LBJ Was a Great President

tags: LBJ, presidents, 1960s, Vaughn Davis Bornet, Lyndon B. Johnson


The writer’s Ph.D. in history was obtained from Stanford University sixty-two years ago last month. He writes and edits from quiet “retirement” in Ashland, Oregon, where he helpfully edits each annual effort of the Marquis Company to update his sketches for several “Who’s Who” sets.

LBJ in 1969. Credit: Wiki Commons.

This quoting of the opinions of some famous people on the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson contains evaluations after his death in 1973 and my attempts at a scholarly evaluation twenty years later. Its purpose is to try to dilute the casual and even thoughtless remarks about this period of leadership that appear routinely (“Vietnam!”), and not too thoughtfully, in today’s lesser publications.

To begin: the 1973 paragraphs quoting some famous Americans that immediately follow were drafted in longhand in 1982 as I finally brought to end my years of work on the book The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. The volume would appear at the hands of the Kansas Press late in 1983, but without these paragraphs, because they ended up on the cutting floor. With them was all of my chapter I (and a whole lot more). (The problem was that I had allowed my text to grow too long for the restrictions of the American Presidency Series.)

Those judgments of 1973 that hit the deck were intended to be part of the author’s final chapter entitled “History Will Judge.” They are going to be offered here as originally written except for a few stylistic changes. Famous people get quoted. To these opinions of well known contemporaries, I will venture at the close what I have long believed to be a defensible assessment of President Johnson’s stature in history.

Now: to quote my deleted 1982 prose, that is, my précis of the opinions of famous leaders at the time of LBJ’s passing in 1973:

Only a few of the addresses delivered by senators and representatives to the Congress [in 1973] can be quoted or summarized here. Senator Edward M. Kennedy caused to be reprinted the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and Johnson’s remarks on signing them, for here was “one of our Nation’s greatest public servants.” He had been a loyal vice president, said this Kennedy, and he had enjoyed “the deep respect and affection” of Robert Kennedy. History would record him as “one of our finest leaders.”

While Barry Goldwater was not among those offering tributes, his son did place in the record of the House an emotional article by a black constituent on life before and after the civil rights act.

Senator George McGovern suggested the nation remember the good he did, for he was “the second Great Emancipator” as well as healer to the sick, servant to the deprived, and educator of children; yet there had been differences between Johnson and “some of us.”

Senator Hubert Humphrey admitted that the president he served was “a total political man,” marked by ambition; not modest; but “an unusual, unique, remarkable individual.” Speaking several times in memoriam, the Humphrey comments on Vietnam are to be noted. “He was a president who saw America as the guardian of freedom throughout the world, and he acted accordingly....” In a longer subsequent speech Humphrey thought it tragic that the public focused on Vietnam rather than domestic accomplishments. Johnson had agonized over it; sought not military victory but to prevent the success of aggression; was a countering force in the world; and sought to protect the right of self-determination.

History would judge, said the man from Minnesota. He himself did wish that Vietnam had never happened. A signal contribution, said Humphrey, had been the Johnson order to the cabinet that its members should not speak in Cold War terms -- thus setting, he claimed, a course for better U.S.-Soviet relationships. Groundwork had been laid for future arms limitations talks; the rhetoric of division was avoided in U.S.-de Gaulle relations; the Asian Development Bank was founded. Then there were (and Humphrey naturally stressed these) the areas of humanitarianism and “the enrichment of human resources.” The Senate was thus enjoined to remember what President Johnson stood for.

When Republicans spoke it was with the courtesy usual on such occasions; it was also with greater brevity. “He was an able president,” said Senator John Tower. His fellow Texans could think better of themselves because he had come from their society.

President Nixon saw him as “devoted to the cause of freedom and equality for his fellow man and to the Land he loved." History had yet to make his judgment, but the manner in which he had held the nation on course at the time of the assassination of President Kennedy would be especially remembered. From the White House the incumbent president concluded his official remarks by saying it was Johnson’s “noble and difficult destiny to lead America through a long, dark night of necessity at home and abroad.” Said Nixon, “He had the courage to do what many of his contemporaries condemned him for, but what will surely win warm praise in the history books of tomorrow.”

Senator Hugh Scott was glad he was rising to support Johnson’s foreign policies. Representative Gerald Ford recalled how desperately the president “longed for peace under honorable conditions.” Senator Charles Percy saw the record in domestic legislation to be greater than that of FDR’s; [sic] there was devotion to principle; yet there was Vietnam.

Senator Javitz stressed the civil rights revolution and the president’s moral commitment to it. The acts of 1964, 1965, and 1968 were his greatest achievements. The Job Corps, Medicare and Medicaid, Headstart, and aid to education also interested the New York senator.

In words to which I drew special attention in my final chapter on this presidency, “History Will Judge,” Senator Howard Baker said to his colleagues that President Johnson “showed us what could be accomplished through Government action and what could never be accomplished through government action. He showed what Government could do for people -- and what people and nations must do for themselves.”

This historian will conclude by saying that in 1973, before the awful debacle in Vietnam, former President Johnson’s colleagues did not hesitate to find good things to say, especially regarding his goals and efforts. As for Vietnam, they maintained a cautious optimism that rested on the appearance, that month, of apparent success in peace negotiations.

