A Portrait in Gray
August 27 is the 100th birthday of Lyndon B. Johnson, the 37th president of the United States.  Writing a bit before the day, I wonder how—or whether—the day will be marked at the Democratic National Convention.  The convention web site has just one mention of him, a photo credit to the Johnson presidential library.  There are two tiny pictures with only rollover captions, one from the 1960 convention that nominated John F. Kennedy over Johnson, and one from his own convention in 1964, the one that preceded Johnson’s victory, one of the century’s biggest presidential landslides, just a percentage point behind FDR in 1936 and two points larger than Reagan in 1984.

It’s not surprising that the Democrats would just as soon forget about LBJ.  There have been ten presidential elections since the 1964 landslide, and the Democrats have won only three.  And the two primary causes for their forty-year slump can be traced directly back to LBJ, one for the greatest thing he did, one for the worst.

The Greatest
That would be the passage of civil rights legislation.  There is no way to overstate how important those laws were and have been ever since, or how monumental were the obstacles that Johnson overcame to get them passed.

Nothing in our history comes close to slavery for intrinsic evil, for the grip in which it and its bastard offspring Jim Crow held the country, or for the willingness of non-slaveholders to countenance it for 350 years. And the fact that it was perpetrated, tolerated and prolonged, not by obvious villains, not by Hitlers or Stalins, but by men and women who led lives that were otherwise virtuous and even exalted, lent  slavery and Jim Crow a special awfulness.

All of which is to underscore how great a thing LBJ did in outlawing the legalized oppression that was Jim Crow.  As an act of presidential leadership, it ranks behind only Washington’s establishment of the country, Lincoln’s prosecution of the Civil War and freeing of the slaves, and FDR’s leadership through the Depression and World War II.

LBJ’s civil rights accomplishments did not involve mobilizing the country for was as Lincoln’s and FDR’s did.   But they did involve taking on and defeating forces that had defeated his predecessors’ ineffectual efforts.  FDR gave up on an anti-lynching law to get the congressional support he needed to pass Social Security.  Truman desegregated the armed forces and allowed a civil right plank in the 1948 Democratic platform, but never mounted a major legislative effort against segregated schools, restaurants, hotels or jobs.  Kennedy supported civil rights in principle, but tried to talk civil rights leaders out of the Birmingham demonstrations and the March on Washington.  In fact, the only civil rights legislation passed before Johnson’s presidency was signed into law not by any Democrat but by President Dwight Eisenhower, and only after a bruising battle field-marshaled by Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, working with just a two-vote Democratic Senate majority.*

Like Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy, Johnson faced a Senate controlled by southern committee chairmen who recognized that the advent of civil rights meant an end to the centuries-old southern culture of which they were part and that had elevated them to prominence and power.  As a senator from Texas he had been one of them, with a solid if moderate record of opposition to civil rights and desegregation.  He had cultivated them from the moment he arrived in the Senate, had encouraged the most powerful of them, Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, to think of him as a son, studying baseball, a game in which he had had no interest, so he could accompany Russell to Washington Senators baseball games.  It was they who made him majority leader.

And then, first as majority leader, then as president, he cajoled them, deceived them, bullied them and out-maneuvered them to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in employment, schools and public accommodations; and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

It was a great and grand thing that Lyndon Johnson did.  Without him—not without someone like him; there was no one like him, and it is difficult to imagine any of the men whom John Kennedy might have chosen for vice president, or any of the Democrats who held or contended for the presidency in the decades that followed Johnson, doing what he did—without him, there would have been no Obama candidacy, no Jesse Jackson candidacy, no Congressional Black Caucus, at least not until decades later.

But if it was a great and grand thing, it was also the end of the Democratic domination of American politics, one of two primary causes of the Democrats losing seven of the next ten elections.  What had been called the Solid South, the Democratic domination of southern politics based on the Republican’s support for abolition, emancipation and segregation, is today almost as solid for the Republicans as it was solid for the Democrats before LBJ.

Johnson expected no less.  “We’ve lost the South for a generation,” he told Bill Moyers after signing the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Johnson was the ultimate political animal, a partisan warrior to the core.  His sacrifice of his party’s future and his own—had it not been for Viet Nam, which in 1965 was just a blip on the horizon, Johnson would have been a heavy favorite for re-election—will do very nicely as a definition of political courage.

