As we reach the first sitting president in my lifetime, we find a man of contradictions. Lyndon Johnson was a crude man, prone to fits of rage, and above all, a politician first. At the same time, he was a very compassionate man, fiercely devoted to his wife Lady Bird (herself a bit of a maverick and successful in her own right), and a visionary.
Johnson today is remembered as the liberal, yet it may surprise many that his views were actually closer to more moderate figures like his vice president, Hubert Humphrey or Republican Bob Dole. His Great Society, a blueprint for combating poverty was less a socialist experiment than a means of eliminating the biggest drag on American capitalism: The poor can’t spend money very well because they don’t have any.
LBJ came out of East Texas in the 1930’s, the son of a state legislator like himself. Like his idol, Franklin Roosevelt, Johnson was extremely ambitious. Yet his background taught him to value education. His mother made him learn public speaking as a child, and it would be this subject that would make him a standout as an educator during and just after his college years.
Conservatives like to criticize Johnson for the Great Society, and indeed, between that and the Vietnam War, Johnson’s reach may have exceeded his grasp. He did not have Nixon’s pragmatism to temper his goals. On the other hand, he also lacked Nixon’s self-destructive tendencies. Those close to him saw many of the character flaws that brought down Nixon, yet Johnson’s temper was genuine, usually short-lived, and balanced by a real affection for those who served him loyally. In short, Johnson was not paranoid and angry, just larger than life.
Vietnam bogged down his presidency. What many did not realize was that Johnson did not envision a war of conquest in South Vietnam. He saw what many have since learned. He wanted to setup a Tennessee Valley Authority-style program in the Mekong Delta to improve conditions for Vietnamese farmers, raising their standard of living, which in turn would stabilize the country. China and India later applied that principle to their own countries, revolutionizing their economies. But like Ike and JFK before him, he had no idea how to fight a war against a guerrilla army and an intractable Ho Chi Minh. The strain ultimately killed Johnson, his heart the real reason he did not seek, nor would he accept, his party’s nomination for another term as your president.
We’re used to persuasive presidents. Reagan would playfully chide his opposition, knowing he would never get everything he wanted. Bush, Sr., was a more a business executive than an autocrat, and Clinton thrived on bull sessions, intellectual sparring, and deal-making. George W. Bush spent most of his term with a Congress in line with his thinking and needed to do little persuading until his final two years, by which time, he adopted more of his father’s tone.
Perhaps it’s come full circle. Barack Obama shows some of the same Johnson tendencies when dealing with Congress, cajoling and pushing to get his agenda through, but with a little more charm and a lot less bluster. But like Johnson, Obama has united liberals and conservatives in infuriating them both. Somewhere, Lyndon is smiling. His civil rights efforts have yielded a president who does it his way, the LBJ way.
Just without the skinny dipping in the White House pool.