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The Return of LBJ

Acknowledging that Lyndon had a powerful claim on his party for the 1960 nomination (“He’s earned it”), John Kennedy thought “it’s too close to Appomattox” for him to win, “So, therefore I feel free to run.” Adlai Stevenson felt the same about Johnson’s chances. Knowing and partly sharing this view, the Texan still could not bring himself to renounce and halt promotion of the nomination even while denying he wanted it. As for Kennedy’s rise, “It was the goddamndest thing,” he later said, and “his growing hold on the American people was simply a mystery to me.” He nevertheless aided the “whippersnapper” up to a point, while continuing an aggressive, if unconfessed, race himself. But as JFK put it, “Johnson had to prove that a Southerner could win in the North, just as I had to prove a Catholic could win in heavily Protestant states.”

As it turned out, of course, LBJ remained a “regional candidate” for the time being, while JFK became a “national candidate.” In the opinion of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Johnson had good reason to want the second place on the ticket. He had exhausted the possibilities of majority leader and tired himself out in the process. Besides, he had a “deep sense of responsibility about the future of the South in the American political system,” and if a southerner were still denied a place on the ticket in 1960 the South would be driven back further into defense of the past “and into self-pity, bitterness, and futility.”2 What seemed to help the Kennedy-Johnson ticket most was the public (and widely televised) abuse Lyndon and Lady Bird received from right-wingers in Dallas four days before the election.

Robert Dallek takes his subject through the election of 1960 in Lone Star Rising, the first of two large volumes that promise to be by far the best and fairest biography we are likely to have for a long time. He does not neglect Johnson’s gross and unsavory aspects, but neither does he dismiss the potential for greatness. Without attempting to categorize him by region, class, generation, or party, Dallek leaves him sui generis.

Joseph A. Califano, Jr., has written an entirely different, though quite as interesting, kind of book. His Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson is a memoir of the author’s three and a half years, beginning in July 1965, on the White House staff as assistant, “day and night…every waking minute of his presidency.” His day could begin at the side of the big four-poster containing the first lady as well as her mate, continue with the latter stripped bare through shave, shower, and on the john, then proceed all day into the night, sleep interrupted by phone at any hour. An insider’s view of the inside, the memoir spares no aspect of its complex subject: “Altruistic and petty, caring and crude, generous and petulant, bluntly honest and calculatingly devious.” Anecdotal, informal, and sometimes carelessly written (“the Achilles heel in the President’s jawboning program”), Califano’s book is always readable, forthcoming, and shrewd—although one must remember that Califano himself was deeply involved in many of the events he describes.

The new assistant came on just at the time that LBJ was making the critical decision to step up the war in Vietnam. That war and the War on Poverty are the antipodal themes of Califano’s book, thesis and antithesis with no synthesis in sight, back and forth from beginning to end. In his decision to pursue the Vietnam War Johnson is seen as doing what he thought John Kennedy would have done and what Kennedy’s top advisers were now pressing him to do. Califano soon realized his new boss was making another big decision at the same time: “Unlike Roosevelt and Truman, Johnson was not going to let his war destroy his progressive vision.” He would fight the War on Poverty simultaneously with the one in Vietnam.

From Johnson’s point of view the two decisions could not have come at a worse time, in the middle of what he described as “the most productive and the most historic legislative week in Washington during the century.” Here he was, having got through Congress many of the programs promised by the New Deal, the Fair Deal, and the New Frontier, and now on the eve of fulfilling his own dream of the Great Society—all threatened by events ten thousand miles away. Among his accomplishments threatened were the changed role of the Federal government in American life and a virtual social revolution that brought about Medicare and Medicaid, a real Civil Rights Act to replace the poor one, a Voting Rights Act, the Affirmative Action plan, an extensive housing bill, consumer protection laws, air, water, and noise pollution laws, funding for preschool, primary and secondary school, and higher education, National Endowments for the Humanities and the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Freedom of Information Act, the Office of Equal Opportunity—these among many.

Vietnam was not the only threat. All along Johnson received much more abusive mail for his racial policies than for his Vietnam policies. “I think we delivered the South to the Republican party,” he remarked on his huge 1964 victory, after losing five southern states, four of which Democrats had not lost for eighty-four years. Nothing daunted, he went right ahead through the violence of 1965 in Selma and Birmingham to unveil his Voting Rights Bill in the famous “American Promise” message to Congress ending in the words, “And we shall overcome.” After a second of frozen silence one southern senator exclaimed, “Goddam!” and then almost all rose in a thunderous ovation. The following August the President signed the Voting Rights Act. “I would rarely see him happier,” says Califano.

Then five days after this monumental achievement, after suits were filed to void poll taxes and other voter limitations in southern states, at the very peak of Johnsonian euphoria, came the news of Watts. Four days of rioting, looting, and burning by thousands of blacks took more than twenty lives and injured some six hundred. Police Chief William Parker of Los Angeles blamed it on a president “telling people they are unfairly treated” and teaching them “disrespect for the law.” Watts marked the beginning of four “long hot summers” of racial riots, 150 major ones mainly in northern cities, that were to get much worse. Black nationalists preaching violence replaced leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and his doctrine of nonviolence.

