Category: Flawed Giant
Term in Office: 36th president, 1963-1969
Political Party: Democratic
Home State: Texas
For you, Sam.
When I publish a presidential review, my “start in the middle, then the next available space lower, then the next available space higher” order frequently juxtaposes presidents in a way that validates my arguments. A great example of this was Theodore Roosevelt following Coolidge; it allowed me to contrast Roosevelt’s energy and activism with Coolidge’s lethargy and hands-off approach.
But every once in a while, this creates a sequence of presidents that bites me in the butt and highlights apparent contradictions. I spent the last post castigating George W. Bush for presiding over an unnecessary and poorly fought war, and ranked him at #36. And then I go and rank Lyndon Johnson, who presided over an even more costly and divisive war at #6. (And #37 is also going to be someone whose presidency was underlined by an unjust war that brought out the worst in the American character.) All of this has the potential to make me look very inconsistent.
To paraphrase LBJ’s opponent in the 1964 election, inconsistency in the pursuit of justice is no vice, so I beg a chance to explain myself. Let me start by suggesting the wrong way to evaluate Lyndon Johnson. It goes something like this: “Well, we got a civil rights act, sure, but we also got Vietnam, so the two kind of cancel each other out.” We conflate Lyndon Johnson’s time in office with the most obnoxious 60s trope of a Kennedyesque “good sixties” with LBJ presiding over the “bad sixties.” Seriously- watch Forrest Gump, watch Across the Universe, see the Billy Joel ballet (I just threw up a bit in my mouth writing that) “Movin’ Out”, and they follow the same tired trajectory of hope and idealism descending into violence, protest, and mistrust in the literal jungles of Vietnam and the urban jungles of Watts or 1968 Chicago. Believing that LBJ presided over the collapse of 1960s hope despite some major legislative accomplishments, historians frequently rank him as only slightly above average: recent polls among scholars have put him at #15, #17, and #18. It also doesn’t help that Kennedy cuts a suave, memorable figure across the 60s, a position cemented by his untimely death. Crude, calculating, and occasionally merciless LBJ isn’t nearly so attractive or lovable a figure, and as Irving Bernstein points out in his book on the Johnson presidency, we remember him more for what went wrong at the expense of what was right.
Let me suggest a better way to look at this. On the eve of the terrible day that Kennedy was shot down and LBJ assumed the presidency, the United States faced three outstanding social problems: 1) Jim Crow. 2) The endurance and invisibility of generational poverty. This problem was in many ways, more insidious than Jim Crow, since poverty did not raise international outcry or threaten our moral position vis-a-vis the Soviets. 3) The brutal logic of the Cold War, which committed us to far-flung conflicts and propping up awful regimes just because they were nominally anti-communist. Vietnam was only the most recent manifestation of prevailing trend where, under Cold War auspices, the U.S. intervened, either in open warfare or covert operations.
Again, I refer to my Value Over Replacement Player theory— could any of his contemporaries done better? It would have taken an astonishing, prodigious, once-in-a-generation level of political skill to satisfactorily resolve just one of these problems. Lyndon Johnson took a jackhammer to two of them. While racism and poverty both endure (and are heartbreakingly intertwined), public segregation and its odious principle of “separate but equal” were obliterated, and the poverty rate dropped by nearly 50% in the years following the legislation of his era that is collectively called The Great Society. I study 60s and 70s politics for a living, and as I have said before, those decades were stocked with competent and conscientious senators, some of the best who ever served. None of them could have done what LBJ did. He had the right balance of gifts for parliamentary wrangling: he understood the art of the deal, he was an expert in gauging just what it would take to get a crucial vote (a kickback, an appearance on the campaign trail, a spot on a prestigious committee, a ride on Air Force One), he understood when to threaten, when to bribe, when to cut deals, and when a cause was hopeless.
