It began with the February C-Span poll of historians ranking Lyndon Johnson number eleven among American Presidents (although he was still behind his predecessor, John Kennedy, who was #6). Then, in April, a Times opinion piece recommended that Barack Obama follow the LBJ model for passing legislation. In that article, historian Robert Dallek wrote of Johnson:
[A]ll Johnson's major initiatives remain a part of the national life: civil rights and voting rights; Medicare and Medicaid; federal aid to elementary, secondary and higher education; the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development; environmental protections; consumer rights; medical research; and support for the arts and humanities.
It's good to be reminded that the man who was forced to abandon the presidency because of his hot pursuit of victory in Vietnam passed both the first meaningful civil rights legislation in American history (followed by voting rights legislation), and created Medicare (as well as Medicaid), and much, much more.
Then, on Walter Cronkite's death, MSNBC's Chris Matthews revived an old interview he did with the CBS anchor, in which Matthews asked Cronkite his rankings of the 11 presidents he had known. Cronkite answered that Eisenhower had the most stature, Carter(!) was the smartest, and Johnson the most powerful.
Now, Joe Klein, in Time, is harkening back to the golden days of Johnson. True, Klein's piece doesn't mention Johnson in addressing the babble of contemporary politics in America, which seemingly makes it impossible to pass any landmark legislation altering our country's destiny. But when we recall when such seminal legislation was last passed, we immediately focus on Lyndon Johnson's record.
Aside from the changes in the political process from Johnson's time that Klein outlines, there are three prominent personal traits that made LBJ the beacon for success among modern presidents in creating monumental legislative initiatives.
- Johnson emotionally identified with the underdog.
The son of a failed father, Johnson felt socially inferior to those
around him. He was always sympathetic to society's outcasts.
Alone among Southern Senators, Johnson was not a racist. It is not
now well-remembered that Johnson began his professional life as a
teacher of underprivileged kids, and that he was one of those model
teachers who gave his all for the minority children under his charge.
- Johnson was a man of the people. Johnson's coarseness is
often now referred to, especially his sexual and scatological
utterances and behavior. But Johnson didn't have to pretend -
like virtually every president since Truman, nearly all of whom
were educated in elite institutions and associated with elites
throughout their adult lives - that he knew how to get along
with ranchers, farmers, laborers, and just plain folks. Indeed, Johnson
went to the opposite extreme by concealing his down-home personality
in attempting to sound proper, even pious, in his public appearances.
- Of course, as Robert Caro described in "Master of the Senate," Johnson
was the ultimate power player. He knew where all the bodies were
buried, and was perfectly willing - even while drinking with fellow politicians
(need I mention Johnson didn't drink lite beer?) and putting his arm
around them - to physically squeeze (according to Caro) their balls
with the other hand. He never shirked from making his will known, and
just how displeased he would be if someone wouldn't do his bidding. And
he would crush you if you crossed him.
Before I start sounding like Lyndon Johnson's posthumous white-washing machine, I should also mention that he was a liar when it came to slandering political rivals (like 1948 Texas senatorial opponent Coke Stevenson) and he was certainly not above stealing a close election like the one with Stevenson. Beyond that, he was (like Nixon) seriously emotionally imbalanced - as revealed partly by Doris Kearns Goodwin's behind-the-scenes depiction of Johnson after he left the presidency.
While he is thankfully much more stable emotionally than Johnson, Barack Obama, our first black President, is actually less adept at identifying with the underprivileged and having the common touch. Obama was, after all, educated at exclusively elite institutions and hung with the upper crust at Harvard and later in Chicago. This, combined with an absence of an instinct for the jugular, has left Obama lost in the wilderness when it comes to getting a major health care bill passed.
On the other hand, Obama presumably would not have made Johnson's errors in persisting in the Vietnam quagmire and reacting to opposition to the War by cracking heads (along with Hubert Humphrey's nuts). But we may be forgiven for expressing just a few feelings of nostalgia for LBJ. We are unlikely to ever again see the likes of him - or of the huge changes he crafted in our society - and we are just now starting to understand what we have lost.