The Fall of a Texas Titan
March 31 will be exactly fifty years from the day Lyndon Johnson astonished the world by declaring that he would not run again for President in the coming November election. It was nothing like an anticipated retirement. No figure in American history had so passionately wanted to become President, won so large a first mandate, shepherded into force so many laws of enduring fundamental importance, and kept such narrow and firm hold on the reins of power throughout his years in office. His physical health was poor: he had had a heart attack t 47, and died of another one only five years later, when only 64. but he still appeared indestructible. Over six feet tall, imposing and sometimes intimidating, he devoured whiskey, steaks, cigarettes, sexual liaisons, and lesser mortals. When he had chosen to send half a million American troops to Vietnam four years earlier, he had declared that he would not be the first American President to lose a war, but that was what he was doing, even if it took another seven years for Nixon to complete the messy extrication. A master of professional politics, he had failed as a war lord.
The familiar summary of LBJ’s rise and fall has been that he was highly successful, even ‘great’, in introducing domestic policies, above all in civil rights and practical gains for black Americans, drawing on a combination of his own past Congressional expertise and the wave of idealism that swept the country after Kennedy’s assassination. But he had fallen from grace, due to both the problems of the war itself, and to its public opposition, both magnified in impact by television.
That leaves out a great deal. Johnson’s ambitious ‘Great Society’ domestic policies were not just unpopular with unbending Southern white supremacists; they were widely disliked by white working class voters in all regions,, the traditional base of his party. In addition, the new ‘group entitlements’ antagonized a wider swathe of Americans who were not so much racially intolerant as they were deeply attached to strict individualism and equality of opportunity. The 1960s economy, very different from the present one, did not engender public enthusiasm for Johnson’s massive expansion of federal government power. The big visible economic problems were galloping inflation and debt, accelerated by his determination to provide both guns and butter, leading to U.S. departure from the gold standard earlier in the same March. But it was also a time of rising wages and low unemployment. Johnson, a son of Texas tenant farmers, had made himself rich by skilful manipulation of Texas media businesses, but never got over growing up poor in the Great Depression. He sought to extend Roosevelt’s New Deal, stalled. as he saw it, by World War II and the Cold War. But he and his cabinet still believed they had to fight all Communist expansion in the international arena, as much in the rapidly decolonizing ‘Third World’ as had been successfully done in Western Europe. His VP, Hubert Humphrey, another domestic liberal and overseas Cold Warrior, who would become the Democrats’ candidate in the 1968 election, offered more of the same, adding an unpersuasive ‘politics of joy’.
The baby boomers, arriving in full force in 1965-75, saw things differently. The first generation raised on TV, most of them facing either possible conscription for the war or deferment to vastly expanded universities full of liberal and radical idealism, retained little of the outlook of the two preceding decades. The arrival of nuclear-armed ICBMs, and the threat of their use in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, actually reduced emphasis on the ideological concept of anti-Communism as a worldwide ‘struggle for the human soul’. Johnson also disliked this latter inclination.. He believed it had ‘poisoned’ domestic politics during the Korean War, producing paranoid McCarthyist populism and Republican political victory. His relatively limited use of ideological rhetoric may have reduced the level of violent confrontations in the badly-divided country, and been necessary in pushing forward his domestic agenda. But if the war was not effectively presented as part of a great crusade to ‘save all of South-East Asia from Communism’, it was hard for Americans to understand why hundreds of thousands of their soldiers were in Vietnam.
The network colour television arriving in the 1960s also brought a more general change in relations between governors and the governed. The brutal and ghastly aspects of war were brought into the homes of the general population as never before, and doubts were reinforced by Johnson’s inability to flourish in the new medium. He was capable of giving quite eloquent set-piece speeches at times, making his greatest hit with the one he gave on assuming office, given a few days after Kennedy’s murder, and promising to provide a suitable great legacy, through the implementation of a mixture of Kennedyesque programs, like the priority ‘space race’ with the Soviet Union to first land Americans on the moon, and the other large domestic programs dear to his own heart. But for the most part, he had the wrong style for TV, stiff, formal, long-winded, and humourless. In intimate company, Johnson was a fine teller of stories, full of political wisdom and very funny. But they were also coarse and vulgar, and he never found a way of using cleaner versions for general public consumption.
It was mostly just his coarse and vulgar streak that reached the did wider public, reinforcing the impression that he was an ugly Caliban replacing Kennedy’s adored and mythic Ariel. The backstairs gossip about him was less about his humorous tales than about his past ruthlessness and corrupt dealings as the Democrats’ leader in the Senate. Some remarks of his that did get out did not help, like his casual claim that he liked “to have a man’s pecker in my pocket”.
There had been more immediate blows in the previous five weeks to fill him with despair. On February 27th, CBS New Anchor Walter Cronkhite, according to polls, then ‘the most trusted man in America’, had broadcast an editorial claiming the war could only end at best in a stalemate. Johnson, who was watching, turned to his aides and said, “If I’ve lost Cronkhite, I’ve lost Middle America.” On March 22nd, he had relieved from command the top American general in Vietnam, William Westmoreland. On the 26th, he met with a group of advisers, known as ‘the Wise Men’, led by Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defence Clark Clifford, who told him bluntly that ‘a military solution was no longer attainable’, and that he should start taking steps to disengage from the conflict. The highly regarded former Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, wrote him to the same effect, shaking him profoundly. And on the 27th came the bitterest blow of all. While a 1966 Gallup poll had given him 51% to his hated Republican opponent, Richard Nixon, the latest one showed Nixon leading with 41% to Johnson’s 39%, with 11% going to the Southern populist, George Wallace. The exhausted Johnson had no remaining stratagems, anticipating the trend would go only one way.
Lester Pearson, back in 1965, had made a speech suggesting a halt to the recently undertaken massive aerial bombardment of North Vietnam, as a step to diplomatic negotiation. When he visited the White House a day later, the 6′ 3” Johnson grabbed the much smaller Pearson by the collar, lifting him off the floor, and bellowed at him, “You pissed on my rug!” He probably regarded Pierre Trudeau as a similar rug befouler, although only required to deal with the new Canadian P. M., who entered office in the April following the withdrawal speech, for a few months. Lyndon Johnson was a monster at times, but was punished for his hubris.