Ironically, he was taught these skills by the man he ultimately bested in the great battle for civil rights in the United States Congress, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia. Russell mobilized every resource at his disposal to curtail the bill, or render it toothless, (the fate of the 1957 civil rights bill), finally arriving at a rotating roster of Dixie senators to put on the adult diapers and filibuster any civil rights bill for hours upon hours on end. To overcome this, LBJ cleverly used Kennedy, at best a tepid and reluctant supporter of civil rights, as a martyr figure. He claimed that a bill disemboweling Jim Crow would be the best memorial his country could give to him. He wisely let Hubert Humphrey, a less abrasive figure than he, navigate the bill through the Senate, and Humphrey the liberal Democrat and Senate Minority Leader (and conservative Republican) Everett Dirksen corralled the votes necessary to end the Dixie filibuster of the bill. In the end, all but six senators outside the former Confederacy voted for the bill.* The result was a law that actually enforced civil rights for all Americans, ending the legal system of public segregation, in schools and in factories, in public places and in voting requirements.
This is not, of course, to downplay all of the important grassroots work it took to get a comprehensive civil rights bill into consideration in the first place. In fact, public pressure for the bill would not have been very great at all if not for the moral leadership of Dr. King, the courage shown by the young men and women during the Mississippi Freedom Summer, the support of organized labor, and the mainline and Catholic churches taking a strong stand and encouraging their congregants to badger their legislators for a bill.
The amazing thing is that LBJ’s progress on civil rights did not end there. It was reinforced the following year with the Voting Rights Act, allowing the federal government to intervene and ensure fair elections in regions with a history of voter discrimination. At the beginning of LBJ’s presidency, a black person could be lynched for trying to exercise his or her right to vote. By the end, the federal government would, by point of bayonet if necessary, enforce that right, a century-overdue redemption of the 15th amendment. Do not forget, either, the 1968 civil rights act, which enacted fair housing laws, a problem minorities of all kinds faced in every region of the country.
It is important to note the courage in this. There is a story, documented in nearly every biography of LBJ where, upon signing the civil rights bill, he tells an aide, “we have lost the South for a generation,” and Dixie went from monolithically Democratic to increasingly Republican, a process that began with Strom Thurmond’s defection to the Republican Party, and the success of Barry Goldwater, who opposed the 1964 civil rights bill as a violation of state’s rights, in achieving the party’s presidential nomination later that year.
Problem #2 to which LBJ dealt a shattering blow: poverty. Back in 1999, LBJ aide James Califano argued that the Great Society ”saw government as providing a hand up, and not a handout.” Generally, middle America is okay with government programs that help, well, middle America— you won’t a peep about federal housing loans, or FDIC keeping their nest egg safe. When Great Society extended that aid to the very poor, or urban minorities, suddenly the language changed, and New Right arguments that we were creating a culture of dependency, or were descending into a new feudalism, gained steam. But LBJ stood firm, and he was helped by some timely scholarship that underscored the endurance and invisibility of poverty in a society that seemed to have gone from strength to strength since the Second World War ended. Keyserling’s Poverty and Deprivation, Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands, Harrington’s The Other America, and Galbraith’s The New Industrial State broke ground on how poverty is created, how it escapes the middle class gaze, and how it could be amended.
There was an awful lot of scuttlebutt on the recent 50th anniversary of Johnson’s declaration of war on poverty. Michael Tomasky over at the Daily Beast argues that the War on Poverty was a striking success. It did so by targeting root causes— malnutrition (we now have free and reduced school lunches for young students who need them, a signature program from my boy McGovern), no health care (Medicaid), terrible housing (we now have an entire cabinet department committed to Housing and Urban Development, and if you think urban housing is subpar now, trust me, it was much worse in the 50s and early 60s), no meaningful work experience (Neighborhood Youth Corps made strides against this), a lack of education (federal standards and aid were implemented, as were a number of Pell grants, and Fulbright scholarships), and the dreadful lack of infrastructure in rural areas (the Appalachian Regional Commission, targeting perhaps the most chronically poor region in the U.S.).
