill.

Johnson has called him to complain that French President Charles de Gaulle is "going to recognize Communist China" and to ask "whether I ought to protest it rather strongly" or let it go with a routine State Department statement of regret.

Russell says, "I wouldn't go too strong on it, Mr. President. . . . We've really got no control over their foreign policy." And then he adds: "We can't talk about it now, but the time's going to come when we're going to have to recognize Red China."

Johnson: "I don't think there's any question about that."

Russell: "I ain't too sure but what we'd been better off if we'd recognized her three or four years ago."

Johnson: "I think so."

Russell: "Politically, right now, it's poison, of course."

Beschloss, in one of the many footnotes that provide context for these fascinating and often frighteningly candid conversations, notes, "Had Johnson's private view that the United States should have recognized Communist China in 1960 or 1961 become known to Americans at the time, it would have started a national firestorm among conservatives. . . ."

That is no exaggeration. Barely a decade after U.S. troops had been fighting Chinese forces in the Korean war, and at a time when patriotism was measured almost as much by support for Taiwan as for a free Berlin, it would have been a shock to most Americans that people as strongly identified with military preparedness and militant anti-communism as Johnson and Russell would have been talking about the desirability of normal diplomatic relations with Beijing.

But the lesson of Beschloss' marvelous book is that, however much they may dress up their positions in public rhetoric, in their private moments politicians and presidents know they have to deal with the facts of life. My guess is that President Clinton has taken an equally hard-nosed stance toward the impressive array of human rights and religious freedom defenders, the coalition of liberals and conservatives who were on the streets and all over the airwaves protesting his dealing with Jiang Zemin.

History also buttresses Clinton's contention that, however wide the gap in values and practices between the United States and China, it is almost surely more dangerous to our interests to shun that country, rather than engage it.

It took more than 15 years after that Johnson-Russell conversation before another Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, summoned the courage to restore normal relations with China.

In between came the tragedy of the Vietnam War _ a war, as the conversations in Taking Charge make abundantly clear _ about which Johnson had the gravest private doubts. What kept him from following his impulse _ and the counsel of his friend, Sen. Russell _ to leave Vietnam, rather than escalate that conflict, was in large part the belief that a pullout would be seen as another victory for and by the Chinese Communists.

That view, we now know, was based on an erroneous assumption that Hanoi was as much an ally and agent of Beijing as North Korea had been. Would our policy have been as far off-base if we had had a diplomatic mission in Beijing, dealing face to face with the Chinese leaders?

The protesters served this country well last week, as they did during the Vietnam years, by loudly demanding that our foreign policy reflect our professed values. It was particularly important that their voices be heard when so much of the Jiang Zemin visit was made up of cheap public relations stunts. The idea that putting him in a three-corner hat in Colonial Williamsburg would make us think better of his repressive regime is insulting to the intelligence of the American people.

But presidents _ as Beschloss reminds us _ must deal with realities or face the consequences. And China is one of the biggest realities around.

Washington Post Writers Group