January 22 marks the 40th anniversary of the death of former President Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1970, Garry Wills wrote that Johnson “was ending his reign in confessed failure,” and 20 years later, in his review of Robert Caro’s scathing LBJ biography, Wills increased his denunciation:
Lyndon Johnson was clearly a monster of ambition, greed, and cruelty. What’s not to loathe?
Liberal Democrats led the intra-party opposition to his Vietnam policies that helped end his career (they have opposed most military actions since), while Republicans have been running against Johnson’s “Great Society” welfare programs for over 40 years now. When liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith said three decades after Johnson’s departure that LBJ should no longer be judged solely by Vietnam, Robert Novak labeled it his “Outrage of the Week.” The ultra-liberal historian Arthur Pearl dismissed LBJ’s record as “one term and then, sad obscurity.”
Fortunately for Mr. Johnson’s family and friends, there’s a lot more to the story than that. For those too young to remember, LBJ was put on the Democratic ticket in 1960 as a Southern, Protestant conservative to balance out Yankee liberal John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism. As the vice-presidential nominee, Johnson helped the Democrats win a majority in the South, and the election.
He ascended to the presidency when JFK was assassinated in November of 1963. After winning a record 61.1% of the popular vote in 1964, Johnson was forced to stand down by intra-party challenges from Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy in 1968. His second term was bedeviled by urban riots and the relentless escalation of the Vietnam War. When he announced his retirement in March of 1968, his approval rating had collapsed to just 35%. Less than a week after Johnson retired, Martin Luther King was assassinated and over 100 cities went up in flames. A few days later, the nation’s capital was under military occupation for the first time since the Civil War.
Visiting British journalist Godfrey Hodgson wrote:
For those who had dreamed the dreams of the New Frontier, and shared the hopes of a Great Society, this was perhaps the darkest moment of the entire decade.
LBJ left office an unpopular president, and it seemed for many years that his reputation would never recover. But Johnson was once riding high. Unless one lived through it, it would be hard to remember and overestimate the optimism and confidence of the nation as LBJ began his second term in 1965.
The economy was humming on all cylinders: the inflation rate was just 1.6% and the unemployment rate was only 4%, numbers most Americans would love to see today. Johnson’s slogan was “60 months of prosperity” and his Great Society programs were about to disburse billions of dollars to America’s poor. Since he had also just cut taxes for business and the middle class, the Johnson administration truly had something to offer everybody.
In a year-opening editorial titled “1965 — The Prime Task,” the editors of The Nation wrote that President Lyndon Johnson must have been Time’s “Man of the Year” by acclamation:
No one else was in the running. If the President continues at the pace he has set, he may emerge, at least from a material standpoint, as the most successful leader of a great country in this century.
The cup runneth over. One can almost go along with President Johnson’s words as he lit the White House Christmas tree: “these are the most hopeful times since Christ was born in Bethlehem.”
Less than three years later, it was all in ruins — literally. Unfortunately, 1964 was the high point of LBJ’s tenure. But what a high point it was.
When LBJ suddenly became president, some liberals worried that he would be a Southern reactionary. However, he quickly passed the civil rights bill that Kennedy had been negotiating in the Senate. Johnson’s record-breaking landslide over Barry Goldwater in 1964 brought in the most Democratic Congress since the 1930s, and they responded with the largest spate of liberal legislation since the New Deal. A partial list: the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Open Housing Act of 1968, Medicare, Medicaid, federal aid to education, the 1965 Immigration Reform Act, the most national parks created since Theodore Roosevelt, and vast amounts of federal funds for highways, housing projects, and assorted anti-poverty programs. The amount of social spending tripled from 1964 to 1969. Year after year, both the gross domestic product and the number of jobs set new records. It’s safe to say that LBJ did more for black folks than any president since Lincoln. While President Obama constantly cites FDR and JFK as his inspirations, the fact is he could not have gotten elected nationally without the Voting Rights Act and Immigration Reform Act (which helped quadruple the number of Hispanic voters) passed by LBJ. Give the man his due: the Johnson administration created the multi-ethnic, integrated America of today.
