Lyndon Agonistes

As Democrats flock to Boston to nominate John Kerry for president, few surprises will await them at the Fleet Center. Today's political conventions stay relentlessly “on message,” and they serve as mere heralds of the home stretch of a seemingly endless presidential campaign.

A key part of that unwavering message is a recounting of party values and triumphs. And just as the late Ronald Reagan will provide a thematic touchstone for Republicans convening in New York City, Democrats will recite a legacy that extends from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Harry Truman to John F. Kennedy to Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton.

One true surprise in Boston would be to hear the name of Lyndon Baines Johnson invoked as a link in that chain. At nearly every convention since LBJ left office in 1969, Democratic presidential aspirants have kept America's 36th president out of their quadrennial message to America. George McGovern ignored Johnson completely in his 1972 acceptance speech. In 1976, Carter gave LBJ one effusive sentence, then lumped him together with Hubert Humphrey in a sentence four years later. Walter Mondale ignored Johnson in 1984. Michael Dukakis yoked LBJ to JFK in a single sentence evoking a “spirit of energy and of confidence and of idealism” in 1988. From there, the downward spiral of LBJ's reputation among Democrats has only accelerated. Clinton omitted Johnson from both of his acceptance speeches. Al Gore mentioned a Johnson three times in his 2000 address in Los Angeles -- a St. Louis woman named Jacqueline Johnson. Lyndon Baines was again left on the sidelines.

From the vantage point of history, this pattern of studied omission is puzzling. Johnson was the Democratic Party's most accomplished leader of the last 50 years, including Clinton's largely successful presidency. This is a bold claim, but its merits extend far past LBJ's 1964 landslide (his total that year remains the largest percentage of the popular vote ever received by a Democrat in any presidential election). For starters, Johnson's influence extends deep into not one but two branches of government; in fact, his mastery of the legislative branch paved the way for his success as president in passing an avalanche of legislation to improve the nation and advance individual rights and liberty. Known collectively as the Great Society, LBJ's initiatives protected and broadened citizens' rights to housing, employment, health care, product safety, a cleaner environment, and the ballot box.

Beyond the Great Society, Johnson also helped transform a moribund U.S. Senate. By 1954, he was already that chamber's minority leader. When he stepped into the majority leader's chair with a narrow majority in 1955, he revived the Senate power and prestige with a combination of brute force and charm. By 1957, Johnson had managed to push the Senate on its tentative first steps to reversing its polarity as a negative force on civil rights to a positive one, forcing the first voting-rights legislation through that chamber since Reconstruction.

Johnson passed that legislation in part by bucking his own Senate history as a civil-rights obstructionist. Reversing polarity was also a key to LBJ's trickiest moment as president: his first days in office. Johnson succeeded in holding the nation together after the devastating shock of Kennedy's assassination in part by sublimating his own ambitions. He kept most of JFK's staff in place and adopted much of his predecessor's program as his own in that moment. “Let us continue,” he told the nation in a speech to Congress five days after the assassination.

Of course, Johnson did more than continue JFK's legacy on the domestic front. He broadened it and deepened it -- and got it through Congress. In many ways, the vision behind LBJ's legislative commotion remains a persuasive summary of progressive values. “At the heart of it,” wrote Johnson in his 1971 memoirs, The Vantage Point, “I thought of the Great Society as an extension of the Bill of Rights. When our fundamental rights were set forth by the Founding Fathers, they reflected the concerns of a people who sought freedom in their time. But in our time, a broadened concept of freedom requires that every American have the right to a healthy body, a full education, a decent home and the opportunity to develop to the best of his talents.”

Now, with Clinton's memoirs flooding bookstores and the solemn pomp and sunset pageantry of the Reagan funeral lingering in the sticky summer air, Americans once again find themselves assessing presidential legacies. For Clinton and Reagan, such judgments hew strictly to predictable partisan lines. But the legacy of Lyndon Baines Johnson offers Americans an enigmatic puzzle -- a legacy snakebit from both sides of the partisan divide.

On the right, contempt for Johnson is easy to understand. Conservatives loathe Johnson precisely because of his impressive domestic legacy, and they have dedicated nearly three decades to rolling back LBJ's avalanche. But on the left, where Johnson's domestic vision and concrete achievements should find allies, there exists wariness bordering on contempt. Much of this feeling is generational; it is bound up tightly with the national nightmare of the Vietnam War. For certain, LBJ knew that Vietnam was an unmovable object in his path to presidential greatness. Johnson's decision to reject counsel from numerous colleagues (including his former mentor, Georgia Senator Richard Russell) and expand the war despite his own doubts about victory swallowed up the cash he needed for his Great Society. It established the much-ballyhooed “credibility gap” in the public imagination. Most importantly, Johnson's tragic error -- and his persistence in it -- sent thousands of young Americans to their deaths.

