Lyndon Baines Johnson is the only Shakespearean president of our time. In the last hundred years, who else is there? There have been periodic attempts to claim this mantle for Nixon. But despite the magnitude of his crimes—Laos and Cambodia, Watergate, the outright treason of trying to derail the Paris Peace Talks, there is no tragic dimension in Nixon’s downfall because there is no horror in watching a crooked operator act like a crooked operator.. By contrast, Obama’s command of oratory and his stewardship of the country through a period of multiple crises also raises associations with the Bard – but Obama, while certainly a complex man, was , crucially, an executive of great steadiness. The drama of which he was at the center, the drama of watching America’s nervous breakdown at the prospect of a leader who wasn’t white, wasn’t visibly reflected in any expression of personal torment.
But LBJ? In his character one can spot the tragic outline: an awe-inspring combination of daring and worship of conventional wisdom; an awareness of the immensity the social problems confronting America and cussed determination not to be cowed by them. He was a visionary who believed in the transformative power of politics and possessed a ruthless mastery of the way politics actually operates. He was, in the words of his best biographer Robert Dallek, a flawed giant. There is no denying LBJ’s failures, and I do not mean to gloss over the young men who died in Vietnam because of those failures, those failures took place on a larger scale than most president’s successes.
The conventional line on LBJ, particularly from the white left, has been that whatever good intentions drove his gargantuan ambition to finish the business of FDR’s New Deal through his own Great Society, they were undone by Johnson’s choice to mire America deeper and deeper in Vietnam.
It’s not entirely a wrong view, and it is, at root, the view of Joshua Zeitz’s Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson’s White House. Zeitz, an editor at Politico, has conceived of his book as a kind of political version of an NFL instant replay. Anyone reading it will learn who was involved in what decisions, the nature of each player’s relationship with LBJ, how they did or didn’t work together, and what it was about each player’s contribution, their foresight or shortsightedness, spelled success or failure. You will find out the money each legislative initiative required, and how well that money was spent. No one can read Zeitz’s book and not come away from it with knowledge of the day-to-day workings of the Johnson White House.
All of this to say that Building the Great Society is a wonk’s book. And at a time when the White House treats reality as a construct that they would like to banish, it might seem to be abetting that same delusion to insist that the magnitude of a president cannot solely be measured by the success of failure of individual legislature. But, as Norman Mailer insisted in his great political writing of the ‘60s, there is a spiritual side to politics that cannot be discounted if we are to take the measure of any president. What Zeitz cannot do here is bring to life the way in which LBJ’s political ruthlessness, which was not enough to save his presidency, was also tied to a transformative moral vision. Yes, he understands and documents that LBJ had been a reliable part of the segregationist Southern Democrat voting bloc during his time in the Senate. And yes he understands that LBJ had a more intimate relationship with poverty than his predecessor. It’s not too much to say that Zeitz understands the noblesse oblige attitude at the heart of the Kennedy administration’s often inadequate poverty and civil rights initiatives. (Which is why that famous footage of a clearly tormented Bobby Kennedy wordlessly trying to bring comfort to the desperately poor he encountered in Appalachia offers the sense of a man thunderstruck to his soul.)
But this is a book about the most colorful and profane and impassioned of presidents that has nothing in the way of humor or drama — or, for that matter, good common dirt. It’s not that Zeitz dislikes LBJ, or that he is indifferent to the peculiar character of the man. One of the most vivid elements of the book are the accounts of how LBJ overworked person after person on the White House staff, could be impatient and even cruel, and also suddenly solicitous and embracing. Zeitz understands what it meant to the White House staff to be invited into the First Family’s living quarters for a cocktail reception. It had never happened during JFK’s time and it calls up Johnson’s common touch, not an insignificant thing for a president whose focus was poverty and civil rights.
The victories are here: the Civil Rights bill of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the creation of Head Start and Medicare, the Fair Housing Act. Zeitz, commendably, understands that some of these acts were not as far reaching as some more liberal parties to them wished them to be. But he does not dismiss the belief in politics as the art of the possible with the cynicism masked as purity that is now all too common on the left.
Zeitz’s interests are not those of a storyteller, a prober of the nation’s soul, or even a psychobiographer of the president at the heart of these changes. Even with only a little more than 300 pages of text, Building the Great Society has the feel of someone filling out an evaluation. Robert Dallek’s two-volume LBJ bio managed a command of the detail of the workings of the White House without neglecting an overarching vision of his subject. For all the detail in Zeitz’s book you can help feeling there is more of LBJ in the ten pages of Ralph Ellison’s essay “The Myth of the Flawed White Southerner,” which concludes, “When all of the returns are in, perhaps President Johnson will have to settle for being recognized as the greatest American President for the poor and for Negroes, but this, as I see it, is a very great honor indeed.”
During a recent city election I saw a poster for a young progressive candidate that proudly proclaimed “not a politician,” as if this were a good thing. The disparaging of experience and expertise is not something we value in any other profession. (Do you know anyone who would prefer a less-experienced surgeon?) Experience, the ability to understand both how politics works and how to work it to the desired purpose, is somehow regarded as proof of corruption.. Johnson was, above all, a politician. And if we now fear for the longevity of Medicare or the Voting Rights Act, it’s worth remembering those things would not exist in the first place without his genius as a politician. This was a man obsessed with how he wanted to be remembered. It seems particularly cruel that the immortality given him is unique to him: that of a great President who is not beloved.
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