Was he a romantic with a vision of an America free of poverty and ignorance? Was he a craven war leader, sacrificing tens of thousands to his fear of losing a small country in battle — or the presidency in impeachment? Did he create a nation that celebrated and elevated fairness and justice? Or did his policies perpetuate social pathology and sow dependence? Did he possess the fatal flaw of hubris? Or is it a flaw at all to think big, plan big, dream big?
An unusual battle for history is now underway, pitting American memory against the historical legacy of an American president.
There hasn’t been an intellectual struggle like this for years. But the battle over how to regard Lyndon Baines Johnson almost certainly will be more emotional, more tendentious and more significant than the last struggle of this kind, over how history should rate Harry S Truman.
The Truman battle over war (Korea), race (desegregating the armed forces) and style (the down-home manner of Independence, Mo.) was but a miniature version of the Johnson legacy of war (Vietnam), race (two civil-rights bills, bloody marches and urban unrest) and style (not so much the humanity of the Pendernales Valley as the brutality of the political perdition Johnson threatened to the reluctant and the rebellious).
The Truman battle was settled, probably permanently, by one book, David McCullough’s 1992 biography, which sold more than a million copies. The Johnson battle, stoked by scores of books, especially Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography, is far from over. Indeed, this clash gives new meaning to Johnson’s remark that “yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or lose.”
In this battle are Johnson loyalists, particularly his daughters and some surviving former aides; Johnson rivals, especially those who will never forgive him for Vietnam; Johnson revisionists, who opposed him in life but came to recognize his vision and virtues after he died; Johnson folklorists, who exaggerate physical characteristics and a personal character that once were so overpowering that they seemed immune to exaggeration; and Johnson ingenues, who never knew Johnson or didn’t live in the Johnson years but who view him as a distant figure, much like William Howard Taft or Grover Cleveland.
All this because the gentle watercolor wash of half-century retrospectives, so warm and kind to his martyred predecessor, John F. Kennedy, makes a new series of 50th-anniversary reassessments — on the War on Poverty this winter, on the famous Great Society speech at the University of Michigan in May, with the Civil Rights Bill in July and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August and more to follow — irresistible and perhaps even necessary.
Ordinarily a half-century’s passage is enough to quell the chants and cheers of events long ago, and the rule in Great Britain for almost six decades has been that public records and Cabinet papers are open for inspection after 30 years. But the events of 1963-1969 are so central to our national identity — and increased longevity so dramatic that many of the participants of the principal events of that period are still alive — that the passions of the Johnson period have not dimmed.
George W. Bush, speaking in Johnson’s home state recently, showed no preoccupation with how he will be regarded in the future. “History,” he said, “will ultimately judge whether I made the right decisions or not.” But for Lyndon Johnson — who had no nonchalance for the verdict of anybody, including Clio, the muse of history — the time of judgment is nigh.
And at this juncture of judgment all of the many faces of Johnson are colliding: the visionary and the reactionary, the idealist and the ideologue, the wily negotiator and the stubborn autocrat, above all the strongman and the broken man.
In the Kennedy retrospectives last year, Johnson was an afterthought in Old Spice aftershave — bored, ridiculed, peripheral. In this year’s retrospectives, he will be engaged, feared, central.
Johnson has been dead nearly as long as Kennedy was alive. The Johnson years are as distant to us today as the World War I armistice was to Johnson when he took office. Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1964 is separated from the second term of Barack Obama by the same amount of time separating the landmark White House bill-signing ceremony from the White House screening, for Woodrow Wilson, of the racist film “Birth of a Nation.”
Presidents who make history also understand the history they made is constantly changing. The nation that in 1953 was mild about Harry was, 60 years later, almost wild about Truman, and this September’s 40-year retrospectives of Gerald R. Ford’s decision to pardon Richard Nixon will vividly underline how perspectives change with time.
In the case of Johnson — battered and blamed for city riots, student protests, family permissiveness and street violence by the time he left office in January 1969 to the strains of “Stormy Weather,” one of his favorite songs — the revisionism began with the new century.
Around the beginning of 2000, two major critics of the president, Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith (a principal in the effort to dump Johnson from the 1968 ticket) and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George S. McGovern (a leader in the anti-war movement in the Vietnam era), proclaimed publicly their admiration for LBJ. McGovern, who served in Congress when Johnson roamed the Capitol halls as a colossus, went so far as to argue that, aside from Wilson and the two Roosevelts, “Lyndon Johnson was the greatest president since Abraham, Lincoln.”
Now the debate is raging again, and not only because half-century reassessments are so seductive.
In the White House today is a legatee of the Johnson years, a black man who acknowledges he was the beneficiary of LBJ initiatives and whose health-care plan has antecedents in the Great Society. Yet Mr. Obama repeatedly is criticized for not being more like Johnson — for not herding vast amounts of legislation through Congress, for not bending lawmakers to his will, for not frightening his opponents, for not seducing his putative supporters into submission over Cutty Sark and sweet talk.
The 36th president lingers in the American consciousness by virtue of the triumphs and the tragedies that filled his era. This year and the years that follow will be filled with historical re-runs. Johnson as president didn’t get everything right. But now it’s important for us to get Johnson right.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1890).