August 28, 2008

Hey, Hey, LBJ -- Lyndon Baines Johnson (August 27, 1908 – January 22, 1973) The Democrats' "Forgotten Man"

Dead these 40 years.

"I shall not seek, and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your President." March 31, 1968

When I was a young man, Lyndon Johnson enraged and terrified me. He enraged me because of Vietnam. He terrified me because he commanded the machine which was planning to send me there. Many of the members of my cohort will cop to the former yet still deny the latter. Be that as it may, the fading whiff of cowardice clings to those who avoided service and won't be easily dispelled by denial even as we enter our dotage.

As years do, the years of Lyndon rolled by and the age of Nixon arrived. Since he was no longer President I thought of Johnson then, if I thought of him at all, as a garrulous, blustering "accidental President." At the time he epitomized the violent by his pursuit of victory in Vietnam and the vulgar by pulling up his shirt to display his surgical scars. Hoisting his dogs by the ears just confirmed me in my distaste.

After his death in 1973, I forgot about him. As, it would seem, did the current crop of what passes for loyal Democrats. If you asked for a word that would sum up their thinking about him, that word might be "pariah." Yesterday, Johnson's 100th birthday, received scant notice if any among the Party faithful outside of the Texas delegation who dutifully recorded it. These days, Senator Kennedy represents the ruins of the once great Liberal tradition of the Democrats. But even he stands on the shoulders of Lyndon Johnson. As do many other Democrats if they but had the courage to look down from the rickety scaffolding on which they currently teeter and sway.

Unlike many of them, I no longer seek to re-drape lost youth in the thin raiments of today's elite ideological fashions, but to see if, by looking once again - more deeply than before - I can see what looks different from this rise in the road. Among those many things, moments and men I have to now count Lyndon Johnson.

If he'd been a Rose Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson would have been rolled into the Democrat Convention last night in a wheelchair to witness the apotheosis of his greatest achievements, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, in the nomination of Barrack Obama for President of the United States.

Perhaps tonight, in an oration "for the ages (or November, whichever comes first)," the beneficiary of Johnson's bold -- many would say foolhardy -- social engineering of the 60s will say something in passing about this protean politician, but somehow I doubt it. We will, of course, hear a lot about Martin Luther King. Obama may even give us his studied imitation of King's voice -- something he does in a practiced manner to great effect. But while it will be noted that King had a dream it is likely that the fact Johnson had the power to make that dream a reality -- and used it ruthlessly -- will be glossed over, if mentioned at all.

Indeed, in all the self-congratulatory hoopla this week, Lyndon Johnson has been conveniently forgotten. He's been forgotten by the Democrats for decades and they show no signs of remembering. It is much better for the party, after all, to inflate the current midgets among them to the size, shape and substance of Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade balloons. To bring Lyndon into the hall at this point would diminish the current crop that leads this once proud party even more than they have diminished themselves. Imagine a Pelosi, a Reid, a Biden, an Obama placed next to Johnson. Their arms too short to box with Lyndon.

Last night the Democrats' Nixon, Bill Clinton, was slathered in ovations as he lauded the "achievement" of Barrack Obama before leaving the podium to the rocking strains of "Addicted to Love." It could have been worse if Clinton had chosen the bumper music and selected Jimi Hendrix and "Are You Experienced?" Of course, the lauded achievements of Obama pretty much boil down to beating Clinton's wife in grasping the nomination. That's what passes for "being experienced" these days.

To her credit, Senator Clinton briefly spoke the truth about LBJ during the campaign last January

“Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act,” Mrs. Clinton said when asked about Mr. Obama’s rejoinder by Fox’s Major Garrett after her speech in Dover. “It took a president to get it done.”
This minor heresy whispered in the church of King-Tubman-Obama got her quickly slapped down by the Times and other media Pecksniffs. We heard no more about Johnson. Everything was as it had been before: Equality was a magical gift given by St. King via a dream. Obama was his messenger. Realpolitik had nothing to do with it.

