Appreciating L.B.J.

The mausoleum-like LBJ library.

No trip to Austin would be complete without a trip to the Lyndon B. Johnson presidential library. The edifice, designed in a late 60s-era brutalist style of architecture, is massive, impersonal and expresses nothing of the man it honors. But the museum inside brings to life a president who, for all his failings, was one of the most consequential in the history of the United States.

LBJ advanced the Civil Rights revolution, stripping away the trappings of Jim Crow and setting up laws to ensure equal civil rights for all Americans regardless of race, and he embarked upon one of the greatest social experiments ever — the war on poverty. He also presided over the quagmire that was the Vietnam War. The first accomplishment was brilliant, and it will enshrine Johnson forever in the pantheon of great American presidents. The second was noble in spirit and aspiration, but it suffered from massive unintended consequences and, far from vanquishing poverty, has cemented it in place. The Vietnam war was tragic, although I do believe future historians who write the second draft of history may be more forgiving of Johnson than those who lived through that tumultuous time and articulated the conventional wisdom that dominates the way Americans view the conflict today.

I grew up in a Republican household, and my parents were never fans of LBJ. As a fifth grader, I sported an AuH20 button. I still hew to Goldwater’s libertarian philosophy and I lament the massive expansion of federal government power that Johnson presided over. But with the passage of time, I have become more appreciative of his accomplishments. The visit to his library, which put some of his most uplifting oratory on display, gave me a deeper insight into his thinking. Born into a modestly well-to-do family in the hard-scrabble hill country of Texas, he lived close to the poverty of those around him. While rising to wealth and prominence (the LBJ library does not dwell upon the more unsavory details of where that wealth came from), he never forgot the less fortunate members of society.

The LBJ archives

The LBJ era also ushered in the era of ultra-rancorous politics we know today. The media skewered the president over his Vietnam War policies. As he complained in a Trump-like lament, if he had walked on water across the Potomac River, the headline the next day would be, “Johnson can’t swim!”

Precursors of today’s Daily Show and other politically charged late-night “comedy” acts were “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” and the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” Tom and Dick Smothers were particularly tough on the president, although the tone of relentless negativity never approached what we see on “comedy” shows today. As a youth who watched both shows, I don’t recall anyone suggesting that President Johnson’s mouth would best serve as Khrushchev’s cock holster. The item on display in the museum that left the most enduring image in my mind was a letter signed by Tom and Dick Smothers:

Mr. President,

During the past couple of years we have taken satirical jabs at you and more than occasionally overstepped our bounds. We disregarded the respect due the office and  the tremendous burden of running the country because of our emotional feelings towards the war. …

Often, an emotional issue such as war makes people tend to over-react. Please accept our apology on behalf of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour for our over-reaction in some instances. Please know that we do admire what you have done for the country and particularly  your dignity in accepting the abuse of so many people.

In the 1960s, emotions ran high because of war, the civil rights struggle, riots in the streets, and a counter-cultural revolution that rejected long-established norms. There were weighty reasons for anger. Yet both Johnson — a man so uncouth he installed a telephone in his bathroom so he could conduct affairs of state while sitting on the toilet — and his antagonists conducted themselves with far greater dignity than their counterparts today when the stakes are…. what? Really, what issue is doing more to tear tearing the nation apart than the mutual loathing of our president and his enemies?

The LBJ ranch

Speaking of the toilet installed in LBJ’s bathroom… we saw it. After visiting the LBJ museum, we decided to tour the LBJ ranch, known as the Texas White House, where Johnson spent 450 days during his five years in office. The ranch house, located about 45 minutes west of Austin, faces the Pedernales River, very near where Johnson was born and spent his early youth. A utilitarian building, by no means opulent, the house befits a man who had few social pretensions. The furnishings, preserved as if in amber, are a testimony to 1960s taste and culture. (Ewww.)

Johnson made the most of every minute of every day. He didn’t work out. He didn’t didn’t play golf. He didn’t hobnob with the beautiful people. Politics consumed his every thought, and he outfitted his house with televisions in every room — three of them, one for each network, in his bedroom — and always had a telephone within reach. Including one near his toilet. Johnson was always reaching out: negotiating, flattering, threatening, and cajoling to move his agenda forward. One day he reputedly spent a full 18 hours on the telephone. It’s how he got so much accomplished. It certainly worked better than tweeting.

The amphibcar

Johnson loved being around people, and he had a zest for life. One of his favorite tricks was loading newcomers to the ranch into the blue car at right, crying out that the brakes had failed, and plunging into a lake. Unbeknownst to the passenger, the car was one of 3,900 amphibious Amphicars manufactured by a German company. In an audiotape one can hear at the ranch, then-presidential aide (and future cabinet secretary) Joseph Califano described his terror until he realized that the car was not sinking.

LBJ, bigger than life, truly was a president that only Texas could have produced.

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15 responses to “Appreciating L.B.J.

  1. Pretty thoughtful AND Insightful post! Thank you!

  2. It is interesting how Jim Bacon’s posts, and the many comments to those posts, on Barcelona several years ago threw great light on today’s current events unfolding in and around Barcelona.

