A third of a century after Lyndon B. Johnson abandoned his five-year roller coaster as president; his attempts for the betterment of mankind were not always met with approval. Conservatives disdain his ?Great Society?, while liberals excoriate his Vietnam policy. Reganites group Johnson?s tenure with the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations in a quartet of presidential failures that precipitated their ?revolution? in the transformation of America and her people.
Yet Lyndon Baines Johnson was one of the great ?Liberal nationalists? of the American century. In Congress, by crossing the views of Southern populism with the rapidly expanding Northern progressivism he harnessed federal power to modernize the South. As a president, he soothed a nation reeling from Kennedy?s assassination, fathered civil rights legislation, and crusaded to ?conquer poverty? in his fanciful attempt to become the ?greatest presidential reformer in the country?s history.?
It was in his firs 15 months that Mr. Johnson best demonstrated the qualities for which he hoped to be remembered. By masterly managing the transition of power from the slain president to himself, by restoring faith in the viability of the ?American System? of divided legislature and executive powers, by proving the nation?s capacity to withstand the horror of assassination and by persuading the world of the strength and continuity of America and her institutions.
Shrewd management of his relations with Congress brought about quick action on a tax-cut bill only weeks after Mr. Johnson became President. He paved the way for the $11-billion cut slashing the budget, which apparently impressed the economic blocs.
In July 1964, Mr. Johnson proudly signed into law the most sweeping civil rights bill since Reconstruction days. Mr. Kennedy had submitted the measure to Congress in June 1963, and Mr. Johnson had pushed hard for its enactment from the time he became president. The bill passed the Senate after a 15-week southern filibuster. It outlawed discrimination in places of public accommodation, publicly owned facilities, employment and union membership, as well as in federally aided programs. A major feature of the legislation was the new power it gave the Attorney General to speed school desegregation and to enforce the Negro?s right to vote. To get the legislation he wanted, the President used with great success what became to be known as the ?Johnson treatment.? The treatment consisted of a combination of cajolery, flattery, concession, arm-twisting and outright wooing, all applied by Mr. Johnson with an endless succession of telephone calls, the squeezing of elbows, the friendly arm around the shoulder, and the cold stare when crossed. The technique was aimed at finding and touching the most sensitive nerve in the target.
LBJ was the last true education president. His hope for improving American education was idealistic and intense. Johnson?s education programs relied upon specific government regulations to ensure that federal funds were exclusively used for the benefit of low-income students. This strategy succeeded in getting the federal money to eligible students. It also ripped apart the open integrity of America?s public schools, particularly large city systems.
Early in his Administration, the president declared what he called a ?war on poverty.? He made two trips to the distressed Appalachia area to dramatize the need for an antipoverty drive for which he asked congress to appropriate $1 billion.
He first spoke of the ?Great Society? as the catch phrase with which he sought to identify his Administration?as the New deal did for Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New frontier for Mr. Kennedy?s. In 1965 he stood as the Democrat nominee for president and upon election he came out of the shadow of Kennedy, no more was LBJ and accidental president. But he used the tag less and less as the nation became embroiled in racial strife, civil disorders and the ruinous wars in Vietnam.
Johnson’s triumph in 1965 gave him a mandate for the Great Society, Congress responded by passing the Medicare program, approving federal aid to elementary and secondary education, supplementing the War on Poverty, and creating the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
At this point Johnson began the rapid deepening of U.S. involvement in Vietnam; as early as February 1965, U.S. planes began to bomb North Vietnam. American troop strength in Vietnam increased to more than 180,000 by the end of the year and to 500,000 by 1968. Many influences led Johnson to such a policy. Among them were personal factors such as his temperamental activism, faith in U.S. military power, and staunch anticommunism. These qualities also led him to intervene militarily in the Dominican Republic–allegedly to stop a Communist takeover–in April 1965.
While the nation became deeply involved in Vietnam, racial tension sharpened at home, culminating in widespread urban race riots between 1965 and 1968. The breakdown of the interracial civil rights movement, together with the imperfections of some of Johnson’s Great Society programs, resulted in Republican gains in the 1966 elections, thus thwarting Johnson’s hopes for further congressional cooperation.
It was the policy of military escalation in Vietnam, however, that proved to be Johnson’s undoing as president. It deflected attention from domestic concerns, resulted in sharp inflation, and prompted rising criticism, especially among young, draft-aged people. Escalation also failed to win the war. The drawn-out struggle made Johnson even more secretive, dogmatic, and hypersensitive to criticism. His usually sure political instincts were failing.
Progressively the budgets of his Administration were mortgaged to that war and it unpopularity drained his political strength. Moreover, the cities of America were ravaged by decay and racial dissension, and the Caucasian majority responded with anger, fear and vindictiveness. By the time he left office on Jan 20 1969, his nation?s reputation for violence, far from having diminished had grown abroad to monstrous proportions. The name of LBJ, like that of the other three Democratic Presidents who served full terms in this century, had become inextricably linked with war and its consequences.
By all indications the war in Vietnam was the least popular of America?s wars in this century. Bitter controversy about the war swirled around the president and drowned the memory of his good legislative works.
LBJ was a truly massive president who took American into a new era of development. Coming out of Kennedy?s shadow was a mammoth task yet he managed it with style.
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