Except it had everything to do with it, and Johnson had the power and the skills to get it done.

It wasn't just the office he held that made Johnson effective. It was the office combined with his titanic political skills. The most famous of these was called, by witnesses and victims alike, "The Treatment:" According to Rowland Evans and Robert Novak in their book, Lyndon B. Johnson: The Exercise of Power,

The Treatment could last ten minutes or four hours. It came, enveloping its target, at the LBJ Ranch swimming pool, in one of LBJ's offices, in the Senate cloakroom, on the floor of the Senate itself — wherever Johnson might find a fellow Senator within his reach.
Its tone could be supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint and the hint of threat. It was all of these together. It ran the gamut of human emotions. Its velocity was breathtaking, and it was all in one direction. Interjections from the target were rare. Johnson anticipated them before they could be spoken. He moved in close, his face a scant millimeter from his target, his eyes widening and narrowing, his eyebrows rising and falling. From his pockets poured clippings, memos, statistics. Mimicry, humor, and the genius of analogy made The Treatment an almost hypnotic experience and rendered the target stunned and helpless.
Johnson not only knew how to use The Force, he was The Force.

The roster of what Johnson was able to accomplish in the domestic arena is towering. Much of it will be categorized by many as wrong-headed or disastrous but the sheer size of it cannot be denied. Under the rubric "The Great Society" Johnson set out to remake the American landscape in the manner of Roosevelt. Medicare. The Economic Opportunity Act. The endowments for the National Humanities and the Arts. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The full-funding of NASA and the mission to the moon. The appointment of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court. These are just a few broad strokes in an agenda of reform whose scale we have not seen since.

There are no neutrals when it comes to evaluating LBJ. Love him or hate him, Johnson was post-war America's epitome of Theodore Roosevelt's "The Man in the Arena."

Then there are the two achievements of Johnson without which Barrack Obama would be impossible: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Civil Rights Act, introduced by Kennedy, had been stuck in committee until Johnson, following Kennedy's assassination, used his office and his political power to push it into the House and on to the Senate where it was blocked by filibuster for more than 50 days. The Voting Rights Act was Johnson's and it moved into law with lightning speed, being submitted on March 17, 1965 and signed into law by Johnson on August 6th.

All these and more by this American leviathan, a man who habitually spoke of African-Americans as "negroes," and who spoke of them as worse in recorded phone calls from the White House; a man from real hardscabble roots who wheeled and dealt his way to become the most effective Senate Majority Leader in American history. And a man who, when tragedy brought him to the Presidency, used -- in the end -- the power that came with that office to leave the country closer to its ideals than it had any reason to expect he would.

At the New Yorker George Packerrelays this anecdote that sheds some light on the why of the Johnson transformation:

James Farmer, the great leader of the Congress of Racial Equality, told the story of a conversation he once had with Johnson in the White House:
I asked him how he got to be the way he was. He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, here you are, calling senators, twisting their arms, threatening them, cajoling them, trying to line up votes for the Civil Rights Bill when your own record on civil rights was not a good one before you became Vice President. So what accounted for the change?” Johnson thought for a moment and wrinkled his brow and then said, “Well, I’ll answer that by quoting a good friend of yours and you will recognize the quote instantly. ‘Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.’”

Johnson it turned out was not free of history. No man who seeks to take the stage in history is. What undid Johnson was, of course, Vietnam. How that happened is far, far too complex to set out here, but I will note that Johnson's intent to defeat North Vietnam was not -- in the end -- wrong, only his lack of achieving it; something that also eluded all other Presidents chained to the doctrine of patty-cake American wars. I have to think, however, that with Johnson it was not a lack of will -- something he never showed any shortage of -- but the inability to believe that he could not persuade, given enough time and intensity, anyone on Earth that he had the correct view of how things should be. As much as he detested Communism, there was always a homespun quality to Johnson's foreign policy. It was not, after all, his strong suit. America was. As a result I don't think he ever quite understood how ruthless and unpersuadable real Communists actually were. It took many more years and many more millions of deaths before most of the world learned that same lesson; a lesson still lost on the weak heirs of Johnson's party today.