Fully aware that time was running out, Johnson brushed aside all outcry against civil rights and blacks and raced ahead with his War on Poverty and Great Society program like a man pursued by a time bomb. On January 12, 1966, he startled a joint session of Congress with a new set of legislative proposals, demanding that “the representatives of the richest Nation on earth…bring the most urgent decencies to all of your fellow Americans.” In October he was able to celebrate the passing of a grand total of 181 out of the 200 measures he had proposed, most of them addressed to the health, housing, education, safety, employment, environment, and welfare of the poor. “There never has been an era in American history,” he boasted, “when so much has been done for so many in such a short time.” Explaining his method, LBJ told Califano, “You got to learn to mount this Congress like you mount a woman.”

After that it was downhill nearly all the way at a sickening pace. In the November 1966 elections the President’s party lost forty-seven seats in the House, three in the Senate, and eight statehouses. The President was suffering a loss of credibility, and Vietnam was the main cause. Part of the trouble was his unduly optimistic reports on the war’s progress and his way of becoming the most gullible victim of his own propaganda. Other causes of incredulity were his unrealistically low budgets and his insistence on guns and butter—the “butter” an enlarged agenda of Great Society reforms. “The President is simply not believed,” declared one of his staff in a closed session. The press were filled with leaks from current and former officials who said that his claims of progress in Vietnam were not credible.

Wave upon wave of protest broke over the White House—protests against the war, the draft, the bombing, the casualties. Universities supplied critical ideas, students most of the protesters, despite the favoritism they enjoyed in draft exemption. Draft-card burning became a popular ritual. Across the front lawn of the White House came chants of “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids have you killed today?” The slogan of young black mobs was “Burn, baby, burn!” as they set fire to their own neighborhoods in two dozen cities during the two years after Watts. When the 15,000 federal troops sent in by Johnson finally restored order in Detroit, forty-three people were dead, more than a thousand injured, and fourteen square miles had been gutted by fire.

Meanwhile the war worsened in Vietnam as casualties mounted, nearly a half million troops were committed, and none of the long-promised victories or peace negotiations materialized. Instead came the full-scale Tet assault of North Vietnam against South Vietnam’s cities in February 1968. Antiwar demonstrations and disruptions made it dangerous or impossible for the President to appear in public. Califano felt “a sense of siege in the White House” and in a memo to Johnson reported that the failing war abroad and burning cities at home made the public feel that our society was “coming apart at the seams.” Secretary McNamara, soon to resign, and other top advisers who once counseled Johnson to send more troops to Southeast Asia were now “beyond pessimism,” and in private “sounded a chorus of despair” and saw no way of winning the war. Through it all LBJ “could not hurl programs at Congress and the public fast enough”: health, housing, education, model cities, mass transit, child care, scenic rivers—on and on.

Events closed in. Congress balked at the domestic reforms, the public at the war, and Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy entered the race for president in March 1968. At the point of exhaustion, Johnson made his surprise announcement: “I shall not seek—and will not accept….” Only then came the praise and applause long withheld by the press, return of support for his bills in Congress, and cheers instead of boos from crowds at Chicago next day, and then in New York. For a month or so he seemed something of a hero. His popularity soared.

But then began the awful succession of disasters that blighted his remaining months in office. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and flames flared over a hundred cities across the country, the worst over the capital. Johnson ordered in troops and marines to patrol the streets. Two months later Robert Kennedy fell before an assassin. Lyndon Johnson had watched bitterly as blacks and the poor had begun to adulate Kennedy. But in Kennedy’s death he saw an opportunity to press Congress for gun-control laws, as after King’s death he had pressed for fair housing. Both measures were defeated. Meanwhile, as his top officials resigned, he suspended the bombing in a futile attempt to bring peace in Vietnam before he left office. Through all this he never ceased frantic efforts to expand his vast program of social legislation and actually got Congress to enact much more of it in his final days, including laws against noise pollution by aircraft and laws to establish three new national parks and several new wilderness areas. His State of the Union address contained a proud summary of his achievements before an emotional Congress.

Califano emphasizes the pathos of Johnson’s years in the White House and the paradox of a president who had unprecedented success in passing social legislation and unprecedented failure in a misconceived military intervention abroad. What more can be said about his administration? Perhaps a good deal more, once serious efforts are made to understand the mysteries of political history since the time of LBJ. For example, the complete reversal of party fortunes and the succession of Republican triumphs, the Democrats’ losses among their traditional constituencies of working-class and middle-class voters, the conflict between minority rights and majority values, the popular association of social programs with waste and of wasteful, if victorious, little wars with “leadership.”

Accompanying these developments have been a growing indifference to corruption in the Federal executive department, presidential subversion of constitutional restraints, the growth of poverty, decline of real wages, and flagrant favors to the rich. Conspicuous also are an increasing tolerance of decline in health care, housing, and education to third world standards, chaos in the Federal budget and debt, and a display of cynicism in the White House that exceeds all previous records. Closer scrutiny of the LBJ years is a good way to begin the study of these mysteries.

  1. 2

    Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (Houghton Mifflin, 1965), pp. 46–48, 58.

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