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A Tale of Two Texans

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, January 19, 2005; Page A19

Forty years ago tomorrow, Lyndon Johnson took the presidential oath on the steps of the Capitol, and American -- and inaugural -- politics have not been the same since.

Before Johnson became president, the United States had not had a president from the South since Zachary Taylor died in office in the summer of 1850. In the 40 years since Johnson's landslide victory, southerners have been president for 24 years -- at least if we grant Poppy Bush's claim that he was really a Texan. By ending southern exceptionalism, by steering to passage the great laws that ended legal segregation and enabled southern blacks to vote, Johnson made it possible for southerners to run for president freed from the burden of defending a profoundly racist system. He made it possible for them to win.

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The young Johnson entered politics as the most avid of New Dealers, and the New Deal, as historian Jordan Schwarz in particular has demonstrated, was in good measure directed at bringing living standards in the South up to those in the rest of the nation. By establishing a national minimum wage and public power systems to electrify vast rural areas, FDR intended to fast-forward the development of America's most underdeveloped quadrant. As a 26-year-old New Deal administrator who employed jobless young men to build roadside parks all across Texas, and then as a young congressman who sped the electrification of his state's Hill Country, Johnson developed a lifelong faith in the capacity of government to better people's lives.

That faith, as much as anything else, was the basis of Johnson's much-maligned War on Poverty. For all the attacks leveled then and since on Johnson's programs, the numbers tell a different, far happier tale. In 1959, 22 percent of Americans lived in poverty. By 1973 that figure had fallen to 11 percent, and it has never climbed back to anywhere near its pre-Great Society levels. Poverty among the elderly in particular fell from 35 percent in 1959 to 10 percent today -- numbers to remember as we consider dismantling Social Security.

Tomorrow a very different Texan will take the presidential oath. To be sure, George W. Bush has handled Iraq no better than Johnson handled Vietnam, but in domestic matters he is the anti-Johnson through and through. Bush's vision is to get people off the government's grid, not put more on. He calls this the "ownership society," and it would be a lovely vision if everyone could afford to buy into it.

The problem, of course, is what happens to those people who don't fare very well in the market economy when the government declines to provide much of a safety net. And for that we need look no farther than George W. Bush's Texas. After decades of conservative rule, Texas is a pretty fair prototype for Bush's ownership society. There are no income taxes. There are scarcely any unions. Benefits are low. Regulation is scarce. Markets are unfettered.

And the results fall somewhere between sobering and sickening. As the president proposes to "reform" Social Security, it's notable that the state he served as governor leads the nation in senior poverty, with 17.3 percent of the elderly living beneath the poverty line. Texas may be a state of biblical values, but "honor thy father and thy mother" seems to have fallen through the cracks.

Texas also leads the land by a wide margin in its percentage of medically uninsured. Fully 25.2 percent of Texans, in the latest government figures, go without health insurance. New Mexico, which ranks second, with 21.6 percent uninsured, has a way to go to catch Texas.

There are some historically specific reasons for these figures, of course. The entrenched poverty of the Rio Grande Valley is intense. But so is the entrenched poverty of Appalachia, and senior poverty even in West Virginia is just 8.4 percent. Texas is also home to a large immigrant population, much of it undocumented. But so is California, where the rate of residents with no medical coverage -- 18.3 percent -- is seven points lower than the rate in Texas.

The Texas difference is a political difference. In its resistance to taxes and services and unions, Texas has created an ownership society that excludes more Americans than any other state. And this is the model that Bush is commending to the nation as a whole.

That Lyndon Johnson made George W. Bush's presidency possible, then, has to rank as one of those great ironies that history apparently adores. For Johnson's mission was to bring Texas up to the standards of the United States. And Bush's mission is to bring the United States down to the standards of Texas.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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