Yet the war is not the only wellspring of progressive discontent with LBJ. Many of the most vicious attacks on Johnson and his legacy from the left are rooted in a particular -- and particularly incendiary -- charge: that he helped to plot Kennedy's death (to wit: Oliver Stone's JFK). The most recent eruption of this slur surfaced in February, when The History Channel aired a documentary (later withdrawn from future broadcast on the channel) called The Guilty Men, which accused LBJ of directing the murder of JFK and others. But such nonsense -- debunked quickly by a team of scholars assigned by the network to investigate complaints from Johnson's widow, Lady Bird, and former Presidents Carter and Gerald Ford -- is simply the most outlandish symptom of more general popular contempt for Johnson.

At times, this contempt is cartoonish in its venom. In a recent essay in the journal Representations, Greil Marcus likened Johnson to the title character in Alfred Jarry's brutal fin-de-siècle play Ubu Roi: “(T)he huge clumsy monster personifying authority without intelligence, power without motive, respectability without honor ... .” And with what company does Marcus place Johnson in making this comparison? Idi Amin, Slobodan Milosevic, Rasputin, and Fatty Arbuckle, among others. At times, this assault on LBJ is more serious, a depiction of Johnson as a crude, venal, and boorish murderer with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. It is the left, not the right, that saw Johnson as “late to the party” on race and directed at him the most menacingly catchy anti-war slogan in American history: “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today!”

This liberal portrait of Johnson is not that of a human being. It is a perverse caricature. When progressives persist in privileging LBJ's errors over his accomplishments 30 years after Vietnam, they cut out a link of a vital legacy that connects Kerry and Clinton to Roosevelt and Truman. Why they do so, however, requires a deeper look into the progressive mind-set.

The issue, simply, is this: Progressives, by disposition, hold assumptions about history and politics that prevent them from assessing Johnson's legacy in civil rights and social welfare in a positive light.

Along with their profound policy differences, progressives and conservatives also diverge in their respective views of history. The fact that conservatives celebrate Ronald Reagan in spite of his flaws is not merely blind partisanship; it is part and parcel of the conservative idea of history. That conception sees mankind and its institutions as inherently flawed, prone to backsliding and outright barbarity without strong leadership. That conservatives have not shunned Richard Nixon as liberals have shunned LBJ is yet another sign of how deeply conservatives encourage a vision of their champions as a whole -- Watergate as part of an entire record, and not the sum of the man. Conservatives see singular moments of exceptional genius, such as the founding of the United States, or clear tactical triumphs, such as the ending of the Cold War, as more than mere events on a time line. Such moments, and those who led Americans to them, are nurtured to an almost mythic stature and reinforced against attack. It is a notion rooted in the very word “conservative” -- the notion of conservation, preservation, and remembrance.

Thus, how an eminent conservative historian such as Forrest McDonald depicts the men who drafted the U.S. Constitution provides an unalloyed glimpse into this worldview. In an essay published as the appendix to his new memoir, Recovering the Past, McDonald and his wife, Ellen S. McDonald, argue that any major rewriting or emendation of the Constitution is “as presumptuous as it is uninformed.” The McDonalds approvingly cite Thomas Jefferson's view that the Framers were “demigods” and contend that “the formation of the republic was a product of America's Golden Age, the likes of which we shall not see again.”

Such a view strikes progressives as utterly inimical. Why include a process to amend the document if it is writ in stone? What work of humankind cannot somehow be improved? This skeptical antipode to McDonald is rooted in the work of his great nemesis and goad, Charles A. Beard, whose 1913 classic, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, sought to strip away the bunting that adorned America's founding document and closely re-examine the men who wrote it. Beard argued that the preservation of the Founders' economic interests -- and mercenary ones at that -- lay as much at the heart of the document as grand notions of statehood and liberty.

Though McDonald's 1958 book, We the People, effectively refuted many of Beard's particular arguments about the Constitution and its Framers, Beard's book profoundly changed history -- and the study of history -- in the United States. (McDonald, in his introduction to a 1986 edition of An Economic Interpretation, argues that “Beard's work made those of his critics and defenders necessary and useful.”) Beard's historical approach has resonated strongly among liberals. In Beard's ambitious and self-assured gambit, progressives encounter a view of history that aligns with their political aspirations -- history as an arc rising upward and away from imperfect beginnings and oppression to ever greater heights of liberty and enfranchisement.

