Welcome Back to American Politics, LBJ!





Mr. Woods, a professor of history at the University of Arkansas, is the author of LBJ: Architect of American Ambition (paperback, 2007).

Last month Hillary Rodham Clinton became the first Democratic candidate for the presidency to invoke the name of Lyndon B. Johnson. LBJ, the Great Society, and Vietnam have been strictly taboo for virtually any Democrat seeking public office. A visitor from a distant planet landing suddenly in the late 1970s would never have known the 36th president had ever existed. In President Clinton’s oval office there were busts of Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy but Johnson was nowhere to be found. In part LBJ’s omission from the party’s constellation of stars had to do with the legacy of Vietnam. Liberals wanted to forget him because he was a reminder that in no small part the conflict in Southeast Asia had been a liberals’ war; conservatives blamed him for losing a war that could have been won. During the 1980s liberalism in general and the Great Society specifically became punching bags for Reagan conservatives. As the embodiment of the former and the author of the latter, LBJ became the right’s horrible example. It was no accident that Robert Caro’s massive biography demonizing Johnson began to take shape during the Reagan revolution.

Senator Clinton’s juxtaposition of LBJ the pragmatic politician with Martin Luther King the moral imperator aroused the ire of some civil rights activists who felt she was disrespecting the founder of the SCLC. History is nothing if not irony. It may be argued that the tens of thousands of GIs who died in Vietnam were sacrificed on the altar of civil rights. In seeking the passage of the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts, Johnson had to persuade southern segregationists in the Senate like Richard Russell if not to vote for the measures, not to obstruct their passage. With great reluctance they complied. Whatever his misgivings about the war in Southeast Asia, and they were legion, the president felt he could not at the same time ask southern representatives, whose constituents ranked among the most hawkish in America, to agree to the neutralization of Vietnam.

Whatever the merits of this argument, it is undeniable that King and Johnson worked in sometimes uneasy but always effective tandem. Both men were moralists and pragmatists. The Civil Rights Acts – and don’t forget the immensely controversial Fair Housing Act of 1968 – were part of a tightly woven fabric that included Medicare, Medicaid, federal aid to education, anti-poverty programs like head start, public radio and television, clean air and clean water legislation, and mass transit. All of this, until Vietnam started bloating the defense budget, without a deficit. And remember, Lyndon Johnson got more votes from the business community and Republicans in general in 1964 than Barry Goldwater. Perhaps Senator Clinton is on to something.


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Maarja Krusten - 2/9/2008

For what it is worth, I've read Mr. Caro's Master of the Senate (which I enjoyed very much) and did not find that its author demonized LBJ. Consequently, that sentence was jarring to me in in Mr. Woods's article.


Ina Joan Caro - 2/5/2008

Anyone who uses the word "demonizing" with regard to Robert Caro's LBJ has either not read his books or is trying to promote his own book.

Ina Caro
Researcher and assistant to Robert Caro


Arnold A Offner - 2/4/2008

Sorry to disagree with my friend Randall Woods but on two counts he misses a point(s).

1) As much or more than King and LBJ, Hubert Humphrey should get credit for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. HHH was the one who made civil rigths a part of the Decmoratic party agenda in 1948 with his famous convention speech, and HHH was the one who shepherded the 1964 bill throught the Senate, an incredible job given massive southern resistance and Everett Dirksen's equally massive ego;

2) On Vietnam, HHH told LBJ in February 1965 he should NOT escalate the Vietnam War- that his massive victory over Goldwater in 1964 meant the US public was expecting LBJ to work a deal and they would accept it; HHH also said bombing would NOT work, and that LBJ would alienate the liberals in the Dem. party who were the biggest backers of the Great Society.

But as we know, all LBJ did was consign HHH to political Siberia for the next year, institute heavy bombing and US troops, and wreck this society and his presidency (to say nothing of Vietnam!), and Humphrey's future career, since HHH went along on Vietnam beginning in 1966.

Tragedy is sometimes self-made.

But I still like very much my friend Randall Woods and his book on LBJ!