The Worst
But it is not because of civil rights that LBJ is persona non grata at the Democratic Convention.  It is, of course, because of Viet Nam.  And the role that Johnson played in prosecuting the war in Viet Nam was as ignoble as his civil rights record was great.  It was during his five years as president that the number of US troops in Viet Nam was escalated from 16,000 to over a half-million, during his administration that American deaths rose to 30,000.  And it wasn’t just the escalation and the casualties, but the deception—the Tonkin Gulf resolution, the inflated body counts—that Johnson believed necessary to muster and maintain public support for a war he deemed necessary.

The reaction to the war and to Johnson was not solely based on principled opposition to the despoliation of a small country or even to the fact that we were unable to win it.  The draft played a critical role.  As troop levels escalated, draft call-ups increased.  College students could hold the draft at bay until they graduated, but after that you could start looking for the notices that began, “Greetings from the President of the United States,” and directed you to show up for your physical.  As a twentieth-century Samuel Johnson might say, nothing so concentrates the mind as the knowledge that you are to be drafted in a fortnight.   And these were middle-class college students, a time and place in life where young people are not insensitive to opportunities for rebellion.  Remember Johnny Strabler, the Marlon Brando character, the biker, in The Wild One?  “What’re you rebelling against, Johnny?” a town girl asks him.  “Whaddya got?” he responds.

Their rebellion fueled demonstrations, huge demonstrations, demonstrations to which authorities like city police and college presidents over-reacted or under-reacted.  Demonstrations that TV news rushed to cover.

What threatened draft-eligible college students threatened their parents, too.  Students demonstrated.  Parents voted.  The votes drove Johnson out of his re-election campaign.  The demonstrations turned the Democrats’ Chicago convention into a battle zone.  And as the anti-war protestors chanted, the whole world was watching—enough to cost Hubert Humphrey the presidency by less than a percentage point.

The Democrats weren’t through with the curse of Viet Nam.  Four years later, when the war should have become Richard Nixon’s war, the still-radicalized Democratic Party nominated one of the earliest opponents of the war, Sen. George McGovern, and saw him crushingly defeated.

It has been forty years since Chicago, thirty-six since McGovern.  With a few exceptions like Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden, the leaders from those days have left the political stage.  But their successors, like Barack Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton, came of political age in the shadow of Lyndon Johnson’s ill-advised and disastrous over-extension of American military power, and it haunts them to this day.  Not since Viet Nam—not since World War II, if it comes to that; we fought the Korean War to a stalemate that was never resolved—has American military power been successfully projected over any period of time.  Because they are sensible people, it has left Democrats unsure—which means, as it always does with Democrats, noisily unsure—about when, if ever, the US should resort to military force.  It is an uncertainty that does not sit well with voters who see a nation beset by dangerous enemies and a party that for more than forty years has been unsure about when to pull the trigger.

That, too, is part of Lyndon Johnson’s legacy.

Still Not Over
“It ain’t over till it’s over,” Yogi Berra is supposed to have said.  To which Jesse Jackson added, after Republicans tried to recycle Whitewater years after Bill Clinton had left office, “And even then, it ain’t over.”

So it’s not surprising that at a time when the country is trying to decide whether to hold on or get out of another war improvidently begun, and trying to decide, once more, whether to confront or conciliate an expansion-minded Russia, the Democratic Party is not eager to remind voters of the president who led the country into Viet Nam and couldn’t lead it out.

And it isn’t really surprising that more than forty years after LBJ forced Congress and the country to swallow the great civil rights laws, the party is reluctant to direct national attention to another great issue that is still not fully resolved, even—especially—at the convention at which it will nominate the first black contender for the presidency.

We tend to be uncomfortable with duality of character, especially in our leaders and public figures.  We want people we can idealize or demonize.  It’s not a helpful habit in choosing a president.  Or in remembering one.


  1. Shelley
    August 28th, 2008 | 12:11 pm

    Gorgeous. Moving. Worrisome. Bravo.

  2. -Bridget
    August 29th, 2008 | 1:10 pm

    Nice work, Louis. I enjoyed reading it.

  3. August 30th, 2008 | 3:44 pm

    “A Portrait in Gray” provides a solid historical context to critically examine today’s Democratic and Republican nominees very carefully. Both candidates should learn from Lyndon Johnson’s legacy, just how much good and how much bad one can accomplish as the president of the United States of America.

  4. Jay
    September 1st, 2008 | 6:45 am

    LBJ was a love-hate realtionship. Loved for Ciivl Rights reform hated for Vietnam. I was a ‘victim’ of the draft, the 1st year of the ‘lottery’, mid-1969, right in the middle of the VietNam conflict.

    As usual Lou, you hit the nail on the head.

  5. September 9th, 2009 | 10:44 am

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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