The Great Society’s first intended beneficiary may have been the chronically poor, but there were many others who reaped its benefits. Arguably, the most popular and the most successful of these programs was Medicare, subsidizing much of the health care for those above the age of 65 while not imperiling the private medical industry. Some have argued that Medicare is obsolete because life expectancy hovered below 70 when the program was created and it wasn’t intended to cover everyone for decades, since most Americans were not expected to live that long. I would argue precisely the contrary point: the high number of Americans living into their 80s and 90s owes a great deal to new medical technology, yes, but also because Medicare made it easier for the elderly, at the most financially insecure point in their lives, to have access to these new treatments and technologies. (Sadly, LBJ would not be among them, for a cardiovascular system tested by a lifetime of stress, smoking, and deep-fried junk food felled the Texas giant at the age of 64 in 1973. We were just four years away from Disco LBJ. God damn it all.)
Just how was Johnson able to do all this? He was a veritable puppet-master when it came to dealing with Congress, but he also had a strong Congress to work with. (It is worth noting that out of my top eight presidents, all of them had both houses of Congress aligned with their party or faction throughout their entire term, with the important exception of Harry Truman.) Throughout his presidency, Congress had not only a Democratic majority in both chambers, but a supermajority. And yet, previous supermajorities had been scuttled by Republicans and conservative Democrats working together. LBJ was able to find a way around it, owing to his stellar turn as Senate Majority Leader in the 1950s. Like so many other presidents, the answer lies in his background. LBJ learned the hard way to wrangle votes, punish dissent, and get a bill through, as shown in Robert Caro’s brilliant The Master of the Senate. A self-styled rancher from Texas hill country, he knew how to make arguments that could get western and southern votes for things that would have otherwise been considered liberal east-coast ideas. Witness the outpouring of environmental legislation, the rise of VISTA, the National Endowment for the Arts, laws mandating that cars be built with seat belts, and so on.
And, of course, there was Vietnam. As Peter Osnos writes, in The Atlantic, “the tragedy of Johnson’s life was that his war was destined to be lost, and he sensed it would be.” Worse, the spiraling costs of the war imperiled Great Society, as Johnson grappled over which project would receive the lion’s share of the funds, a dilemma often characterized as “guns vs. butter.” And yet the dilemma was about more than finance, for the war stripped LBJ of so many of the supporters who made action on civil rights and poverty possible: he lost the mainline and Catholic churches, civil rights leaders, professors, the east coast media, and even labor unions (who were more split on the war than popular memory recalls). Each faction lent their pulpits to antiwar activists, or led teach-ins, or took part in the demonstrations that eroded Johnson’s political capital and credibility. And rightly so. Johnson lied to the American people repeatedly on the nature and scope and chances of success. He continued to escalate the war even as it grew increasingly unpopular, and failed to convince the country of its stake in preserving South Vietnam, partly because a persuasive rationale did not exist. LBJ was unable to effectively challenge the raw stupidity and inhumanity of Maxwell Taylor, Curtis LeMay, William Westmoreland, and Robert McNamara’s leadership, partly because LBJ lacked any real military service himself. His time in the army during World War II as a young congressman was both brief and farcical; FDR eventually had to recall sitting congressmen involved in the war effort. JFK, on the other hand, had spent enough time in uniform to know that the top brass was not infrequently mistaken. The war was a tragedy on every front, from the tens of thousands of American lives lost, to the millions of Vietnamese lives lost from our bombings, and our napalm, and our often indiscriminate attacks on suspicious villages.
Still, who could have challenged the groupthink and deference to military wisdom in this age? Who could have resisted that line of thinking and limited our involvement, risking barbs that he “lost Vietnam” to the communists, one more domino down on the road to Soviet domination? Maybe John Kennedy could have been that guy; I really don’t know. In the same way that only Nixon could go to China, maybe only an avowed militarist could have credibly gotten out before fully got in, maybe someone like liberal-but-hawkish Nelson Rockefeller. Who can say? Where I find myself on more solid ground is in saying that it would have taken an exceptionally perceptive, imaginative, and bold figure to untie this gordian Mekong knot. LBJ wasn’t him, but he was just about the only person, by dint of personality, experience, and background, who could have made the gains on the equally significant wars against Jim Crow and against deprivation.