To see history this way encourages devaluation, be it great or small, of the inadequate and imperfect past in favor of a greater future. Progressives' firm faith in the perfectibility of the American project can lead not only to a questioning of America's past -- à la Beard -- but a tendency to dwell upon its flaws and blunders. It is an impoverishment of the past as a necessary precondition of expressing faith in an ever more perfect American union. The Jefferson of our own age, for liberals, is as much the hypocritical, slave-owning member of the gentry as he is the author of the Declaration of Independence -- and to some minds, perhaps more so.

Ultimately, this historical viewpoint ripened to a fullness found in works such as Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, which removes political forces from their central place in history in favor of a deliriously egalitarian view. “[M]ost histories,” writes Zinn, “understate revolt, overemphasize statesmanship, and thus encourage impotency among citizens.”

Questioning history, filling in its blanks, debating its myths, and bringing to light its missing chapters are to be valued. But such a view of history prevents a proper appreciation of LBJ's legacy. After all, Johnson's accomplishments are not merely imperfect, incomplete, or insufficient in this view; they bear the foul taint of politics. If one accepts the Zinn view of history as a battlefield on which progress is made despite politicians, LBJ was a barrier to progress, and thus not a progressive.

That Johnson's rise to power features manifold episodes of ugliness and scandal digs the hole for his legacy among progressives that much deeper. As the first two volumes of Robert Caro's monumental (and as yet unfinished) biography of Johnson, The Path to Power and Means of Ascent, attest, LBJ's ascension to power was coarse from its first stirrings. He used every tool available to him: parliamentary maneuvering, blatant strong-arming, deception, and even fraud. Laid bare by historians, his tactics strike all but the most cynical among us as distasteful and dishonest. They have damaged our view of his character and tainted his ends with the meanness of his means. In his introduction to The Path to Power, Caro wrote of Johnson's “hunger for power in its most naked form, for power not to improve the lives of others, but to manipulate and dominate them, to bend them to his will.” Historian Robert Dallek took aim at this spin on LBJ's legacy in the introduction to the first book of his two-volume biography, 1991's Lone Star Rising. Dallek argues that “when ... unsavory revelations are related with little emphasis on Johnson's contribution to the transformation of America between 1937 and 1969, the years of LBJ's congressional and executive service, it leaves us with an unflattering portrait of a self-serving man who made little difference in recent American history.”

Often, great historians such as Caro and Dallek arrive at a more nuanced picture as they move forward in their life studies. Caro's third volume on LBJ, 2002's Master of the Senate, is more generous to Johnson as a man. It is also a book that seems perpetually astonished by LBJ's political genius, stamina, and sheer audacity. (One wonders if Caro himself succumbed to the legendary “Johnson treatment” that he first sketched out in The Path to Power, with its “blend of threats and pleading, of curses and cajolery.”) Nuance can move in the other direction as well. Dallek's second volume, Flawed Giant, ends perched on its title's exquisite straddle, resigned at last to evoke LBJ's “great achievement and terrible failure ... lasting gains and unforgettable losses.” Dallek spends a portion of the afterword mulling over LBJ's “psychological incapacity” near the end of his term before concluding that “he remained largely in control of his faculties and more than capable of functioning as President.”

But if historians can weigh flaws and strengths and still place Johnson in the upper tier of presidents, why can't progressives do the same? Rank-and-file liberals, it seems, have their story, and they're sticking to it. Theirs is a view of history as a climb best undertaken without the weight of politics, which has been amplified by the portrait of LBJ in popular culture past and present -- Johnson the dog abuser, holding his pet beagle up by the ears for the paparazzi; Johnson as the target of “Hey, hey, LBJ!”; Johnson, once again caught on tape, burping as he orders some pants from Joe Haggar of the Dallas-based menswear company, telling him: “The crotch down where your nuts hang -- it's always a little too tight. It's like riding a wire fence. See if you can't give me an inch where the zipper ends, right back to my bunghole.”

Truth be told, LBJ's problem with history began before he even left office. White House recordings show Johnson fretting over the damage that the publication of William Manchester's 1967 book on the JFK assassination, The Death of a President, might do to his political fortunes. He was right to worry. Though the book didn't link Johnson to the slaying, Manchester did inaugurate a motif that has been seized upon by Camelot acolytes and conspiracy theorists alike ever since: LBJ as callous and grasping for power in the very instant after Kennedy's death. It is a perverse vision of LBJ as Hill Country Claudius, conspiring to bait the dueling rapier, poison the wine, and do away with America's sweet, brainy prince.