But after winning a record 61.1% of the popular vote, Johnson was dumped by his own party and couldn’t even attend the 1968 Democratic Convention for fear of sparking a riot.
The conventional wisdom about why the Democrats fell apart in the late 1960s can be boiled down to two issues: “Vietnam and the cities.” For once, the conventional wisdom is largely correct: the war destroyed Johnson’s reputation in foreign policy and cost him crucial votes among the middle class all over America, while the wave of crime, disorder, and rioting that began in 1965 drove a wedge between blacks and white working-class voters in the Northern and Western cities. Four years after Johnson buried Goldwater, the national Democratic Party had lost fully one-third of its white voters. Johnson fully knew what was occurring: when he signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, he told aides that he was handing the Republicans the South for the next 50 years. (Not a bad guess: only once in the last 50 years has a Democratic nominee won the majority of Southern states — Jimmy Carter in the fluke year of 1976 after Watergate).
As Southern historian C. Vann Woodward observed, the people Johnson did the most for, blacks and the young, seemed to give him the most grief. Younger voters, particularly on college campuses, keyed the anti-Vietnam War movement that so damaged his popularity, and a younger, more militant generation of inner-city blacks showed their gratitude for the Great Society by burning down the Watts section of Los Angeles — which directly led to the political rise of a forgotten movie actor named Ronald Reagan.
Richard Scammon and particularly Ben Wattenberg argued in The Real Majority that Lyndon Johnson’s personality and style coupled with a hostile media caused his downfall. In fact, President Johnson in his memoirs blamed the media, saying that the “Eastern press” would never treat a Texas president with respect. But virtually every major East Coast newspaper endorsed him for re-election in 1964.
The view here is that substance, not any stylistic defects, wrecked the Johnson presidency: by numerous measurements, the country was in worse shape than 1964. While the unemployment rate dropped below 4%, the inflation rate (a middle-class suburban issue) tripled from 1.3% to 4.2%, thus eroding the wages of working people and the elderly on fixed incomes. The stock market peaked in 1966 and stalled for many years. Taxes eventually went up to pay for the war. And that doesn’t even count the casualties from Vietnam and all the divisions the war created, all of which helped cause LBJ’s ship to sink.
Political journalist Sam Lubell pointed out the irony that Johnson’s Vietnam policy eventually caused a challenge from liberals by Gene McCarthy to the president with the most progressive civil rights policy ever. When President Johnson finally announced his retirement on March 31, 1968, this very proud (and very accomplished) man’s job rating had fallen to the lowest level since Harry Truman, when he was forced to stand down in 1952.
Historians have generally been kind to the Johnson presidency: the first recorded survey of professors since LBJ left office in 1969 came in 1982, when he was ranked 10th best. For the rest of the 20th century, surveys of historians generally ranked him in the top third of presidents, mainly due to his domestic achievements. In the 21st century, even with surveys that included more conservative scholars, he still averages in the top third. Many intellectuals are liberal on social issues and anyone who did that much for minorities is going to look good in their eyes.
Whatever the intellectuals think, ordinary voters are more ambivalent about the Johnson legacy. Three times since 2001, the Gallup Poll asked Americans whether they approved of how LBJ conducted his presidency. On average, 20% did not express an opinion. But his approval ratings have consistently crept upward: from 39% in 2002 to 41% in 2006 and 49% in 2010. Since Johnson always had close relationships with the black and Hispanic communities, as their share of the national population has grown, his popularity has not surprisingly begun a comeback.
“If you seek his monument, look around,” was the epitaph for the great architect of London, Sir Christopher Wren. After the last “Baby Boom” anti-war protester dies off in the 21st century and the events of the Vietnam War are as forgotten as those of the War of 1812 or the Mexican War, the monuments of Lyndon Baines Johnson — the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the national parks created, Medicare, and the Immigration Reform Act — will loom larger than ever.