The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lyndon Johnson left office as a deeply unpopular president. So why is he so admired today?

President Lyndon B. Johnson addresses the nation in a radio and television broadcast from the White House in 1968. In his speech, the president told the nation he would not run for reelection. (AP)
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Fifty years ago Saturday, President Lyndon Baines Johnson shocked the world by withdrawing from the 1968 presidential campaign. Johnson was an unparalleled political junkie, and his persuasive manner and commitment to activist government had defined Washington for decades, ever since the gangly, ambitious Texan arrived in the nation’s capital as a congressional aide in 1931. Then, amid the stalemated war in Southeast Asia, Johnson claimed he must devote all of his time to Vietnam without sparing a moment to win reelection.

Of course, Johnson’s decision also stemmed from less noble motivations. His approval rating in the Gallup poll had sunk to 36 percent, the upstart campaign of antiwar senator Eugene McCarthy had nearly upset the incumbent president in the New Hampshire primary, and hated rival Robert F. Kennedy had entered the race. Worse yet, Johnson had become a lightning rod for discontent. Everywhere he traveled in 1968, protesters met him with a stinging chant: “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many boys did you kill today?”

Unpopularity drove Johnson out of office. But in recent years, his fortunes have shifted, as memories of the war have ebbed and corrosive national politics have made Americans yearn for the days of an effective president capable of seminal achievements that positively influence their lives.

Johnson’s unpopularity extended beyond his tenure in the White House. In the last four years of his life (Johnson died in 1973), the former president, whose legislative skills made him famous a decade earlier, was seen as a liability instead of a political asset.

In 1972, Democratic leaders warned Johnson to stay away from the party’s national convention in Miami, and the week-long festivities barely took note of the party’s onetime champion. Johnson, former aide Jack Valenti complained, had become “a non-person, expunged from the Democratic Party with the same kind of scouring effectiveness that Marxist revisionists use to rewrite Communist history.” As a final petty insult, the managers of the convention made sure Johnson’s picture was absent among the portraits of former standard bearers Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy.

The 1982 publication of the first volume of Robert Caro’s biography, a searing portrait of Johnson as a venal tyrant and congenital liar, seemed to seal his fate.

In recent years, however, Johnson’s reputation has undergone a surprising rebound. The most recent New York Times presidential rankings included him among the top 10 occupants of the White House. Prominent Democrats from Al Gore to Barack Obama have cited Johnson as a role model. Smithsonian magazine actually asked whether Johnson should be ranked alongside Lincoln. Even Caro has allowed grudging admiration to sneak into his epic story.

What explains this dramatic turnaround in assessments of Johnson’s presidency? And what does it say about contemporary American politics that Johnson looks so much better 50 years after Americans drove him from the White House?

To be sure, fading memories of Vietnam, the conflict that divided the nation and sank Johnson’s presidency, have contributed to his rehabilitation. The wounds of war, while still deep, are less raw. And in the light of later unsuccessful conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Johnson’s failure in Southeast Asia seems less a personal one and more a characteristic of guerrilla conflicts in distant lands.

But reassessment of Johnson’s presidency reflects more than just the passage of time. It also involves recognition of his achievements — accomplishments that seem all the more impressive in comparison to current conditions.

First, Johnson, a veteran of the House and Senate, mastered the art of securing congressional approval for his legislative program. Excepting only his idol Roosevelt, no president amassed a more successful record of shepherding major legislation through Capitol Hill.

Johnson transformed the relationship between the legislative and executive branches. Immersing himself and his staff in all the details of legislation from “the cradle to the grave, from the moment a bill is introduced to the moment it is officially enrolled as the law of the land,” Johnson frequently visited the Capitol and met continually with congressional leaders. “There is but one way for a president to deal with the Congress,” he believed, “and that is continuously, incessantly and without interruption.”

Understanding the pressures each member of Congress faced, Johnson built shifting, ad hoc majorities. On civil rights, he needed northern Republicans. On Medicare and food stamps, he brought together conservative Southerners in his own party with liberal Northerners to overcome Republican opposition. While Johnson’s White House almost never explicitly traded favors for particular votes, every member of Congress understood that cooperation brought benefits: invitations on foreign trips, influence on appointments, projects for the home district. When they voted against the president, recalcitrant members knew they would pay a price.

The legislative gridlock and partisan maneuvers that have stymied so many of Johnson’s successors, the sheer difficulty presidents have faced in enacting their programs (even when their own party controlled the Congress), have made Johnson’s skill seem all the more remarkable.

Second, Johnson’s reputation has revived because of the enduring impact his presidency has exerted on American life. Culminating the long African American struggle for racial justice, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act codified equality. Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security (which was extended to almost all Americans during the 1960s) became the foundations of the nation’s social safety net. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act transformed the way Americans funded public schools, while the immigration reform Johnson signed in 1965 changed the face — and the faces — of the nation. As the war in Vietnam recedes from American memory, the impact of these domestic achievements has revealed just how decisively Johnson’s presidency has shaped American society.

Finally, Johnson’s presidency evokes nostalgia and, among some young Americans, renewed yearning for an era when government was seen as a potential force for good. The man and the era fused in Johnson’s conviction that political action could bring useful things to all sorts of people. For several decades, Johnson’s reputation suffered along with those of the institutions he embodied, the liberalism he championed and the activist government programs that defined his career.

Today, in an era defined by widespread dissatisfaction with the institutions of American governance — only about 40 percent of Americans approve of the president, and more than 80 percent express disapproval of the Congress — Johnson’s unusual effectiveness as a policymaker has rehabilitated his reputation.

Fifty years ago, Johnson’s presidency seemed a failure. Under siege from rightist critics of his liberal agenda and an antiwar left hostile to his strategy in Vietnam and disdainful of his brand of transactional politics, Johnson ended his campaign for reelection and left the White House in disgrace.

A half-century later, Johnson’s achievements — voting rights, the social safety net, more open immigration policy — have reemerged as the pivotal battlegrounds of American politics and, ironically, defending them has become the agenda of the left that once drove him from power. In the process, Johnson has come to take a much more honored place among former presidents. Fifty years after Johnson’s withdrawal, Americans perhaps have learned what French President Charles de Gaulle once tried to explain: “This man Kennedy is America’s mask. But this man Johnson, he is the country’s real face.”