  3. Love him or hate him (few people are neutral), LBJ was one of the most important politicians in United States history. His understanding of politics and political power are virtually unrivalled. He may not have been loved by many in government, but he sure knew how to instill fear and to manipulate people and the process to get his desired result.

    LBJ clearly exemplifies the spirit of Texas and, indeed, 20th Century America. Rest in Peace, Mr. President.

  4. LBJ was in power at a time where levers could be pulled by those who knew how to pull them, and he did. He could, in conjunction with powerful congressional leaders like his mentor, Sam Rayburn, implement sweeping programs like Medicare and the other “Great Society” programs. The scope and scale of these programs is not possible in today’s environment, where consensus is so difficult to achieve (for reasons that would take some time to go into).

    President Trump may be some sort of limited savant that can pull political and emotional levers through devices like his tweets but, although it got him elected, it largely just exacerbates the growing political divide. When it comes to implementing real programs, Trump appears to be pushing strings rather than pulling levers.

    In all fairness, LBJ (or a Republican version of him) could be lost if he came back today. For starters, Paul Ryan is not Sam Rayburn. LBJ struggled with being telegenic and a good communicator even in his day, so he might really struggle today. Still, I miss the generation that could put together a response to the Great Depression, successfully prosecute WW2, put together a post-war coalition and outlast Communism. I don’t see any hope of that any more.

  5. TMT – “Love him or hate him (few people are neutral), LBJ was one of the most important politicians in United States history. His understanding of politics and political power are virtually unrivalled.”

    I agree but would add that (despite his wonderful partial first term in office) he was one of the most important politician in US history by reason of the long term harm he did to nation. His tragedy rides on two shoulders.

    1/ His improper conduct of the Vietnam War that torn the nation apart for generations, and splintered us into yet to be repaired angry factions.

    2. He built his Great Society on a structure of dependency. This torn black communities and families apart, leaving atomized individuals adrift without the support of kin or community, impoverished people alone in an underclass of low expectations dependent on the government. This plague has now spread throughout the whole of our society. It now deepens the great divisions in our nation and now splinters them into ever more angry parts, shattering our melting pot into a grievance based identity culture.

    I believe LBJ is outmatched only by Woodrow Wilson, who did unparalleled harm to the nation and the western powers, leading us into not only WW1 but the near collapse of the western world before and during WW11.

    It can be argued the the seniority party system in Congress gave both men (LBJ and Wilson) the power to do the harm they did, and that it rested directly on the building of coalitions north and south on the Jim Crow laws of segregation and the KKK that brought the nation together politically and culturally. What a paradox!

    It can also be said that both failed presidencies, LBJ’s and Woodrow Wilson’s, rested on a character flaw that compulsively built the idea that:

    “Man is not content merely to study history. The ego will not be satisfied with this, because the ego in its unredeemed or natural state is not able to see history apart from itself. The ego is the center of creation; history, therefore, has no meaning outside its own understanding. Thinking that it is the creator, the ego drives toward the reduction of history in order to assimilate and master history. What occurs when this takes place is that the ego compels its finite mind to reduce the infinite to finiteness, in order that the mind may understand, control, and use the infinity that is history.”

    These are thoughts on Wilson of Arthur Link, the Princeton professor who devoted his whole career to the sanctification of Woodrow Wilson. See C. D. McIntyre, editor, God, History, and Historians: Modern Christian Views of History (Oxford University, 1977), p. 375. As sited in article found at: http://www.libertylawsite.org/liberty-forum/the-madness-of-saint-woodrow-or-what-if-the-united-states-had-stayed-out-of-the-great-war/

    Teddy Roosevelt likely suffered mightily from the same affliction in 2012 when he ran against Taft, his close friend who had succeed him as President.

    Izzo –

    LBJ was in power at a time where levers could be pulled by those who knew how to pull them, and he did

  6. Reed, I agree that we are still feeling the impact of LBJ for better or worse. He largely furnished the sitting room and we only seem to have the wherewithal today to move a few pieces around.

    I was commenting on his ability to “get things done”, not on the wisdom of his actions. I agree with your observations on the Vietnam War and the structure of the Great Society.

    I think his most lasting contributions were in civil rights (supported in part by a Republican congress, which would surprise most young people today). As he foresaw, this also changed the political structure in the country, particularly the South.

    • Izzo –

      Excellent points. I should have made more clear his monumental contribution to Civil Rights as you now hove done. And God Bless the Republican Senator from Illinois, the legendary Evertett Dirksen.

    • Clearly, LBJ’s efforts and results in the area of civil rights, despite Southern Democrats, are, IMO, his greatest achievement. But for LBJ, there would never have been a President Obama.

      On the other hand, his Great Society fostered dependence and, even worse, the creation of the Professional Caring Class -those many advanced degreed individuals whose costs is a huge drag on the American economy.

  7. Good Lord Guys:

    36. Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969)
    37. Richard Nixon (1969-1974)
    38. Gerald Ford (1974-1977)
    39. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)
    40. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)
    41. George Bush (1989-1993)
    42. Bill Clinton (1993-2001)
    43. George W. Bush (2001-2009)
    44. Barack Obama (2009-2017)

    you know .. it’s been a L O N G time and a LOT of POTUS since Johnson
    and we’re still screwed?

    whoa!!!!

