Revisiting LBJ’s Legacy, 40 Years After His Death

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.