LBJ’s Achievements Dimmed by His Nature
Thirty years ago, Lyndon Johnson surprised the nation by announcing a substantial reduction in the three-year bombing campaign against North Vietnam and, even more startling, a pledge not to run for another presidential term.
Johnson was a brilliant politician of uncommon intelligence and grand visions for improving the country’s domestic life. His effectiveness as a presidential legislator translated into great advances, some of which had been bottled up in Congress for more than 60 years: health insurance for the elderly and the poor; federal aid to elementary, secondary and higher education; repeal of the 1924 National Origins Act giving favored treatment to Western European immigrants; environmental protections promising cleaner air and water; urban renewal under a Department of Housing and Urban Development; more effective and integrated means of national movement under a Department of Transportation; National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities; and national public television and radio.
And most important, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of 1964 and 1965, respectively, ending Southern apartheid and fulfilling long-stymied constitutional promises of black freedom to vote.
Johnson’s assault on Southern segregation was part of a long-standing personal vision to integrate the South, his native region, into the mainstream of the country’s economic life. From early in his political career as a representative and a senator, Johnson had understood that Southern segregation not only separated the races in the region but also segregated the South from the rest of the nation. To restore the former Confederate states to the prosperity and centrality they once enjoyed, he committed himself to ending racial divisions in the South and throughout America.
Only the use of federal powers could accomplish what LBJ sought. A national government using New Deal programs and the massive defense spending beginning with World War II and continuing through the Cold War was Johnson’s vehicle for expanding the Southern economy and making it, as he hoped, one of the more prosperous regions of the country.
Johnson understood that the end of segregation also opened the way for Southerners once more to compete effectively for the presidency. Three presidents from Southern states--Georgia, Texas and Arkansas--since Johnson left the White House in 1969 and the prospect of candidates from Tennessee and Texas in 2000 underscores Johnson’s wisdom in seeing what would serve the South. He also anticipated that his statesmanship would cost the Democratic Party control of the area: He told Bill Moyers, his press secretary, that the civil rights laws would turn the solid Democratic South into a largely Republican enclave. The 1998 elections may well fulfill that prophecy.
Yet for all his good judgment and effectiveness as a political innovator, Johnson was a grandiose character with an affinity for deviousness that went far to destroy his reach for presidential greatness.
Johnson never did anything in a straight line. His decisions to expand U.S. military commitments in Vietnam in 1965 without building a stable public consensus for the war was a grave error. His determination to keep on with the fighting, despite strong signs of stalemate by 1966-67, made him vulnerable to the political attacks that mounted in number and intensity after the Tet offensive in 1968.
Convinced by his own rhetoric about the need to stay the course in Vietnam and by his self-serving determination not to be the first president in American history to lose a war, he shunned advice to declare victory and leave or invoke Vietnamization as a fig leaf for U.S. defeat, as Richard Nixon did in 1969-1973. A South Vietnamese national election in September 1967 that Johnson hailed as the advent of constitutional democracy in Saigon certainly gave him the opportunity to walk away from the conflict.
Johnson was a mass of contradictions. He despised wiretapping and sponsored legislation to ban it, except in compelling national security matters, yet he secretly recorded thousands of telephone and White House conversations and tapped his own vice president’s office phones. “He loves it,” Sen. Richard Russell noted in a 1964 memo recounting a conversation with LBJ about transcripts of taps J. Edgar Hoover sent him.
Johnson repeatedly declared his conviction that the country could afford guns and butter and privately undercut his own administration’s proposals to expand and add new Great Society programs. He avowed his commitment to separation of the government’s branches and put Abe Fortas on the Supreme Court partly to ensure inside information on court deliberations. He celebrated freedom of the press and secretly tried to suppress media criticism of the Vietnam War. He said he wouldn’t run again for president and secretly tried to arrange a draft for himself at the 1968 Chicago convention. He publicly declared his support of Hubert Humphrey in the subsequent campaign and privately helped Richard Nixon.
The list can be substantially extended and makes clear why critics at the time and since have complained of a “credibility gap.” Johnson was a great and a failed president, all in the course of a five-year, two-month term. His presidency is a testament to the proposition that politics is not only the art of the possible but also the need to be square with the public. “Trust,” former Secretary of State George Shultz said, “is the coin of the realm.”