In this respect, Oliver Stone's 1992 film, JFK, is a crucial document in the decline of LBJ's fortunes in popular culture. The film, which grossed more than $205 million worldwide, is the nexus where Camelot meets conspiracy. Stone is canny enough not to accuse Johnson directly of being part of the plot. But he does show Johnson as moving quickly, and malevolently, to trash the Kennedy legacy and destroy the good that might have been. Specifically, Stone has Kennedy having decided to end America's commitment in Vietnam, and Johnson ratcheting it up. The quote that Stone puts in Johnson's mouth (“Just get me elected, and then you can have your war.”) is taken from historian Stanley Karnow's book Vietnam: A History. Karnow claims that Johnson said it a month after the assassination, at a Christmas Eve gathering with military brass -- and he posits that Johnson was glad-handing the generals, not making them an explicit promise. Yet the manner in which Stone threads this supposed statement into the complex tale told by the mysterious “X” (played by Donald Sutherland) to a credulous Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) leaves more than a sticky tar of LBJ's guilt by association with the viewer. Isn't it funny, X says, that LBJ signed a memorandum supposedly reversing JFK's decision to get out of Vietnam four days after the assassination? And then the Johnson quote, which was really from a month later, slides in.

One also can point out that the memo Johnson signed (with few changes) was drafted before JFK went to Dallas and most likely would have been signed by Kennedy had he returned. But in a deeper sense, Stone's use of LBJ is a malicious prank played by a filmmaker who weds the machinery of pop culture to that progressive view of history. The tale of X is blowsy conspiracy theory bolstered by a passionately held counterfactual: History could have been better; Vietnam would have gone away; America's hopes and dreams, perpetually frozen in Jack's and Bobby Kennedy's untimely deaths, were squandered and traduced by Johnson.

Lyndon Johnson knew that he would have a problem with history. The most moving moments in Doris Kearns Goodwin's history-cum-memoir of the LBJ years, 1976's Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, arrive whenever Johnson presses Goodwin to help him with his own memoir. “Those memoirs,” he tells her plaintively, “are the last chance I've got with the history books.”

Yet the concrete achievements of Johnson cited at the beginning of this essay remain. These achievements come more clearly into focus when the America that he inherited as president is conjured, as Bill Moyers did in a 1986 speech reprinted in a new book, Moyers on America: “[I]n 1967, 75 percent of all Americans over sixty-five had no medical insurance and a third of the elderly lived in poverty. More than 90 percent of all black adults in the South were not registered to vote, and across the nation there were only about two hundred elected officials who were black.”

Certainly, none of the above could be said of America after Johnson's tenure. In practical terms, LBJ's decision to embrace civil rights remains one of the most politically courageous moves by a president in recent memory. Progressives lose much when they cast off LBJ and his legacy -- all of the above, and still more. They lose a model in balancing the roles of ferocious electoral partisan and tenacious legislative bipartisan. They also lose an alternative view of power -- what it is, where it resides in our nation, and valuable lessons in how to use it wisely and foolishly. Johnson knew such things intimately, and was willing to spend (or, in the case of Vietnam, misspend) that power, rather than hoard it.

In summing up his decision not to run in 1968, Johnson had this to say about power in his memoir: “Men, myself included, do not lightly give up the opportunity to achieve so much lasting good, but a man who uses power effectively must also be a realist. He must understand that by spending power, he dissipates it. Because I had not hesitated to spend the Presidential power in the pursuit of my beliefs or in the interests of my country, I was under no illusion that I had as much power in 1968 as I had had in 1964.”

It is a remarkable statement. When I read it, Milan Kundera's essay in Testaments Betrayed, in which he talks about the fog of history, came directly to mind. Kundera argues, “Man proceeds in a fog. But when he looks back to judge people of the past, he sees no fog on their path. From his present, which was their faraway past, their path looks perfectly clear to him, good visibility all the way. Looking back, he sees the path, he sees the people proceeding, he sees their mistakes, but not the fog.”

Those who judge history's fogged-in denizens from the comfortable present, Kundera is arguing, may be blinder still. But one needn't go that far. We rely on history's clearer view to make judgments. It is a view that invites us to do so.

Yet history does not require us to be judgmental. To reclaim the legacy of Johnson, progressives need not refrain from questioning the past or debunking its errors. They must simply acknowledge that good -- and not just ill -- can emerge from the murk of America's political history; that the project of achieving a better future does not depend on defenestration of the past. Indeed, progressives may strengthen their claims to political relevance if they marry the hope of their historical vision to the concrete achievements of LBJ and others, accomplished in that fog.

Richard Byrne's writing on politics, foreign affairs, and music has appeared in Foreign Policy, The Washington Post, The Boston Phoenix, and other publications.

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