Little or nothing was said about Santo Domingo, or Watts, or the violence in the national capitol following the King assassination, or inflation, or rising taxes, or any mixed legacy from social programs. It was not considered the time or place to discuss any losses in the rights of some that were entailed in government guarantees of rights for others. The accent was on the affirmative in the sense of speak well of the departed.

An additional voice from Texas must be especially noted. Representative Barbara Jordan certainly spoke for her race when she judged, flat out, “He was a great man and a great president of the United States. Historians may regard that judgment as premature. But those of us who felt the power of his compassion and were the beneficiaries of his legislative prowess and effectiveness cannot await the historians’ judgment. His life and work “stripped the Federal Government of its neutrality and make it the actor on behalf of America’ old, poor, and black citizens.” His, she declared, was a legacy of hope born in the decade of the sixties—hope and courage and commitment.

* * * * *

In this manner, that screened out and long dormant pen and ink manuscript of 1982 comes to an end. I would like now to add a few paragraphs written by me in this year 2013, if I may.

* * * * *

Firm and confident evaluation of LBJ has become de rigueur in the decades since his death. Today’s judgments are being made by smart enough individuals, yet it is evident that none of us ever stood in Johnson’s presidential shoes. As a single example, we didn’t make profound decisions on peace or war; we didn’t have to face Soviet missiles and conjecture about whether they were programmed against us.

In LBJ’s daily White House life, very few recall or allow for the fact that he was customarily faced by innumerable white “intimates” who cherished a totally Southern orientation. Lady Bird’s southernism can be debated, but that of LBJ’s dear friend Senator Russell cannot. Around him were longtime Dixie residents who surely did not share his conversion back in Southwest Texas to changing “the way things are.” It was heartfelt -- not political.

Huge books, even sets of books, have taken on the burden of evaluating this complicated man and both his routine life and his performance as president of the United States. This is the way it has to be (and has long been) -- with all those complex ones who once led the American people: Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, and those of more modern vintage. (Some of the more venturesome of our own day brazenly appraise for our edification President Barack Obama’s role for the ages!)

Indeed, we live in a time of revision and re-evaluation. Thus nothing deterred a long departed Herbert Hoover from devoting his senior years to a vengeful evaluation of an old political opponent in Freedom Betrayed. From the grave he has offered his uncompromising conviction that “freedom” during his post-presidential years was “betrayed” by President Roosevelt and some of his associates. His effort is unique in its depth and vehemence -- and the author’s sturdy efforts at documentation.

Elsewhere in the books of 2012 we had from Robert Caro a preliminary and tentative evaluation of President Johnson’s leadership of his countrymen for an initial ten weeks after the awful assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The huge, entertaining, book meanders through the JFK presidential years (of which LBJ was of course the vice presidential portion). Ultimately we get a well-written and thought out exposition on the new national leader of December 1963 and January 1964. Good.

As before, with Robert Caro books, the comprehensive prose and vast original research and interviews are relied on to carry the day. Its author occupies a privileged position occupied by virtually no other. So long as a major publishing company is willing to print a zillion details about the occupant of the Oval Office from late 1963 to early 1969 it appears that we are going to enjoy something resembling an attempt at reenactment.... Admittedly, it’s going to help all of us to reach a final judgment on LBJ as an executive to join him as he performs hour by hour in office.

At the same time we still can rely on all those printed memoirs, the oral histories, and the endless tapes! It is hard to decide with precision how much weight to give the final opinions of all “those who were there.” Time surely must add a certain perspective.... At the same time we know (or think we know) so much more than even intimates could have. Yet at the very same time we have to admit cheerfully that on many a dramatic matter we have to settle for knowing so much less....

Like contemporaries quoted in the brief manuscript that begins this essay, we who hope to render definitive judgment may do well to pull back, hesitate, and tiptoe to our final declarations of Truth. Judgment is hard. In my own case, I’ll confess that reconciling and choosing among many conflicting evaluations of president LBJ came close to being beyond me. (The matter drew comment from one learned reviewer, the editor of the American Historical Review.) I guess what I am suggesting is that if seven years studying LBJ largely full time didn’t do it for VDB, well, the door to judging the man from Johnson City is still wide open for others to enter -- after they put in at least a few years of time and effort, that is.

So how does President Johnson come out in the final Bornet evaluation? Although I took a stab at “Reevaluating the Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson” in Presidential Studies Quarterly (Summer, 1990), I’ll stick with the repeatedly edited final paragraph that closes my The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson (p. 351). Now, thirty years later, I find I can live with its crafted and pondered generalizations.

“In final assessment, during the years 1963 to 1969 the executive branch of the United States government developed, in the hands of this leader and his associates, into a dynamic administrative unit never likely to be equaled. It prodded history into new directions. The presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson will inevitably be remembered—and ought to be—for the characteristics of its central figure; for the unintentional but substantial damage that it did with some catastrophic policies abroad and erroneous policies at home; and, especially, for the many worthwhile changes it embedded deeply in legislation, in the lives of millions, and in American society.”

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