Until Hillary Clinton claimed his mantle in 2008, the historian Randall Woods writes in his new book, Prisoners of Hope, no Democratic presidential candidate wanted to be associated with President Lyndon Johnson. Woods is not entirely correct – Jimmy Carter’s speech at the 1980 Democratic National Convention bragged that theirs was the party of LBJ, “a great leader of compassion.” Still, the general point still stands: for decades, Johnson was too toxic for his party to embrace.
How times have changed. The discord caused by the Vietnam War has passed, or, rather, morphed into discord over other issues. And Johnson’s courage and savvy in passing civil rights legislation is now hailed as a triumph of presidential power. This would please LBJ, who, Woods reminds us, was obsessed with his place in history.
The author of fat biographies on Johnson and Senator J. William Fulbright, Woods provides the most comprehensive chronicle to date of Johnson’s Great Society, programs that included Expanded Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and hundreds of lesser-known laws. He points out that they were unusual in “they were enacted not during a period of great moral outrage by the middle-class malefactors of great wealth or at a time when Americans feared that the country would be overwhelmed by alien, immigrant cultures or in the midst of a crushing depression that threatened the very foundations of capitalism.” Generally, America’s political system is hostile to lawmaking, and sweeping laws that aim to improve the lot of the downtrodden have tended to pass during periods of great crises, including the Progressive Era, the Great Depression, and the Great Recession.
Woods shrewdly points out that what motivated the liberalism of the Johnson era was the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War. The former dramatized the plight of African-Americans to a previously unknown extent, and the latter provided a sense of urgency to the demonstration of the superiority of democratic capitalism.
Still, much of this would have been for naught had there not been a president with LBJ’s rock-hard will and unparalleled understanding of policymaking.
Indeed, John Kennedy, though an American icon unlike any other in the 20th century, had most of his legislation stalled in Congress when he was assassinated in 1963. Johnson was not shy about exploiting his predecessor’s legacy to pass laws. (He did much the same thing in passing the Fair Housing Act after Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in 1968.)
But LBJ’s acumen on the domestic environment was not equaled by a keen grasp of international affairs. He saw the struggle in Vietnam through a Cold War prism that ignored the power of nationalism. And, Woods points out in a terrific chapter, “once the exigencies of the Cold War seemed to demand intervention in Vietnam, his mind turned naturally to internationalizing the Great Society.” Just as it was morally correct to modernize and equalize the United States, Johnson felt, so too was it right to build Vietnam into a mini-United States, democratic and strong. But the former is still an ongoing, unfinished process; the latter was always impossible. And by insisting on escalating in Vietnam, Johnson fatally wounded his beloved Great Society.
"Prisoners of Hope," which is long on policy history but shorter on biography, has little to say about Johnson’s psychological problems, which ranked with Richard Nixon’s but were less visible. He was chronically insecure, tortured, as Nixon also was, by not being accepted by the "Eastern Elite." And while Woods argues that Johnson’s shocking decision not to run for reelection in 1968 was essentially a self-sacrifice made in the best interests of the country, he overlooks the president’s poor health, even poorer election prospects, and endless self-pity. He was a beaten man who didn’t want to actually get beaten.
For liberals, LBJ’s domestic record ranks him among the greatest presidents in American history. Even conservatives now hail his civil rights bills as essential (well, when they aren’t trying to weaken the Voting Rights Act). Not even Franklin Roosevelt, Johnson’s hero and the supreme president of the 20th century, did as much in so short a time. The Vietnam War was a tragedy with many acts, one of them being the way it destroyed Johnson’s career and reputation. But, Woods summarizes in the last line of the book, “the fires of the 1960s may have burned the liberals’ house to the ground, but when the smoke had cleared, its foundation – the Great Society – remained and remains intact.”
– Jordan Michael Smith is the author of the forthcoming Kindle Single, 'Humanity: Jimmy Carter and the Remaking of the Post-Presidency.'