Lyndon JohnsonAnd The American DreamByDoris Kearns Goodwin November 22, 1963 in Dallas Texas, at 12:32 PM C.S.T. a date and time recognized by many Americans for its association with the tragic assassination of President John F. Kennedy, was also a tragic day in the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson. For it was on this day that he rose to the office of President of the United States, a position he had long coveted. For Johnson this was the beginning of a long arduous journey towards personal and political agony. This secondary tragedy of November 22, 1963 was not necessarily a tragedy for the American people but more a personal one for Lyndon Baines Johnson. President Johnson’s assumption of presidential duties in Dallas marked the beginning of a tumultuous sixty three-month period in American history that only ended for America upon his exiting the White House in January 1969. The tragedy was a personal one for Johnson for he had prepared his entire career to attain the office of president and now he was assuming the role, not triumphantly as he had once imagined in the glory days of the 1950’s when he was Senate Majority Leader or even in the campaign days of 1959/1960, but upon the assassination of his predecessor. This ominous Presidential beginning, followed on the heels of the disappointment of failing to be the one selected as his party’s candidate for President in 1960 even though his own ego precluded him from openly campaigning for it in the style of Kennedy and Humphrey. Thereafter, with nothing more to prove in the Senate and for the good off the Democratic ticket in 1960 Johnson had to endure almost three politically wasted years as Vice President. This errant start never really righted itself in the last decade of his life and he was further besieged by political and personal agony that would only cease upon his death in early 1973. Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her biography of Lyndon Johnson, states the future president left Texas as a history teacher to come to Washington in 1931 and that he would spend most of the next thirty seven years there learning, mastering and executing upon the intricacies of playing the political power game in the world’s most powerful city. Johnson served in a variety of roles while in Washington, ranging from a congressional staff member, Congressman, Majority Leader in the Senate, Vice President and finally President. Each role, including the presidency was seen as a stepping stone to the next level. The ultimate prize and pinnacle of his career, election to the presidency in his own right in 1964, was welcomed as a chance to forever make his mark on history through winning the War on Poverty and implementing his Great Society programs. This approach was very much the same as his hero’s, Franklin Roosevelt, with the New Deal in the 1930’s.Kearns describes Johnson as an extremely dominating egotistical man with greater vitality than of anyone she had ever known, Johnson lived for the deal and the action, wanted things done his way and reveled in the appreciation of others. According to Kearns, Johnson was very insecure and learned from his mother, Rebecca Johnson, that love and appreciation were largely dependent upon success and achievement. It was a quest for power combined with a fear of failure (and the resultant loss of the love and appreciation of others) that drove Johnson throughout his career. It also created great anxiety for during the presidential years as well after he left office. Kearns implies that perhaps only in the last years of his life did President Johnson come to terms with how history would remember him and somewhat accepted his fate. Johnson came to love the power and prestige of public office and saw the political process as series of “you do for me and I will do for you”. Johnson was known as one of the great “cloakroom” negotiators who could convince opponents to see things his way and vote for a particularly favorite bill that Johnson wanted to see pushed through into legislation. Absent the ability to negotiate, Johnson was not above threatening and bullying his opponents. Kearns shares insightfully that these superior negotiating skills were learned at an early age and reflect the childhood skills needed to survive the turmoil that existed at home between his educated mother and alcoholic, dominating father. Kearns met Johnson in 1967, when she was only twenty-four years old and openly opposed to the war in Vietnam. The author was a strong believer in the Great Society and in Johnson’s Civil Rights legislation. She worked directly for President Johnson during his last years in office and in a very poignant session in the Oval Office, on what was to be his last full day in office, he asked, almost begged her to assist him in the writing of his memoirs. Theirs was a particularly close relationship, which afforded Kearns an unusually high level of access to the man and his personal thoughts. However, the views of Johnson that Kearns presents must be balanced with the fact that the author went to work for Johnson when he was at the tail end of his political life and embroiled in overwhelming domestic and foreign issues which may, in the history of the Presidency, be surpassed only by the issues confronting Richard Nixon, Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. In 1967, the streets of America were strife with the fires of race riots burning in Los Angeles, Newark, Detroit and elsewhere. The situation in Vietnam was reaching crisis proportions within the United States. Student protests, campus demonstrations and the voices of community leaders, show business personalities and even some political figures could be heard questioning the “war” and a foreign policy that said we must stop communism with force at every turn no matter how far from our shores. U.S. troops were dying in large numbers in Vietnam everyday and media, for the first time in history, carried the story into American living rooms every evening on the news. The ‘war” had lasted longer than the Civil War and World Wars I and II and no end was in sight. It had reached the point that Johnson, elected by the largest plurality in history just three years ago, could not safely leave the White and his daughters were to be married within the boundaries of the White House to avoid demonstrators.
