• Email
  • Print

The Fate of the Union: Kennedy and After

Eight men have died while serving as President of the United States, but the first seven furnish no very instructive analogy for the eighth. Three of them, Lincoln, McKinley, and Franklin Roosevelt, were war Presidents who had fought and won their wars and served out more than a complete term before they fell. Three others, Harrison, Taylor, and Garfield, were not really in office long enough to establish policies of long-range consequence before death overtook them. Unlike his ill-fated predecessors, President Kennedy was cut down in mid-career toward the end of his third year in office. He had had time to make mistakes and to learn from them, but not enough time to profit much from them. He had had time to make plans and policies, but not time to fulfill them. “We have made a beginning—but we have only begun,” he told Congress in his message last January. “Now the time has come to make the most of our gains—to translate the renewal of our national strength into the achievement of our national purpose.” But there was not time enough. And that is the real poignancy of his tragedy—unfulfillment, great potentialities unfulfilled.

Vice Presidents have not been fortunate as fulfillers of the plans of stricken Presidents. The earlier President Johnson comes to mind as one unhappy instance. A more fortunate instance—the outstanding exception to the rule so far—is Harry Truman. And now once again the fallen leader from the metropolis has been replaced by a provincial successor. Whether Texas will do as well by Massachusetts in this respect as Missouri did by New York remains to be seen. On the face of it there would seem to be ground for hope. Considerably more ground, in fact, than there was for the immediate future the day that Truman took the oath. Then we all trembled. And so did he. Now we wait with misgivings but with larger confidence.

The political crisis, to be resolved in 1964, that has been ominously gathering momentum was not developing along class or party lines. It was a crisis between metropolis and province and it was disrupting both parties and cutting across class lines. The revolt in the provinces has taken some ugly forms. An undertone of paranoid suspicion runs through its rhetoric. It breaks out in savage expressions of hatred, in dark theories of conspiracy, and in irrational panaceas. The spirit of violence has spilled over into foreign relations and given both our allies and our enemies reason for grave apprehensions. The metropolis has been taught to expect the worst from the province and breeds its own conspiratorial theories. The disposition to place the worst possible intrepretation on the assassination in Dallas and the murder of the alleged assassin was one manifestation of these tensions and suspicions.

The most violent outbursts of the provincial rebellion have occurred in the South and centered on racial issues. But the revolt has not been confined to the South, nor has it been limited to one issue. The South’s intransigence has stirred sympathetic response in the West, and the violent rhetoric of the Western rebels has met with enthusiastic response in the South. A sectional alliance in the approaching election appeared extremely probable. The leader had been chosen. His reckless threats and promises, his wild panaceas and nineteenth-century nostrums had become the platform of the rebellion.

The rebels had not yet taken over Congress, but they were powerfully entrenched in both Houses. It was due in large measure to the intransigence of the delegations from the provinces that Kennedy’s legislative program had ground to a halt. The opposition was stubborn and not wholly rational. It had not only stopped the Civil Rights Bill but threatened with stalemate or crippling amendments a whole range of unrelated measures. These included, among others, tax reduction, medicare, foreign aid, the sale of wheat to Russia, and most disturbing of all an evident disposition to harass or frustrate presidential efforts to create a détente in the Cold War. A virtual deadlock between President and Congress had come about.

For both the rebellion in the provinces and the rebellion in Congress the succession of Lyndon B. Johnson has great potentialities. The new President is pre-eminently a man of the provinces and pre-eminently a politician from the Senate. He is the first President from one of the old Confederate states since the last President Johnson entered the office after Lincoln’s assassination, and at the same time he lays claim to legitimate Western identification. The First Lady was born in Alabama. The President’s ties with both regions are well established and well recognized.

Johnson’s career in Congress, including his years as Democratic Leader in the Senate, has given him ties with Capitol Hill that have been enjoyed by no previous occupant of the White House. Leadership in Congress has been throughout our history an obstacle rather than a path to the Presidency. There have been Senators who have become Presidents, but no outstanding Senators. The Clays and Calhouns and Websters and Blaines and Bob Tafts have often tried but never succeeded. Johnson is the first to have done so.

In at least two important respects, therefore—both of them highly significant for his new role—Lyndon Johnson is an exceptional President. Not only has he overcome the practically insuperable obstacle of being a Southerner. but the hitherto irreparable disability of Senate leadership. And in spite of his obvious identifications with the provinces and with the Congressional establishment, he is not identified with the rebellion in either. On the contrary, he has been strongly allied with his predecessor against both.

Coming to the Presidency at the time and in the manner he does will doubtless place certain limits, perhaps severe limits, on his effectiveness. But a hint of the things of which he is capable and of their relevance to present needs can be discovered in his record on the management of the Civil Rights Bill of 1957. He is now in a better position than President Kennedy ever was to tell his fellow Southerners what must be done. There is also evidence in the record that he is capable of dealing effectively with rebellion in the West and in the United States Senate as well.

What uses President Johnson will make of them, it would be rash at this juncture to say. What eventualities or future disclosures may handicap him or embarass him in the use of his capabilities it is impossible to foresee. One can only say that he has displayed them before, that they are formidable engines indeed, and that there is need for them now.

  • Email
  • Print