Why LBJ still matters

Jun 08, 2012

Point Person: Our Q&A with Mark Updegrove on why LBJ still matters

The Dallas Morning News

Published: 08 June 2012 09:32 PM

Four decades have passed since Lyndon Johnson left Washington, yet many Americans still search to understand the Texas Democrat. The last few months alone have seen two major books on his presidency have been published in just the past few months. The first is "Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency," by Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ Library and Museum. The second is "The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson," by Robert Caro, author of three previous Johnson books. Points asked Updegrove to discuss LBJ and his continuing grip on this country.

Here we are, a dozen presidential races after LBJ announced he wouldn't seek re-election, and he remains a compelling figure. Why? You wouldn't think he would be, given the skepticism of government these days.

LBJ knew how to wield power better than any politician of the last half a century, and he used it to fulfill the promise of America. At a time when the parties in Washington are at a stalemate and often seem to put themselves and their party above the good of the nation, he exemplifies someone with the ability to get things done, more often than not by reaching across the aisle. Add to that his bigger-than-life persona and inherent contradictions and he makes for a very  compelling historical figure.

Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency

But LBJ really didn't have to work across the aisle much, did he? Democrats controlled Congress. The battles were mostly within his party.

Actually, he did. Consider civil rights, which is LBJ's most important domestic legacy.

LBJ had to work around the intractable Southern Democrats in his party to get meaningful civil rights legislation passed, which he did with the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He couldn't have done it without garnering the solid support of Republicans.

FDR never proposed civil rights legislation because he was afraid of alienating the Southern Democrats, and Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy could never manage to get anything significant through Congress because of the Southern Democrats. LBJ knew that it was time for reform on civil rights, and he had the prowess and the will to get it done despite the obstacles.

One of my favorite stories about LBJ is about a tense conversation he had with friend and former mentor Richard Russell, the powerful Democratic senator from Georgia. Russell was a fierce opponent of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which would strike down the Jim Crow laws that prevailed in the South, and warned Johnson about the consequences of his passing the legislation. "I don't think Kennedy could have done it," he surmised, "but you can." But he cautioned him that it would cost him the Democratic Party in the South, and it may cost him the election of 1964. Johnson heard him out, then quietly replied, "If that is the cost for this bill, I will gladly pay it."

You've written about LBJ's "indomitable will." He certainly used that to get bills passed. Why do you think modern leaders have lost the art of legislating? Is it all because of partisanship?

If you talk to those who were in Washington during LBJ's days in the White House, they'll attribute much of the stalemate to the fact that lawmakers don't know each other anymore. They don't live in and around the District; they don't go out for cocktails after work; their spouses don't get together for golf or bridge games; their kids aren't on the same Little League team or in the same ballet class. It's far easier to overcome ideological differences and do business with someone you know personally.

It may have also been generational. Many of those who comprised Congress at the time were veterans of World War II, and they saw firsthand what we as a nation are capable of doing when we put country first.

That said, the 111th Congress was underrated for what it got done. Whether you agree with it or not, President Obama's health care bill was a significant legislative accomplishment.

LBJ had a complex relationship with the Kennedys. He not only served out JFK's term, he passed major domestic legislation that JFK couldn't. But was LBJ ultimately undone by his relationship with the Kennedys? I'm thinking here about how RFK's rising profile in 1968 coincided with LBJ getting out of the presidential race that year.

I don't think he was undone by his relationship with the Kennedys, but I think he's held back historically by them. As I wrote in Indomitable Will, "John and Bobby Kennedy were embraced by the media and the American public for the ideals that best captured the best hopes of their era — civil rights and social justice — an impression deepened by their martyrdom and adding to their luster. Despite his remarkable fortitude in putting those shared ideals into law, the same resplendent acknowledgment and esteem never found its way to Lyndon Johnson." I think that's still true today. LBJ himself put it more succinctly: "They say Jack Kennedy had style, but I'm the one who gets the bills passed."

LBJ loathed Bobby Kennedy for many reasons, and Kennedy was just as contemptuous of Johnson. But Johnson's decision not to seek a second elected term in office had little to do with Kennedy's rising profile as an opponent of the Vietnam War. It was driven mainly by his concern that his genetically weak heart wouldn't see him through another four years in office and the hope that stepping down would be seen as a good faith gesture on the part of the North Vietnamese to strike an honorable peace on the war. While it did succeed in getting the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table, peace proved elusive. That was LBJ's biggest regret.

You've written about how LBJ was flawed, but great, and how he is still misunderstood. Is that because he had so many flaws and so much greatness that it is almost impossible to understand him, especially in today's media environment, where excess is not rewarded?

Based on dozens of interviews, I wrote that "there are few who knew LBJ who wouldn't describe LBJ as great. Flawed, yes, and not always good, but great."

As a person he was deeply flawed, and he had as many sides as there are adjectives in the dictionary. Some were good and some not so good. But if you look at what he accomplished, it's remarkable. Most people have no idea how much LBJ has affected their lives: Equal rights under the law for all Americans, that's LBJ. Federal aid to education, that's LBJ. Medicare and Medicaid, that's LBJ. The Clean Air Act and highway beautification, that's LBJ. PBS and NPR, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, that's LBJ. And on and on. His greatness lay in what he did despite his feet of clay.

This Q&A was conducted and condensed by editorial columnist William McKenzie. His email is [email protected]. Mark Updegrove may be contacted at [email protected].