Later, Johnson a man who loved the trimmings and power of the presidency and who would have rather died in office than retire, was compelled to announce in March 1968 that he would not seek nor accept nomination for another term as president in order to focus all his efforts on ending the war and overcoming the strife at home. Within days and months of this announcement Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were murdered and further rioting commenced. Johnson, a man who had negotiated settlements throughout his career in public service could not; end the war with honor, maintain the support of the America people for the war, end the racial turmoil, win the war on poverty or get the Great Society programs moving forward. Just as importantly on a personal level, Johnson was not viewed by the American people or himself as a successful, beloved and great President thereby receiving the adulation of the American people which was so important to him. Nor could Johnson make the people appreciate all that he was doing for them. And finally, the history teacher from Austin, Texas within him recognized that his great place in history was slipping away and that he just might become the only American president ever to lose a war. Kearns portrays Johnson as a complex man who could be tough, mean, powerful, tyrannical and bullying while also exhibiting traits of kindness that exemplified a kind of father figure. I saw no hint in her writings that she saw Johnson as an egotistical man who relished in doing good for the people only when the act itself coincided with his own blind ambition for advancement, power and the establishment of his place in the history books. I believe Kearns simultaneously liked, respected and pitied President Johnson as a man while also demonstrating for us how he allowed his tremendous ego, and overwhelming sense of placement in the history books to cloud his vision on the situation in Vietnam. It was his clouded judgement that transformed Vietnam from a conflict with the Communist’s into Lyndon Johnson’s War. It was the financial cost of the war and the turmoil caused over Vietnam that detracted from the goals of his well-intentioned Great Society programs. Johnson accomplished many significant objectives during his time in office, especially in 1964-1966 timeframe when he pushed through the Congress legislation on Medicare, Medicaid, The Voting Rights Bill and others. Without Vietnam, Lyndon Baines Johnson might well be remembered as one of our greatest presidents. With Vietnam in the analysis, he unfortunately goes down in history as being forever linked as the key player in the most divisive war and turbulent times in our history. Probably, what so very troubling to Johnson was, he knew the story the history books would tell and he could not alter the ending to his satisfaction.I believe Doris Kearns Goodwin reasons for writing this book are varied. First, when Johnson left office he committed to write his memoirs in three parts starting with the Presidential years and working backwards. The final two segments were never written as Johnson was not inclined to open up for public consumption and further he didn’t live long enough, having died just three days after the completion of what would have been his second full term in office and ironically enough just one day after the announcement that a cease fire accord had been reached at the Paris Peace Talks. Second, Johnson asked for her help in getting his story out and allowed her access to a side of him rarely seen by others. This access provided her with the material necessary to present Lyndon Johnson to America in a manner we had not seen before. The third reason I believe, was important to Johnson in 1968-69 but less so as time went on and he began to accept life as it comes. Johnson thought he might be able alter the perception of his place in history and wanted to avoid being forgotten with the passage of time. It was to this end that the author commenced with this writing in 1976 and released an updated viewpoint in 1991. Much has been learned from Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam Era. I believe it was this war and the American people’s reaction to it, that tempered our government’s sometimes overly aggressive posture when it comes to foreign conflict. I believe President Bush, Secretary of Defense Cheney, General Powell and General Norman Schwarzkoff all learned valuable lessons from Vietnam and committed to avoid similar mistakes in their flawless handling of the Gulf War eight years ago. Our political and military leadership during the Gulf War made it quite clear this was not going to be “another” Vietnam. We sought the support of, and a coalition effort from, the U.N.. We rallied for the support of the American people in advance and committed to ending the endeavor quickly. Our forces would move in, fight aggressively, win and come home. The exact opposite of the American experience in Vietnam.On other major Johnson initiatives like the Great Society programs I believe we’ve learned much and have done a 180 degree turn in the last fifteen years. We no longer act as if government can fix everyone’s problems. Government cannot make us all equal because we are not all equal. All government can do is assist in the providing of equal opportunity. I believe this is vastly different from what President Johnson intended. Doris Kearns Goodwin has produced an insightful biography of Lyndon Johnson and supported her positions well, while at the same time sharing with us, her personal insights gained from six years of access to the late president. It is with these insights that we are able to gain a well rounded view of the most powerful man in the nation during a most controversial time.