In 1964 and 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson overhauled civil rights, voting rights, immigration, education funding, and health care for the elderly. Indeed, as Charles Peters points out in Lyndon B. Johnson, his slim but detailed new biography of the 36th president, Johnson cajoled, prodded, pleaded, and bullied his way into the most sweeping run of liberal legislation since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It’s ironic, then, that Johnson’s longtime rival, Robert Kennedy, considered LBJ to be a conservative.
The great dilemma of Johnson’s 1-1/2 terms in office is his dreadful foreign policy, a counterbalance heavy enough to supersede his domestic accomplishments, at least in the earliest assessments of LBJ’s presidency. More than four decades after he left the White House, Johnson’s Vietnam quagmire remains a major focal point for any reasonable analysis of his tenure.
But, as Peters writes, LBJ has come to be regarded as a better-than-average president in the longer historical perspective. He doesn’t share the rarefied status of FDR, Lincoln, and Washington, to be sure, but he seems to be a good fit in the next tier alongside Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson. Peters sees plenty of similarity between Jackson and Johnson: each man could be considered crude, each came from humble origins, and both had their greatest accomplishments eclipsed at the time they were in office by grave, haunting decisions (Vietnam for Johnson and the Trail of Tears for Jackson).
It’s worth remembering the John Kenneth Galbraith comment (as Peters does) on assessing LBJ’s greatness without the onus of Vietnam: “That’s like saying Switzerland would be a flat country without the Alps.”
The Johnson biography is the latest in the well-received American Presidents Series, first edited by the late Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., and now presided over by Sean Wilentz. These compact volumes run a couple of hundred pages and lend insight to the careers of those who may have neglected, in LBJ’s case for example, the mammoth, multivolume biographies written by Robert Caro and Robert Dallek in recent decades.
Peters, the founder of Washington Monthly and a former worker on John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, offers a fair portrait blending insider and historical perspectives.
Johnson’s boyhood, in retrospect, was the perfect training ground for a future liberal legislator who believed in using government to lift up the poor and disenfranchised. Those motives, of course, never precluded personal gain and the accumulation of more and more political power.
Sam Johnson was a rural farmer and former legislator whose Austin connections allowed young Lyndon to run around the halls of the state capitol, collecting gossip and political acumen. LBJ’s mother graduated from Baylor University and was known to be stern, domineering, and snobby. From his father, Lyndon inherited alcoholism and a loathing of racial prejudice; from his mother, among other things, he learned to freeze out anyone who disappointed him in the least.
Johnson worked for the college president and never failed to dish out extensive, and excessive, praise. Soon enough, he had become an indispensable aide.
After a brief stint teaching in Houston following graduation, a friend of Johnson’s father won a congressional seat and tapped LBJ as his staff director. It was 1931. Other than a two-year hiatus, Johnson would keep his feet planted in Washington for the next 37 years.
By 1937, Johnson would be a first-time congressman from Texas. Here again, flattery served him well, leading to fruitful endorsements and political favors from FDR and renowned legislator Sam Rayburn. Later, he would prove just as charming and obsequious (and indispensable) to Georgia Sen. Richard Russell, another legislative power broker.
Johnson had married the woman who came to be known as Lady Bird in 1934, but his eye never stopped wandering. Throughout his life, LBJ’s extramarital affairs were anything but discrete. Lady Bird endured his behavior, with only occasional reprimands.
His political patronage could be equally questionable. To cite only the most blatant example, Johnson built his political career in large part on the support (financial and otherwise) of Texas-based Brown Root, predecessor to Dick Cheney’s Halliburton. Then, as now, the company ranked among the largest federal contractors.
Johnson leaned on Brown Root more and more as his career progressed. That explains why the construction company became, as Peters writes, “a major beneficiary of Johnson programs until the end of his political career, including Vietnam, where the firm was the leading contractor in constructing US bases.” Try and imagine, if possible, a Texas president ramping up an ill-advised war where the only clear winner is a home state contractor.
Peters offers a nuanced portrait of Johnson’s shocking ascension to the presidency in the wake of JFK’s assassination – and explains how both LBJ aides and Kennedy aides became more spiteful and suspicious of one another.
He also provides powerful, necessary correctives to the thumbnail sketches of liberal politics. Much as the Kennedys and Johnsons achieved in civil rights, they initially lagged behind the movement.
Johnson dragged his feet on major legislation during his Senate days and, in 1963, President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson both skipped Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Washington mall.
“Indeed,” Peters writes of ruling Washington, “they had advised against holding the event, a position shared by most of white Washington, which embarrassed itself by staying home that day.”
To be sure, Johnson made up for that misstep, ramming through groundbreaking legislation that simultaneously gave African-Americans expanded rights and freedoms, freed the South to begin recognizing the economic potential seen today across the Sun Belt, and transferred political power to Republicans in most Southern states for the next 40 years.
Most painful of all, Peters delineates the insecurities and political calculations that led LBJ to deceive the nation even as he tragically escalated America’s role in Vietnam. These include the infamous Tonkin Gulf Resolution that expanded presidential powers to attack in Vietnam based on a false premise of provocation (1964’s version of WMD, one might say) and the Tet Offensive, a battle the US won technically but lost in every other manner.
Peters should be credited with drawing on LBJ aides such as Bill Moyers, who, after leaving the administration, went on to ponder aloud Johnson’s sanity even as he still sat in the White House. At the same time, for those of us too young to recall Johnson in office and who have a vague sense of these events, Peters does a fine job of putting them in context without getting bogged down.
He completes the portrait with consideration of Johnson’s crudity. This is a man, after all, known to defecate in front of staffers as a means of displaying how much power he wielded. Johnson often used his aide Jack Valenti’s lap as a footrest and Lady Bird’s humiliations over his open affairs were widely known.
And yet Johnson’s enigmatic loneliness in the White House stirs empathy nonetheless. Vietnam crushed Johnson and his presidency, leaving him to forgo a run for a second full term in 1968. Relieved of those anxieties and by signs of eased tensions in Vietnam, LBJ briefly thought his popularity could be rescued.
Instead, four days later, Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis. Riots broke out, the long, hot summer began with Robert Kennedy’s assassination in June, and America was left battered by devastation and destruction. LBJ was caught up the emotional swirl.
In 1973, at the age 64, he died of a heart attack.
Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.