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Revisiting LBJ’s Legacy, 40 Years After His Death

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.