Giving History the Johnson Treatment

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.


Mark T. Edwards said…
This is a fascinating and, for me, timely post. My Modern America class is just beginning to work its way through Robert Self-s All in The Family. One student observed that religion seemed entirely absent from the Johnson's "breadwinner liberalism." Why is that? Did Self overlook the role of religious persons and groups in defining Great Society liberalism (he's certainly aware of the intersection of faith and "breadwinner conservativism")? Did, as you suggest, LBJ and staff just "abandon" religious rationales for strong-state action? Or, was "religion" simply reconstructed by liberals between 1930s and 1960s in ways that didn't need to explicitly invoke religious rhetoric?

Finally, was Graham the best spokesperson for the "War on Poverty?" Did he ever admit structural explanations for poverty, race, and gender inequalities? I haven't found so, but I'm not a Graham expert.
joechilds said…
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Trevor Burrows said…
"Did Self overlook the role of religious persons and groups in defining Great Society liberalism (he's certainly aware of the intersection of faith and "breadwinner conservativism")? Did, as you suggest, LBJ and staff just "abandon" religious rationales for strong-state action? Or, was "religion" simply reconstructed by liberals between 1930s and 1960s in ways that didn't need to explicitly invoke religious rhetoric?"

Really good questions here, Mark. I wonder if when talking about liberals and religion during this period, we might make some gains by paying closer attention to the "religious establishment" itself (as opposed to individuals). I think we often underestimate the size and scope of large-scale religious institutions at both the federal and the local/metropolitan level. This might be a result of the style of work taken up by the institutions themselves, their relatively top-down bureaucratic structure, and very behind-the-scenes approach to political lobbying. But I do think there is often far more intersection between umbrella/representative religious organizations (say, the National Council of Churches or, at the local level, the Chicago Federation of Churches) and politicians/city officials than we sometimes recognize. Teasing out some of those connections, as subterranean as they may seem, might help us to better situate mid-century religion within liberal politics. (Whether those connections held any real power or influence, of course, is another matter altogether.)

Similarly, we might look for the intersection of religion and political liberalism at the "grassroots" level of Great Society programs. I'm thinking particularly of groups funded through OEO grants to carry out war on poverty initiatives at the local level. I'm just offering an educated guess here, but many of those groups probably had connections to their local religious communities or institutional networks in one way or another; I've seen a bit of evidence to that effect.

I guess what I'm suggesting is that instead of explicit religious rationales/rhetoric, we may find more "religion" in the structures and institutional networks themselves, and the way those structures intersect with political institutions.
Mark T. Edwards said…
Good point, Trevor. From researching the Detroit Council of Churches (now Metropolitan Christian Council) this summer, I can say that the sorts of local connections you mention were certainly still there in the 1960s. However, in the case of the DCC, the connections were strongest in the 1920s and 1930s ("moral establishment" extravagance) and steadily weakened until, after the 1970s, they were hardly evident. In Detroit, at least, ecumenical agencies have since taken the lead in interfaith dialogue, but their old commitments to structural economic and racial reforms seem to have faded (along with those old connections to political and civil service power). I've cast my research net pretty narrowly to date, so that may be an unfair characterization. In any case, maybe "abandonment" is not the right word to describe what has happened since LBJ?
Michael Hammond said…
Mark and Trevor, I appreciate the dialogue and your insights. I think you have brought a lot of great context to this story.
I see Graham as a friend to LBJ (keeping in mind he visited the Johnson WH more than for any other president), and a local advocate in the "Beyond These Hills" film. But much like Graham's involvement on Civil Rights, he is less of an activist and more of a public advocate for "good." Even so, I think the War on Poverty and Great Society was more idealistic and spiritual in the years before Vietnam became a dominant issue. What I see abandoned (much like the housing projects today) is the kind of spiritual conversation over how Christian people might look at government programs to help the poor. Those conversations continue to this day, of course, but what the Great Society became was much more bureaucratic and massive than the earnest conversations represented in the film by Graham and Shriver. And I see a parallel in Shriver's anti-war and pro-life positions, which seem idealistic and non-partisan today.
Your mention of Breadwinner Conservatism is a great point for consideration. It gives the great irony that a large coalition Christian-motivated voters stand against government funds being used on a massive scale to help the poor. I think that divide begins sometime after or during Vietnam.
Perhaps it was never an intentional abandonment of religious groups at all, but rather a byproduct of the Vietnam War. After LBJ, Nixon certainly worked hard to organize religious support during Vietnam.
Mark T. Edwards said…
Thanks, Michael. And thanks again for these important reflections on a vastly understudied topic.
Trevor Burrows said…
Mark, that timeline seems similar to what I've found with Chicago's religious community, although in Chicago the primary institutions seem to run pretty strong through at the least the mid-60s. The ecumenical community is pretty torn apart by the early '70s for a number of reasons, and organizations, as you said, seem to lose any momentum/initiative gained from earlier movements on "social justice" issues. More related to this conversation and the question of abandonment: I've found that a number of organizations really struggle to *situate* themselves in this period. They want to "do more" but aren't sure what that might look like. And by the time the civil rights movement fades from public view, the establishment institutions really have no other groups to follow, no movement to catch any excess momentum from; they're sort of left directionless. "Abandonment" is probably too severe and feels too unidirectional; I want to use "collapse" but I'm not sure what, exactly, is collapsing...

Michael, I'm wondering what other examples you might point to of the War on Poverty (or Great Society's) more spiritually- or religiously-informed incarnations, pre-Vietnam? I think it's a really interesting suggestion, one that I haven't really considered before for precisely some of the reasons you offer here in the post: Johnson tends to be known more for bluster and bite than spirituality/religiosity (whatever those are) or breadth/depth of thought. Are there other figures beyond Shriver/Graham that might extend the argument further?

This post and the comments have really kept me thinking. Thanks to both of you!
Elesha said…
Mark, to your question about Graham and structural explanations for poverty, race, and gender inequalities, there's some interesting stuff in World Aflame (1965), which is online at ccel. In the chapter "Social Involvement of the New Man" Graham mostly says that the church is about saving souls, and it goes off track when it tries to speak out on policy. He also admits, though, that white flight to the suburbs is leaving city populations with substandard housing and high unemployment. He indicates that these are structural concerns worth addressing--just not by churches speaking as churches. Also, his most pointed concern about church advocacy in politics is that too many churches opposed JFK and supported Goldwater.
Mark T. Edwards said…
Thanks for Graham insights, Elesha!

Trevor, I think the Detroit ecumenical movement's last "heyday" was their involvement in the city's open housing push (see Lloyd D. Buss's dissertation on the subject: Your point about loss of direction after the fracturing of the civil rights movement is well taken. In fact, I'd argue that what we typically call the "ecumenical movement" in America--the Federal Council and all the city councils, which initially called themselves "co-operative Christianity"--is inseparable from the rise and fall of the strong-state liberal consensus. And yes, the idea of liberal consensus is quite problematic; I'll take for my point of reference on consensus Gary Gerstle's American Crucible.

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