I grew up, as a child of the 60’s, with John Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard Nixon in the White House. In truth, I was born with Ike, but I have no clear memories of him as President. Kennedy was part of the folklore of my youth and his assassination marked my youngest years indelibly. Nixon was the crook who, in recent years, has been seen increasingly as a bit of a sociopath and odd-man-out.
LBJ remains the most enigmatic of the three for me.
My memories of LBJ are colored, as it is for many of my age, with the failure of the Vietnam War. It was the war that forced Lyndon from office because he was challenged by those within his own party: Eugene McCarthy and later by RFK. Funny that. As I write this I am quick to remember that the Vietnam War was officially lost during the Nixon administration. Would the nation have judged LBJ differently had the war ended in a win rather than a loss?
LBJ was for me (until Reagan) the last of the great authoritarian presidents and the honors being bestowed on Johnson in recent days over the anniversary of civil rights legislation seem overdue to me. Does it to you?
I am a history buff and read many biographies. In the last two years, I have read three on LBJ. Until now, I did not ask myself why. Now I think I know.
Johnson was one of those interesting men of history like Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and Charles de Gaulle whose fortunes were heisted upon them by the circumstances of their time. It is impossible to separate the man from the issues that created them.
The Johnson brand was forged in the aftermath of November 22, 1963. We did not actually elect LBJ to the office of the Presidency but he deftly handled the transition. He seemed to understand the immense feelings at the time and used the moment to forge what he believed was to be a greater America. Love the Great Society or despise its shortcomings. Who can argue with its original aims and goals? You may find problems with civil rights legislation in practical application but who can argue with its original aims and goals?
LBJ was arguably the greatest legislator in US history. As master of the Senate, Lyndon knew how to manage it and work it. He twisted arms, intimidated peers, inspired lieutenants and got things done. As President he did more of the same. I remember him saying that “education was not a problem… it was an opportunity.”
Today, LBJ is being resurrected and in many ways rebranded. I think quite possibly it is overdue. Like many of the great legacy brands, we look back more fondly and with greater sentimentality as the years have worn on us.
Lyndon Johnson was a leader. Love what he stood for or hate it, there is no denying that he moved the goal line. Will Rogers said on FDR’s election “Well, if after he is elected, the White House caught fire and burnt to the ground we would say…At least he got something started.” LBJ “got a lot started” and, in many ways, we long for that action again.