But placing Vietnam in the rear-view mirror, it is possible to see Johnson today as I never could have seen him during those years when I asked him, along with the rest of my shameful cohort, "How many kids did you kill today?" Today, especially today, it is possible to see this coarse and crude Texan as yet another in a small series of exceptional Presidents who, gifted by the nation with extraordinary power, used the bulk of that power to leave this country a greater place on the Earth than he found it.

Put aside your partisan thoughts for a few moments and listen to Johnson at his finest moment.

I remember seeing that speech when Johnson gave it. And I remember what was there was still abroad in the country at that time. No matter what Barrack Obama may say tonight, no matter how high it may be touted, it will remain only a fading echo of Martin Luther King and his most unlikely ally, Lyndon Johnson. Without both men Obama could never have gotten here from there.

Posted by Vanderleun at August 28, 2008 9:10 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Yes, in the area of racial equality and justice under law, Johnson left us better off than before, helping to lessen that great stain on the character of our nation. Never forget, though, that Johnson also initiated the Great Society - a series of programs that has spawned the greatest expansion of dependency on the Federal Government in our history. I believe, arguably, that Johnson's legacy is one of greater damage to our country than good. Your mileage may vary.

Posted by: Bob at August 28, 2008 4:07 PM

My purpose here is not, as I think I make clear with several qualifications, to argue the good or the bad of the man -- only the titanic nature of his stature.

Posted by: vanderleun at August 28, 2008 4:25 PM

Yes, leaving aside arguments as to the rightness of his accomplishments, Johnson is by far the most historically significant president of my lifetime, the one who most changed the nature of America. And who would be second? Maybe Reagan and, internationally, maybe Nixon. But they are both distant seconds.

Posted by: chuck at August 28, 2008 4:34 PM

And Obama? A weak sister with a paper-thin bubble of hype surrounding an ego of epic proportions.

Posted by: Fargo Refugee at August 28, 2008 4:42 PM

President Lincoln wanted to send the Negroes back to Africa.
Unfortunately the country could not afford it at the time.

President Johnson's Great Society has spent taxpayer money approximating 2-3 TRILLION dollars with very little to show for it.

If you read Charles Murray's writings you will find the answer to why the vast amount of money spent didn't solve the problem.

Posted by: rab at August 28, 2008 5:54 PM

"... a man from real hardscabble roots who wheeled and dealt his way to become the most effective Speaker of the House in American history."

Senate Majority Leader, actually.

Posted by: Greg Hlatky at August 28, 2008 6:05 PM

Thanks, Gerard. A great read.

Posted by: Cathy at August 28, 2008 6:14 PM

We elect interesting men as president - I've read Robert Conquest's book on Johnson several times. I find the man (Johnson) fascinating. A mix of country boy swagger and amazing political sophistication. His election to the Senate in 1948 ("Landslide Lyndon") was pivotal to the history of the U.S. No stolen victory over Coke Stephenson, no Johnson as Senate Majority Leader and and no Johnson as Kennedy's V.P.

I don't know whether to thoroughly despise him for his corruption, or admire his ability to hold the reins of government so capably. For what it's worth, the guy was a master at politics, even more than Bill Clinton (another brilliant politician whose positions I despise).

Posted by: steve matlock at August 28, 2008 6:17 PM

I would bet if you quizzed the milling moonbats in Denver about the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts most would ascribe them to JFK, if they're aware of them at all. Vietnam would belong solidly to LBJ, though it was truly JFK's war. By the time LBJ left office the defeat of the Tet offensive had effectively won the war militarily, which was only turned into a humiliating defeat by the cowardice and duplicity of LBJ's Democrat successors. It is doubly ironic that a war that he neither started or lost will always remain his primary legacy.
What is also conveniently forgotten about those days is that the majority of LBJ's notorious cajolery was expended on his fellow Democrats, of whom a smaller percentage of the party voted for the Civil Rights Act, than did the Republicans. That the distorted and deceptive view of that tumultuous time remains throughly conventional 40+yrs. on, means LBJ will probably have to wait until all the boomers have assumed room temperature before he may receive an honest assessment from history.

