Lyndon Johnson delighted in using power to accomplish his goals. He was famous for his ability to leverage any advantages he held over his opponents, whether that was a majority vote in Congress, or his 6 foot 4 inch frame. His personal efforts to control a debate or influence thinking became known as the “Johnson Treatment,” and few survived the full force of it without a shift toward Lyndon’s perspective. A current fifty-year commemoration of Johnson’s term in office demonstrates the enduring influence of his presidency, and a modern use of the Johnson Treatment to reshape his place in popular memory.
|Whitney Young gets the Johnson Treatment, June, 1966|
This week, the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas celebrated 50 years of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the Civil Rights Summit, a remarkable series of public lectures and events. Speakers included President Barack Obama and former presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter. The program was an outstanding opportunity for reflection on the importance of the act and the challenges for civil rights today. The LBJ Library streamed the sessions, and they are available for viewing online.
Johnson’s family and former staffers have been active in promoting the civil rights acts and Great Society initiatives as the proper way to celebrate the legacy of Johnson’s term in office. These are monumental historic achievements that warrant commemoration. The Vietnam War is more difficult. The burden of that war took the strength of a political animal who rose to power in Texas and Washington by outmaneuvering and bullying his opponents. The revised look at Lyndon Johnson presents him as a great idealistic leader who chose to reform society but had the Vietnam War thrust upon him. One of the most fascinating ways that Lyndon Johnson is being celebrated is through the Broadway play “All the Way” starring Bryan Cranston, most famous for his role as Walter White in Breaking Bad. The play has received mostly positive reviews, and Cranston’s LBJ reinterprets Johnson as earnest and determined to accomplish “big things” with initiatives on civil rights, the Great Society, and the Vietnam War.
Next month will mark fifty years since Lyndon Johnson’s commencement speech at the University of Michigan in which he set forth the agenda for the Great Society. In doing so, Johnson anticipated an America fifty years in the future and projected the challenges that the nation would face. Some of his projections were accurate (4/5 of the population living in urban centers), others fell a bit short (US population of 400 million). Johnson identified three areas to build the Great Society: “in our cities, in our countryside, and in our classrooms.” He called for an ambitious reform of urban America, environmental protection, and education funding.
Johnson sought to build the reach of government much as his hero Franklin Roosevelt had done; to establish systems of social reform so enmeshed in America that they would not easily be turned back by future administrations. He expanded the government with the idea that it would become the largest force for good in the world. Today’s commemorative events remind us how earnest and ambitious these initiatives looked prior to the full involvement of the United States in Vietnam.
As part of the launch of the Great Society, fifty years ago this month Johnson set out to meet the poor in America. The “Poverty Tours” video shows the president selling his policies in campaign stops to working class areas in Appalachia and the South where programs such as job training, education programs, and free school lunch helped families there. Three years later, as part of the effort to spread the message of the Great Society, Johnson paired Billy Graham with “War on Poverty” director Sargent Shriver for “Beyond These Hills,” a filmed tour through North Carolina. Their appearance was part of a program to bring water and poverty relief to these rural areas. The story of those North Carolina efforts is told in the book To Right These Wrongs: The North Carolina Fund and the Battle to End Poverty in 1960s America, by Robert Rodgers Korstad, James Leloudis.
The dialogue between the evangelical Graham and Catholic Shriver explained their missionary endeavor to improve the lives of poor Americans. Their conversation on government using Christian principles to relieve poverty is almost unimaginable in the partisan worlds of politics—and faith—today. Shriver himself held a seamless pro-life perspective—against the Vietnam War and strongly opposed to abortion—that has rarely been represented in public life in the years since he was the Democratic nominee for Vice-President in spot on the 1972.
Just as the Great Society speech shows Johnson before the burden of Vietnam bore down upon him, these faith-driven efforts show an America not yet divided by the Vietnam War. It is a tempting view the Vietnam War as an interruption in a grand story. Yet, current efforts to dismiss Lyndon Johnson’s record in Vietnam and solely praise the Great Society and civil rights acts threaten the lessons to be learned from this era. Johnson understood that to rally support for the Great Society, the Cold War needed to be fought aggressively in Vietnam. To do otherwise would cost badly needed votes for the Great Society in Congress. The Johnson Treatment was applied to the pursuit of the war as well as the domestic agenda.
The Vietnam War intensified an ideological divide in America that persists to this day. And it took away Lyndon Johnson’s will to continue in politics. The Johnson Treatment ultimately came back to lean on Johnson himself. On March 31, 1968, in a televised address to the nation, Johnson famously stated he would neither seek nor accept the Democratic nomination for president. Four days later, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and America appeared to be unraveling. The start of the major league baseball season was delayed due to riots around the country. When the season started a few days later, Johnson could not appear in public to deliver the ceremonial first pitch at the Washington Senators opener, and sent Vice President Hubert Humphrey instead.
Without the Vietnam War, Johnson’s legacy would still include civil rights successes, but also the massive overexpansion of government. As Johnson’s reform programs were approved and funded by Congress, the Great Society became a great monolith of bureaucracy. Massive housing projects in cities like Chicago and New York stood as abandoned monuments to government spending without creativity and restraint. The role of faith in many of these government solutions was abandoned as the size of relief programs grew far beyond the spiritual approach discussed by Billy Graham and Sargent Shriver. By the 1980s, evangelical political leaders spoke out against inefficient government spending for relief programs. Johnson, like 1960s America, must be remembered fully with the challenges of a divided nation in the midst of crisis. His legacy, like that of America, is large enough to celebrate the successes and learn from the failures.