Happy Birthday to . . . .

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.

3 thoughts on “Happy Birthday to . . . .”

  1. Yes, we reap the benefits of LBJ’s actions, with “we” referring to Americans. But all those benefits do not begin to outweigh the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people he murdered.

    You’re right, though, about the intensity of the differences among Americans that the Vietnam War precipitated. I was of draft age during the war, and I felt that Johnson was trying to kill me. (He temporarily revoked my student deferment because I’d objected to the war.) To this day, when I see someone flying an American flag on his or her house, I think that that person supports the war in Vietnam. I know that flying the flag no longer means that, but I can’t help thinking it, and I continue to hate the American flag.

    1. To Mr. Levine, thank you for this.

      To Jarndyce: your opposition to the war was patriotic, as I’m sure you already know, and lots of Americans are thankful and proud of what you did. If it’s any comfort, maybe the following is mitigation for Johnson?

      We might imagine politicians who (A) treat foreigners poorly, and who (B) treat Americans poorly. [Where “poorly” is clearly inadequate, but at least, succinct.] Johnson did A, but not so much B. Has there ever been a president who did B, but not A? That is, does B imply A? I’d guess yes.

      Cold comfort, and for sure, I share your sense of dread of our fellow citizens who mindlessly clothe themselves in the flag: that tic is so often paired with a real disdain for the things which make our country worth defending.

      And those latter things, well, FWIW LBJ helped create at least some of them.

  2. I protested the war in Vietnam and will never stop wondering how that war might have resolved differently if Bobby Kennedy had succeeded Johnson. But I also taught in the pilot Head Start program in Indianapolis and later worked in various anti-poverty programs that would have not have been there without LBJ. I saw, and I like to believe contributed to, the good those programs delivered and continue to deliver. Maxine Waters probably would not have RUN for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, much less won, without the community action program in her neighborhood in L.A. I for one am truly and deeply grateful she is there. Finally, I subscribe to Stuart Levine’s suggestion that we allow the good that people do to live after them and, with the passage of time, inter their evil with their bones.

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