Posted by: djaces at August 28, 2008 6:22 PM

A beautiful essay. You might want to correct the line about Johnson being Speaker of the House. a position he never held. Johnson was Senate Majority Leader.

Posted by: RW Rogers at August 28, 2008 6:43 PM

Good essay - one minor correction, LBJ was Senate Majority Leader, not Speaker of the House

Posted by: coriolan at August 28, 2008 6:45 PM

Thanks Greg and Coriolan. Fixed.

Posted by: vanderleun at August 28, 2008 7:18 PM

Thanks for this best post on the web today, of all days. LBJ is being denied deserved credit on this day. History will be kinder in this area. It's fun to remember the leviathan LBJ, and to compare him to the punies of today.

Posted by: gcotharn at August 28, 2008 7:29 PM

At the Democratic National Convention of 1964, Johnson bragged about the USA's military buildup and increasing military superiority over other nations. How would that go over at this year's DNC?

America's Cause is Still the Cause of All Mankind?

Posted by: ELC at August 28, 2008 8:02 PM

What the hell you smoken' boss?

Posted by: RotgutSaloon at August 29, 2008 4:37 AM

LBJ Facts.

1) He never earned his Silver Star award. "MacArthur awarded LBJ the Silver Star, the military's third-highest medal, although it is notable that no other members of the flight crew were awarded medals, and it is unclear what Johnson could have done in his role purely as an "observer" to deserve the medal, even if his aircraft had seen combat."

2) Rigged election of 1948. "Robert Caro argued in his 1989 book that Johnson had rigged the election in Jim Wells County, and other counties in South Texas, as well as rigging 10,000 ballots in Bexar County alone." The election was decided by 87 votes.

3) Delayed an effective civil rights act. Eisenhower wanted to ensure that black Americans could vote. With Johnson firmly in charge of the Senate the best he could get was the the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (the first civil rights legislation passed by the Senate since Reconstruction). Weak enforcement and Democrat obstruction held real civil rights back for nearly a decade. Eisenhower, on the other hand was willing to order the 101st Airborne into Arkansas to enforce desegregation. When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did pass more Republicans than Democrats voted for it on a percentage basis.

4) Great Society boondoggles vastly increase the size and scope of Federal government. Over time they prove ineffective and counterproductive.

5) Attempts to play commander in chief with real soldiers lose Vietnam to the commies. No matter what you say about Jorge Arbusto, the right way to run a war is for the President to pick the generals, not the targets for the bombers.

Summary: Huge role, ego and presence. Dubious outcomes...

Posted by: RKV at August 29, 2008 4:54 AM

The most recent Democrat President that Obama named as a model was Kennedy. He skipped Truman and went back to FDR.

Where were Johnson (as you noted), Carter and CLINTON?

Not models for change, I guess. But what does it say about Democrat Presidents, when you have to reach back 48 years for a model. And Obama, his beliefs have little in common with JFK.

Posted by: Jabba The Tutt at August 29, 2008 6:29 AM

I and a friend had the wonderful experience in 1967 of chasing LBJ's motorcade down 17th street (by the Old Executive Office Building, near the White House). We ran along for a block, thumbing our noses and giving forth with loud raspberries.

Juvenile? Of course! I was 19, and an art student. But it certainly illustrated the level of freedoms we still enjoy in this country, didn't it?

I too have ambivalence about Johnson, but having ambivalence also means that there are important positive things about him and his administration to remember.

Posted by: Roderick Reilly at August 29, 2008 8:56 AM


Well done; You speak for so many of your generation (and for many changed after 9/11) - but your self-confrontation and honesty seems nearly unique. I for one would very much like to see a book about your mental/spiritual transformations...

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It's a pealsure to find someone who can identify the issues so clearly

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