Thursday, October 09, 2008

LBJ’s Shadow

There is an article by Harry Middleton (former director of the LBJ library) in Prologue about LBJ’s legacy as the centennial of LBJ’s birth passes (it was August 27, 2008).

The article says that Johnson reshaped the US government and “[h]is legacy—his revolution, if indeed that is what it should be called—was an avalanche of legislation.”

Johnson knew how to work the legistlative branch of the government and get things accomplishment:
When Johnson was majority leader in the Senate, reporters started calling him powerful. His reaction was that the only power he had was the power to persuade—which prompted another senator to observe, "Good God Almighty, that's like saying the only wind we have is a hurricane." It was legendary, but it was real, and it was a power Johnson carried with him into the White House. John F. Kennedy had had an ambitious agenda, but he had faced a Congress that was often hostile and almost always reluctant to move. So many of the Kennedy initiatives were still stalled in committees.

In virtually no time, Johnson—catapulted into the presidency after Kennedy's assassination—changed that condition. Along with his ability to bring reluctant senators to his side of a proposition, he skillfully exploited the trauma the nation experienced in the wake of Kennedy's murder—a sense that the country wanted to feel that something important and worthwhile was being accomplished in the midst of tragedy. The result was the outpouring of legislation that would continue—although encountering significant speed bumps caused by the war in Vietnam—right on to the end of his administration five years later.

His legislation covered things like poverty, education, medical insurance for the elderly, immigration changes, help to the consumer at the market, and then, of course, civil rights legislation:
Kennedy had proposed a law that would have outlawed discrimination in public accommodations, but it never got to the floor of either the House or Senate. Johnson urged Congress to pass it as a memorial to the fallen leader, and he put the full muscle of his administration behind his plea.

"We have talked long enough in this country about civil rights," he told Congress in his first speech as President. "We have talked for one hundred years or more. It is now time to write the next chapter and write it in the books of law." Eventually, the key to passing the measure was Senator Everett Dirksen, the Republican leader from Illinois. Only Dirksen had the clout to persuade his fellow Republicans to vote to break a filibuster being staged by opposition Southerners. Dirksen was not known for any particular interest in civil rights—but he was known to be highly susceptible to flattery. So Johnson—at his persuasive best, or his shameless worst, depending on how you look at it—went to work. And the Texas President assured the Illinois senator that if he would take the leadership in getting the bill passed, Illinois school children would hereafter know only two names to honor—Abraham Lincoln and Everett Dirksen. Finally, Dirksen announced his recognition of an idea whose time had come. The bill passed. That was in 1964.

He then went on to tackle voting rights. At the end of his five years, he could claim over 1000 laws with 300 major laws all passed under his administration.

Johnson also was president during the war in Vietnam, which is what most of us remember him for more than the impressive legislative record:
Johnson inherited the war in Vietnam, and the commitments of the two Presidents who preceded him to assist South Vietnam defend itself against the efforts of the Communist North to take it over. He was as much a Cold Warrior as Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy—and indeed the nation at large—were. He believed as fervently as most of his countrymen did in the danger of falling dominoes. But Johnson also—we know this because of his once-secret telephone conversations—revealed early in his presidency his fears of getting trapped in a war that couldn't be won.

Yet it was Johnson who changed the course of the war—Americanized it, in effect—by sending in U.S. forces to fight and not just advise the South Vietnamese, which had been the American mission. From this there was no turning back. Tensions grew. Protests rocked and then divided the country.

That critical decision was made by Johnson in the spring of 1965, when the war was steadily being lost. The only hope of "turning the tide," said his secretary of defense, secretary of state, national security adviser, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was to commit combat troops.

The article points out that Johnson saw Vietnam as a way to prevent World War III:
Robert McNamara, who came eventually to doubt the wisdom of the war he had helped to shape, cited that warning of Rusk's as the basic reason for his, the President's, and the other advisers' decision for action: "I cannot overstate the impact our generation's experiences had on . . . all of us. We had lived through the years of war that resulted from the western powers not stopping the advance of Hitler when there still was time."

That was it: the lesson of Munich. World War II could have been prevented if only we had had the wit, the wisdom, and the fortitude to stop Hitler while there still was time. The relevance of that lesson was obvious: to avoid another war, communism, the new aggressive force bent on world domination, had to be stopped wherever it showed its aggressive face—and that face was clearly visible in Vietnam.

That's how a generation of leaders saw it. That's how Johnson saw it. He heard it from his trusted advisers, and he heard it from his gut. "I was staring at World War III."

The author points out that we see this war differently today:
All these years later, it's hard for a new generation to recapture—or perhaps even understand—that belief. All of Vietnam is under communist control today—but the dominoes did not fall; the juggernaut did not sweep through Southeast Asia, or endanger our security.

Did our stand in Vietnam count for anything? Did it contribute in any way to the ending of the Cold War? I don't pretend to know the answer, as once I thought I did. But I do know that Johnson died believing he had done what he had to do to prevent war, and that history would understand that. I hope it will.

One really interesting fact I learned in this article was that Johnson believed passionately that his library and paper should be open to the public – in all the good and the bad. As a researcher, this really hit home to me and I wanted to share it with you:
The Presidential library, on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin, that houses his papers and bears his name is also part of his legacy. "It's all here, the story of our time, with the bark off," he said at the library's dedication, "for friend and foe alike to judge."

He meant it. He wanted all the papers opened for research as quickly as possible. He was impatient with the general if unspoken rule at the time that it took at least five years for the first group to be opened. "Let's cut that in half," he ordered.

And he was not at all sympathetic with the general rules for keeping papers closed. "You're being much too cautious," he said when he saw some of the candidates for closing. "I said [referring to his dedication speech] the bark's off. Now you're going to have me pick up the New York Times and read, 'Well, Johnson's got the bark still on.'" When he thought he saw signs we intended to go easy on him, he told me, "Good men have been trying to protect my reputation for 40 years, and not a damn one has succeeded. What makes you think you can?"

He insisted that there be a prominent exhibit in the museum on the controversies of the time, and he made his own contribution to it—a postcard from a man in California. He found it by plowing through a box of unfriendly correspondence himself. It read: "I demand that you as a gutless son-of-a-bitch resign as President of the United States."

All of this was at some variance with the reputation for secrecy and thin-skinnedness he had achieved as President. But it was real, and we took him at his word and began to build the library's reputation on that word.

We violated his instructions when we opened his telephone conversations. Those instructions from the grave were that the tapes be kept closed for 50 years after his death. With Lady Bird's support, we cut that short by about three decades. But we would not have done it had we not been so impressed by his early instruction to open everything immediately. As it happened, the release of the telephone conversations has had a decided effect—positive—on his reputation. Had he anticipated that, I doubt he would have imposed that 50-year restriction—or any restriction at all, for that matter.

This is a wonderful encapsulation of Johnson’s legacy as President and really gives a good look at the man and his work.

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