Robert Dallek: L.B.J., Obama and Reassuring a Worried Nation

Barack Obama seems focused on the starts of the Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt presidencies as guides for action — appointing “a team of rivals” to his cabinet and promising immediate steps, a newer New Deal, to revive the economy.

Mr. Obama’s use of history, however, defies G.K. Chesterton’s astute observation that “people who make history know nothing about history. You can see that in the sort of history they make.” There are dangers in relying on past remedies to meet current problems: Generals too often fighting the last war is just one case in point.

Still, as he looks to the past, is there anything that Barack Obama might want to recall from Lyndon B. Johnson’s first 100 days as president? No and Yes.

Both Johnson and President Obama entered office during times of crisis: Diminished confidence in the country’s institutions was palpable in November 1963 and is evident again in January 2009.
But the immediate circumstances are, of course, vastly different: John F. Kennedy’s assassination shook the country’s faith in its tradition of nonviolent political action, of the belief that, unlike people in so many other countries, Americans did not murder their political opponents and that access to high office was strictly through the ballot box.

By contrast with Mr. Obama, Johnson had no mandate to govern except for being vice president. No one expected a Southern politician to suddenly replace the youngest man ever elected to the White House. Although Johnson had been a Washington presence in the House since 1937 and the Senate since 1949, most Americans knew little about him and were uncomfortable with someone whose regional identity had stood as a bar to the presidency since the Civil War.

Johnson took some comfort in the memory of Harry Truman’s succession in April 1945, after F.D.R. died: despite replacing the largest White House figure since Lincoln, Truman, a less imposing figure at the start of his presidency than even Johnson, won the election of 1948 and made a memorable record as chief executive. But the Truman analogy gave Johnson only so much comfort. “I always felt sorry for Harry Truman and the way he got the presidency,” Johnson told an aide two day after Kennedy’s death, “but at least his man wasn’t murdered.”

Like Truman, Johnson understood that his greatest initial challenge was to provide reassurance — to convince not just Americans but people around the world, who looked to the United States for leadership in the cold war, that he could measure up to the standard J.F.K. had set as an effective president at home and abroad.

Johnson’s initial vehicle for restoring confidence was a speech before a joint Congressional session on Nov. 27, five days after Kennedy’s assassination. Speaking from the rostrum of the House, where he could remind everyone that he was a seasoned elected official with 32 years of experience on Capitol Hill, Johnson’s manner and rhetoric struck exactly the right tone. His dark suit and tie mirrored the country’s somber mood but his words were a call to action: the country needed “to do away with uncertainty and doubt … From the brutal loss of our leader we will derive not weakness, but strength; that we can and will act and act now.” Invoking Kennedy’s injunction, “Let us begin,” Johnson said, “Let us continue.”

Repeated bursts of prolonged applause punctuated Johnson’s relatively brief speech, and reflected the country’s enthusiasm for what he asked.

Although Barack Obama has given not the slightest nod to Johnson’s memory — nothing commemorating his 100th birthday during the Democratic Party’s convention in August, nor even a bow in his direction as the architect of the civil rights and voting rights laws of 1964 and 1965 that helped make Mr. Obama’s rise to the presidency possible — he has shown the same sensitivity to public mood that Johnson displayed in his first White House days.

Like Johnson, President Obama has understood the need to speak and act in ways that restore faith in the country’s institutions and hope for more prosperous and tranquil times. Even before Johnson began trying to enact a host of legislative measures that could reduce poverty and build a Great Society, he used the Bully Pulpit, the president’s White House trumpet, to rally the nation to confront and resolve its problems.

Similarly, even before his Inauguration, Barack Obama used his command of the spoken word not only to win the election but to generate expectations of better days ahead. And his speech on Tuesday, we saw a flash of L.B.J.: “The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward …”

Mr. Obama, like a handful of his predecessors, including Johnson, understands that he must be more than a leader and an executive, he must also serve as a kind of master therapist who can brighten peoples’ lives with rational proposals promising solutions to their personal suffering.

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