  8. ” … The lessons of history, confirmed by the evidence immediately before me, show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fibre. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. It is inimical to the dictates of sound policy. It is in violation of the traditions of America. Work must be found for able-bodied but destitute workers.

    The Federal Government must and shall quit this business of relief.”

  9. Well you got me there, Larry. I didn’t realize the 1960s were that long ago. I must be another victim of New Math.

    My point was simply that entitlement programs instituted in the Johnston Administration (Medicare, Medicaid, etc.) have grown significantly and, coupled with Social Security and interest on the debt, has crowded out discretionary spending. After taking out entitlements, interest, and defense, only about 6% of the budget is left for other discretionary items. As a practical matter, Johnson had a lot more latitude to shape policy than his more recent successors.

    • Izzo – social security is not funded from general revenues but instead from FICA tax, so is Medicare Part A .. Neither of them have any influence on the deficit and debt.

      Medicare Part B and MedicAid DO.

      Part B was originally designed to pay only 80% of costs and the recipient 20%. As long as folks had skin in the game – they made more careful decisions.

      The other problem is that we sell part B for about $134 a month when it should cost $500. If people paid $500 – and there was no Medicare Advantage – Medicare would be self supporting.

      MedicAid is tougher. MedicAid primarily pays for health care for kids, moms, disabled and handicapped folks – and the elderly in nursing homes.

      fully 1/3 of MedicAid goes to pay for nursing homes – for people who own their own homes but never got long-term care for themselves and instead thought the govt would pay for their nursing home care.

      Social Security is actually the ONLY entitlement program that actually is self-limiting. The law says that if FICA tax revenues are insufficient to pay all benefits – then benefits will be cut to the level that keeps the payout level with the funding.

      Social Security can be fixed fairly easily. Medicare Part B – if they actually charged $500 most retired could pay that and should. MedicAid won’t be so easy.. but it’s a test of what we do as a nation with respect to our most vulnerable citizens who cannot care for themselves.

      THe other 35 OECD countries don’t have our problem .. they cover all their folks for 1/2 what we do – they live longer and have a lower infant death rate.

      Yet we insist that we can’t do what they do…and our choice is to not cover all our folks because it will “devour” the budget.

      Something is not quite right with the logic.. it’s like we are the worst in the world -and proud of it.

      • Congress could make the value of Medicaid benefits taxable income and then increase the personal exemptions. That would help with Medicaid and also likely discourage schemes to divest assets to qualify for Medicaid.

        If the U.S. went to single payer and did so in a manner that did not “devour” the budget, there would also need to make major cuts. Clearly, private insurance costs and profits would go away, while government agency costs would increase. Which way would the net go?

        But to go further, we’d need to reduce or cut out major costs from health care delivery. Doctors, nurses, technicians, admin people, pharma, medical device, etc., would have to take a whole lot less then they are getting today. And procedures would also need to be limited in both access time and overall availability. How does that happen?

  10. “Obviously something is desperately wrong with our welfare system. With only about half of what is now spent on welfare, we could give enough money to every impoverished man, woman, and child to lift them above the poverty line. Instead, we spend vast amounts on a system that perpetuates poverty. But the waste of money pales before the sinful waste of human potential-the squandering of so many millions of hopes and dreams.

    ….It’s time to reshape our welfare system so that it can be judged by how many Americans it makes independent of welfare.”

    —————————————————————–

    “Today, we are ending welfare as we know it,” ____vsaid at a White House ceremony, where he was flanked by three former welfare recipients. “But I hope this day will be remembered not for what it ended, but for what it began.”

    _____ endorsement of the bill, which requires recipients to work and limits benefits to five years, fulfills a ___ campaign promise ….

    Gone were the Marine Band and Democratic congressional leaders who had attended bill-signing ceremonies earlier this week for bills increasing the minimum wage and making health insurance more accessible. Republicans, who had prodded ____ for months to sign a welfare bill, refused to give him credit. And the divisions among Democrats over the legislation were readily apparent.

    Even as _____ signed the measure, women’s groups and advocates for the poor protested along Pennsylvania Avenue…

  11. Larry, you said “Izzo — social security is not funded from general revenues but instead from FICA tax, so is Medicare Part A .. Neither of them have any influence on the deficit and debt.”

    First of all, if you look at what I said, I was making a different point and using different terms.

    That said, I think you are wrong. Social Security does influence debt and is funded from general revenues. Social Security taxes go into a trust fund. The trust fund is required to invest in government securities. The government is effectively borrowing from the trust fund and owes it money. The government has used this mechanism to fund non-Social Security budget items.

    When Social Security outflows exceed inflows, as they now do, the government must essentially “pay back” the trust fund. (Note that Medicare outflows greatly exceed inflows.) In order to pay it back, the government must divert general fund revenue from other sources, cut spending, or issue more debt. So it is paid from general revenues and does influence the debt.

    This public accounting shell game happens all the time. The UVA Strategic Investment Fund and the funding of R&D from tuition at research universities are variations of it.

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