A couple of Sundays ago, the New York Times had excerpts from Lady Bird Johnson's journals. It was nice to learn, in articles and obituaries, more about her-- how vital she was to her husband's career and life's work.
I've long been fascinated by Lyndon Johnson. In first grade, in 1967, at Lincoln Grade School in Chicago, I remember my first grade teacher, Mr. Griffith, asked the class if they knew who the President was-- I was the only one who could answer correctly-- Lyndon Johnson (I even knew his first name!) Obviously I got off to an early start with my interest in politics. I didn't know it then, but in 1967 a political firestorm was arising. There was a sea change going on in the world, and in American politics.
Johnson had, despite popular perception, been a stronger supporter, by far, of civil rights and social change than Mr. Kennedy had. As the former long-time Senate Majority (and sometimes Minority) leader, he'd become a skilled politician, able to get bills through the torturous process of passing into law. He learned well from mentor (and fellow Texan) Representative Sam Rayburn, who'd served as Speaker of the House for decades. As President, his persuasive skills worked well domestically-- not so well internationally, as it turned out.
This is one of my favorite sets of pictures of all time:
In these pictures, taken in 1957, when Johnson was the Senate Majority leader, he's giving the fabled "Johnson Treatment" to fellow Senator Theodore F. Green, who was head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Looking it up, there were many other pictures like it. Johnson, at six foot four inches, was a physically imposing figure, and a politically imposing one as well. He was skilled in the art of the deal.
Johnson's persuasive skills helped secure the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which gave teeth to the promise of voting rights to millions of disenfranchised African-Americans. Under his "Great Society" programs, billions were spent to fight poverty in urban and rural areas.
In 1964, Johnson faced his first Presidential election (he'd become President when John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and had not yet faced a Presidential election). He played up his opponent, arch-conservative Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater's, hawkish views by producing what is probably the most famous-- or infamous, as it turns out-- Presidential campaign ad ever, the "Daisy Ad."
The irony of this ad was that Johnson, like many liberals, was guarding his right flank-- throughout the Cold War, liberals were constantly under attack by the right for being "soft on communism." Johnson felt that he needed to escalate the war in Vietnam in order to protect himself politically from conservatives. Ironically, then, while running as a peace candidate in 1964, he was gearing up for an increased war in Vietnam (beginning with the Gulf of Tonkin Incident), a war he'd inherited from Eisenhower and Kennedy.
Reading the excerpts from Lady Bird Johnson's journal, you see the decline of the presidency and the decline of the man. By 1968, even I, who was only seven, could feel the vibe and the tension in air in the country. The January, 1968 Tet Offensive, while a huge military defeat for the Viet Cong, outraged the American public, who'd been told the war was almost over. On March 30-- the day before April Fool's Day-- LBJ told an astonished nation that he would not seek re-election:
"I shall not seek, and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your President."
It was a stunning moment in United States history. Johnson's domestic record, while great, was not enough for a society in the midst of massive changes-- the summer before, Newark, Detroit and other cities had exploded in race riots. Student protests against the war were gathering momentum. A split within Johnson's own party over race and economic issues, long hidden, was suddenly baring itself. And the war in Vietnam continued to escalate. LBJ, threw up his hands and walked away, something he'd never done before in his life.
Four days later, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and the nation was plunged into the turmoil it would remain in for the rest of the year, with the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and the riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago that summer.
I look at LBJ as one of the great and flawed men of American history. He was an engine of change in a crucial era of history. He was an incredibly cynical politician, yet his committment to civil rights and to ending poverty was geniune. He had incredible political instincts, yet he badly underestimated the ferocity of the battle domestically for social change and that of the war in Vietnam.
Vietnam is an ancient and proud nation, with a long history of kicking out foreign invaders-- they'd pushed China out after a thousand year occupation, the French after a 120 year occupation; the United States was just the newest and youngest invader in the line. LBJ thought he could just go to "Uncle Ho" and make a deal, like a Texas politician wrangling over grazing rights. The Vietnamese people were willing to die to the last person to kick out the foreign invader; their own ideology was irrelevent. He never understood this.
LBJ spent his last five years back on his ranch in Johnson City, Texas a broken, humbled man, dying of a heart attack on Janurary 22, 1973.
Forty years after the firestorm of 1967, another Texas native occupies the White House. He-- and the people around him-- seem to have completely failed to grasp the lessons to be gained at the cost of 58,000 American deaths in Vietnam: the dangers of trying to percieve of a people in your own image and a fight in terms and interests that make sense only to you. He and they wrecklessly plunged the nation into yet another war in Asia-- a war seemingly without an exit.
Unlike LBJ, George W. Bush is not a self-made man. His life has been not a string of incredible successes capped by one big failure like Johnson's was. It's been a string of unceasing failures, despite being set up by the rich friends of his father again and again. (See Molly Ivins' book "Shrub.") Bush will walk away from this failure and merrily skip into whatever the next sweet set-up (and presumably failure) his father has planned for him. He'll never have a moment of self-doubt, never a sense of the tragedy he has wrought upon Iraq and thousands of American families. Bush and his cabal will leave the clean-up of their mess in Iraq-- and in the United States-- to the next administration. I doubt that Bush will retire to his Texas ranch and spend the rest of his life ruminating on his mistakes like LBJ did. And this is a pity, because LBJ left successes and legacies that stand today, despite the best efforts of Bush and his minions to dismantle them.