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lyndon b. johnson

8 july 2010

Charles Peters's Lyndon B. Johnson is a fairly standard treatment of a much-discussed President. It adds only a few thousand words to the millions and millions already expended on the 36th President, but they are judicious ones, and the book is a solid introduction to LBJology.

Peters takes the normal line on Johnson: he accomplished more than any President since FDR, and his achievement was greatly tarnished by the war in Vietnam. The two contradictory halves of LBJ's record don't seem of a piece, in Peters's analysis or in that of many other historians. Johnson's tremendous achievements in civil rights and social welfare, says the current wisdom, came about because he was aggressive and unintimidated by reactionaries. His escalation of the war, says the same wisdom, came about because he was passive and intimidated by reactionaries. This doesn't quite add up.

I think it's likelier that Johnson's liberal crusades and Stone-Age warmongering were of a piece. He had learned from his mentor Franklin Roosevelt that the way to get your face on a coin is to provide security to the masses at home while liberating foreign peoples from extremism. Building Medicare and dismantling Ho Chi Minh were two ways of securing a legacy.

LBJ liked to complain that his opponents forced him to do things. It was his way of selling his initiatives to reluctant supporters. So he couldn't possibly follow his dovish inclinations and let Saigon fall. Goldwater and Nixon would have eaten him for breakfast.

But at the same time, LBJ wasn't going to let Sheriff Clark and Governor Wallace push him around when it came to voting rights in Alabama. Why was he so easily swayed by the equally weak Republican right?

The answer surely lies in the nature of politics itself. Activism has been the keynote of ambitious Presidents since 1789. Conservative activism takes the form of tearing stuff down; liberal activism of building it up; but both have involved a lot of military adventure. "He kept us out of war" may get you re-elected, but it doesn't get you a central place on the world stage or in the history books.

The career of Lyndon Johnson is instructive for Barack Obama. "Obamacare" parallels Medicare; Afghanistan parallels Vietnam. (Yes, I know who started the Afghanistan war, but Michael Steele has a point: deciding to pursue a war that your predecessor started is truly on you.) Will the domestic achievements of yet another President be eroded by the fantastic idea that the U.S. can "win" a war against patient, resourceful guerrillas half a world away?

Peters, Charles. Lyndon B. Johnson. New York: Times Books, 2010.