Every August 27, I celebrate a birthday. Yes, August 27 is my birthday. But the birthday I always celebrate is that of Lyndon Johnson.
For progressives, particularly of my generation, LBJ evokes sharp and conflicting emotions. After all, most of us cut our political teeth opposing the war in Vietnam. Johnson ginned up support for the war effort by lying to the American public, both about the immediate causes (e.g., the Gulf of Tonkin “attack”) and the overarching political stakes (e.g., the alleged falling dominoes). As a consequence, Americans were pitted one against the other to a degree not seen, perhaps, since the Civil War.
But unlike other flawed presidents (Trump comes all too readily to mind), LBJ attempted to bring out the best in America. In that sense, he was clearly a legitimate political heir of Franklin Roosevelt. He changed America for the better by pushing through Medicare, serious gun control, the Voting Rights Act, and the Civil Rights Act. While he didn’t spearhead its passage, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, that removed national quotas, was enacted. He signed the Public Broadcasting Act and set up the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities. Today, all Americans are the beneficiaries of his legacy.
I doubt whether anyone who is under the age of, say, 55 can fully appreciate the extent or the intensity of the differences among Americans that the Vietnam War precipitated. The divisions among Americans today are really not as charged. After all, in LBJ’s day, support for his foreign policy world view was widely shared across the political spectrum, albeit perhaps, not evenly. That is clearly not the case currently. Now, support for the wide ranging demagoguery of Donald Trump is limited to a fairly narrow ethnic and economic segment of American society.
Trump intentionally attempts to divide Americans along racial, ethnic, and religious lines. While racial politics and frictions were clearly in play when LBJ was president, he did not attempt to exploit those fault lines. For instance, the urban riots from 1965-1968 tested the mettle of LBJ’s character. It would have been easy for him to fall prey to, say, the racism which at that point began to infect the Republican Party. We should not forget that it was then that the GOP began the program of racist division called the Southern Strategy. Today, fifty years later, we now see the full poisonous flower of that program. But that was not LBJ’s path.
No, LBJ kept his balance. Today, in the diversity that is America, we reap the benefits of what we can only call his wisdom. So on this day, let us invert Mark Anthony and remember that sometimes it is the good that men do that lives after them and that, with the passage of time, we should inter the evil with their bones.
Happy Birthday Lyndon.