Lyndon Johnson’s presidency is only unsuccessful if you take the perspective of the middle-management suburban dad with a draft-age son over the Appalachian mother trying to feed her children, or the black man in Alabama trying to find a hotel that will allow him to rest while on the road, or over the inner-city youth who learned how to count (and how to love the skin she was in) by watching Sesame Street on PBS. If you gauge American history in a liberty-centric way (that is, keeping the privileges you have and to hell with everybody else), it is easy to take a jaundiced view of Great Society. It becomes possible to say that aid to the poor, scholarships for snotty students, and forcing private restauranteurs or theatre owners to admit blacks was an infringement on personal freedom. Lots of people do think that, and Ronald Reagan began his political career by embracing that perspective. If, on the other hand, you judge a society by whether its best resources are available for everyone’s mutual edification and advancement, then LBJ is no longer the middling president we see in modern rankings. He becomes the architect of a much better, and much brighter, future where your background is truly no impediment to your success.
In my write-up on Calvin Coolidge, I tried to make the distinction between a country that was privately wealthy and one that was publicly wealthy. For a brief moment, Lyndon Johnson had created conditions where the United States was prosperous in both ways. The economy remained strong with low unemployment and inflation, but at the same time, it became far more wealthy as a set of common resources one could draw upon to achieve success and upward mobility. I think of this era as one where we recognized that “state’s rights” was a disingenuous smokescreen for apartheid, where we recognized that equality and freedom are meaningless bywords when custom and tradition and manner and even law leave many, white or black, Southerner or Northerner, on the outside looking in. As I write these words, we are, fifty years later, in danger of losing the very real gains made to the commonweal during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. As the recent Ryan budgets, and as the derisions of Obama as a “food stamp president” have shown, we have been fighting a war against the poor, rather than a war on poverty. PBS and NPR always seem up on the chopping block, despite consistently delivering the the fairest and most edifying news in the country today, and despite nearly every poll showing that their readers and viewers have a superior grasp of current events. Like the very best presidents, LBJ called us to a higher level, to allow the blessings of equality and progress to be achievable for every one, not just the middle-class families in Levittown. In many ways, the traits that secured his greatest triumphs: a willingness to use the bully pulpit, empathy, artful relations with Congress, legislative experience— also led to the hubris and pretzel logic that led to a deepening, demoralizing Vietnam War that tore the country apart. You can’t really separate or disentangle the two, and you certainly can’t say that one cancels the other out. The result of this confusing jumble is one of our most complex presidents, an outsized sentinel of self-assuredness and determination, standing watch over one of America’s most transformative decades.
*Because I believe in shaming the guilty, the 27 Nay votes on the bill were: Harry Byrd (D-VA), Robert Byrd (D-WV), Norris Cotton (R-NH), James Eastland (D-MS), Allen Ellender (D-LA), Sam Ervin (D-NC), J. William Fulbright (D-AR), Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), Albert Gore Sr. (D-TN), Bourke Hickenlooper (R-IA), J. Lister Hill (D-AL), Spessard Holland (D-FL), Olin Johnston (D-SC), B. Everett Jordan (D-NC), Russell Long (D-LA), John McClellan (D-AR), Edwin Mechem (R-NM), Absalom Robertson (D-VA), Richard Russell (D-GA), Milward Simpson (R-WY), George Smathers (D-FL), John Sparkman (D-AL), John Stennis (D-MS), Herman Talmadge (D-GA), Strom Thurmond (D-but-soon-R, SC), John Tower (R-TX), Herbert Walters (D-TN). Major props to Ralph Yarborough (D-TX), the only senator from Dixie to actually vote FOR the bill. Fascinatingly, Vice-Present Al Gore, Sen. Alan Simpson, and Rev. Pat Robertson all had dads who voted against the bill.