Tuesday, May 13, 2008

All the Way With LBJ

Between now and the November election, PBS is airing seven of the documentaries in the American Experience Presidents Series. So far, biographies of Bush I and FDR have aired; still to come are Truman, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, and Reagan. The documentary series as a whole also includes some of our 19th and earlier 20th-century Presidents, although this airing covers only those who held office between 1932 and 1992. Ranking the Presidents is a fun parlor game. Who's better, Lincoln or FDR? Who was the worst, Hoover, Buchanan, or Harding? What criteria do you use in making your decision? Google "worst US Presidents," and you'll get one set of lists by conservatives that prominently include Lyndon Johnson and Carter, another set of lists by liberals that prominently include Harding and Bush II.

I'm not sure who was the best or the worst President. In fact, I'm not sure what some of our Presidents did or did not accomplish. What were Benjamin Harrison's achievements? Who knows. I seem to recall something about tariffs, but nothing specific comes to mind. Even though I'm willing to let questions of greatness and incompetence lie in the hands of Presidential historians, I do have a favorite President, one I can't stop reading about, one I will go out of my way to talk about, one that I love better than all the others. That would be Lyndon Johnson.

In Johnson's story, I see the story of the 1960s. He came to prominence through nasty partisan backdoor politics. He was an old skool Southern Democrat, bringing home the pork, handing out the spoils, keeping everything and everyone segregated. He stood for the past of the Democratic party, for the agrarian South, for the good old boys. He hated the Kennedys but became Kennedy's Vice President. And when Kennedy was assassinated, he ended up presiding over the 60s.

He signed into law the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. He declared a war on poverty. He initiated Head Start and other social programs for the underprivileged. It was his liberalism that led to the undoing of the Democratic party and the rise of the Republican right. You can make the argument that he created Nixon and Reagan, that without Johnson's domestic policy combined with the social upheavals of the times conservatism as we know it wouldn't have come into existence.

He was undone by a war he didn't start, but that he felt compelled to finish. Vietnam undid the country, and it undid his administration. He listened to McNamara, he escalated the conflict because he was afraid to withdraw, he became reviled by the very left whose ideas of social equality he did so much to support. When he left office he withdrew to his ranch in Texas, grew a beard and long hair, hung out with his beagles. He became a hippie.

Johnson's saga is Shakespearean, filled with the unraveling of grand ambitions and the sorrows of loss and growing old. And ultimately poor Johnson was outshined even in terms of the greatness of his collapse. His successor is the President normally associated with tragedy, both Greek and Shakespearean. I can enjoy the story of Nixon's hubris and fall, but I can't love him. LBJ gets all my love.


Brad said...

I love that old, "good ole boy" southern Democratic Party. www.goodoleboybumperstickers.com

tunsie said...

I don't know anything about lbj,but i do know a politician.he told me that u can't please everybody with one decision.with politics you inherit the problems of your predessor.those problems become yours,and u didn't even there at thier inception,but u chose 2 try 2 solve them.I say put politicians on commision,if u screw up u don't get paid,I think if they were dealing with thier own money,they would not throw it around as freely.A politician can do a hundred good things but someone will always remember that person 4 something they didn't agree with.they r as agenda wise as the people chosen 2 carry our trust in politics.I keep thinking of blazing saddles when they found a idiot who WOULD take the job of sheriff.I would not take the job.no way.because people get together in an alcohol infused debate afterwards over your decision.I feel 4 all u politicians.tunsie.tunsie.tunsie