LBJ: The Man We Hate to Love
Last week, like every other history junkie in the country, I was looking forward to the publication of Robert Caro's fourth volume that ponders the life of this strange and extraordinary man. The first volume was published in 1982, Volume Three came out over a decade ago - and we still have volume five to look forward to. What a long, strange trip it's been. Caro, who is in his late seventies, has said that he is not sure he will live long enough to finish this epic biography. Keep your fingers crossed and your hands folded.
When Lyndon Johnson left the White House I was just a child and only beginning to faintly understand the machinations of American politics. At the dawn of 1969 all I knew about the man was that he was the president and that a lot of people (my Democratic father among them) were pretty pissed off at him. Less than a year earlier on March 31, 1968, he had stunned the country by announcing that he would not seek a second full term as president. He knew he was finished. The Vietnam war had polarized the country in general and the Democratic party - his party - in particular. The ultimate irony is the fact that he died on January 22, 1973, two days after that second term would have ended. I often wonder whether a second term would have extended his life - or killed him sooner.
Next year will mark the fortieth anniversary of the day former President Johnson died unexpectedly of a massive heart attack. Time heals all wounds as they say. For almost a half a century Lyndon Johnson has been the Democratic party's Invisible Man - much in the same way the Republicans today ignore the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt (although for entirely different reasons). To many minds, the "Great Society" of his dreams seems quaint and utopian. The man himself is seen as the anti-JFK; awkward, graceless - even vulgar. He's become the liberals' eccentric uncle - an embarrassment. It shouldn't be that way. The time is long overdue for progressives in this country to reassess this great - and greatly flawed - American.
Like his idol Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson loved being president - or at least until Vietnam started to consume him. His twelve years as the most powerful man in the senate and nearly three years as John F. Kennedy's vice-president had prepared him well for the job. By the time he entered the White House he knew damned-near everyone on Capitol Hill. He knew their wives. He knew their kids. He knew what they wanted and - most importantly - he knew what they feared. He knew where they were vulnerable politically - and in some cases personally! Old Lyndon was the politician's politician. The guy was the wheeler-dealer supreme. He got things done and he usually got what he wanted.
He was the type of politician that makes liberals want to tear their hair out. But for that "stupid fucking war" (as Molly Ivins always called it) he would today be remembered as one of the greatest presidents in American history. He's not. In fact he's remembered as a colossal failure of Shakespearean proportions. He trusted the "Harvards" (as he called men like Robert McNamara and Dean Rusk) to advise him on foreign and military policy and it blew up in his face, destroying his administration. His hand-picked successor, Vice-President Hubert H. Humphrey, could not undo the damage done. The 1968 Democratic convention disintegrated into a police riot, the party ripped apart. The year ended with President-elect Richard Milhaus Nixon preparing to enter the White House. Remember how nicely that worked out?
"A man without a vote is man without protection."
-Lyndon Baines Johnson
LBJ's most outstanding legacies are the Civil and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. When he entered the White House on November 22, 1963 (we all know what happened on that day) liberals were lukewarm toward the idea of a Johnson administration. As Democratic leader in the senate during the 1950s, his civil rights record was mediocre at best. Although he was instrumental in getting the Civil Rights Act of 1957 passed, by the time it reached the floor for a vote it had been so watered-down there wasn't much left in it - mere scraps thrown to a people starving. Within six months of taking the oath of office it was clear to everyone that LBJ was committed to the equal rights of all Americans. I'll always respect the old son-of-a-bitch for that reason alone. A long overdue tip of the hat to the guy.
When the Civil Rights Act finally became the law of the land, he turned to his aids Bill Moyers and the late Jack Valenti and said to them, "Boys, we've lost the south for a generation". By "we" he was referring to the Democratic party. It turned out to be the understatement of the twentieth century. By the end of the 1960s, the racist Dixiecrats who had dominated that party in the south for over a century, fled en masse - like diseased rats - into the loving arms of the GOP. And that is where they (or their ideological heirs) reside to this day. The "solid south" has been solidly Republican ever since.
By 1980 the bigots had formed a strange alliance with the plutocrats. The result was the so-called "Reagan Revolution". Three decades later, the bigots and the plutocrats joined forces with the terminally brain-damaged. Thus was born the Tea party. Bye bye, America.
Vietnam forever - and rightly - tarnished his legacy. But his domestic achievements should not be overlooked or underrated. Barack Obama's presidency would not have been possible without the landmark civil rights legislation that Lyndon Johnson made possible. He really tried to make us a Great Society. The man's heart was usually in the right place. Vietnam notwithstanding, we owe the old bugger a deep debt of gratitude. Here's to you, Lyndon. You broke my heart but I still love you.
Path to Power
by Robert Caro
Means of Ascent
by Robert Caro
Master of the Senate
by Robert Caro
The Passage of Power
by Robert Caro
Here is LBJ addressing congress in 1965 on the subject of voting rights. This was one of his mountaintop moments:
LBJ (The American Experience)
This excellent two-part PBS documentary is available on DVD.