Image: Official White House Portrait of Lyndon B. Johnson
Written by Michael Schaffer. Originally published January 2009 on Obit-Mag.com.
When Barack Obama took the oath of office, commentators, allies, and even the new president tied his barrier-breaking ascent to the some towering figures in American history: Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King. Less talked about, though, was the role of a man who died almost 36 years ago today: Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th president of the United States and the last Democrat before Obama to win more than 50.1 percent of the popular vote.
Had things gone differently — no Tet offensive abroad, no burning cities at home, no civil war within his once-dominant political party — Johnson might have lived in the White House until the eve of his own death. Events intervened, though, and the 36th president was forced to call it quits four years and two days before the Jan. 22, 1973, heart attack that finally killed him. He had retired to his Texas ranch, venturing out occasionally to tout his record on racial justice, even as tectonic shifts in national politics made further progress appear unlikely.
Johnson died 48 hours after the reinauguration of Richard Nixon, whose 49-state landslide included large majorities in the Democrats’ once-Solid south. Obituarists stumbled over themselves to depict the Shakespearean nature of Johnson’s presidency, with good aims undone by war and hubris. “He had sacrificed not only popularity and the people's love, for which he lusted, but also the great domestic accomplishments that once had seemed within his grasp,” concluded the New York Times. For those who count votes, though, Johnson’s political legacy seemed far less mitigated: He was the man who killed the Democratic Party.
That view, shared by critics and sympathizers alike, held sway for most of the past 36 years – until 2008, when Obama’s rise demonstrated that historical judgments are a moving target.
Having risen to power with John F. Kennedy’s death, Johnson won a landslide in 1964. But in four short years, he went from political colossus to political leper, hobbled by Vietnam and unable to reconcile the Northern liberals and Southern segregationists who made up his base. By 1968, he was the first in postwar America’s string of failed presidents, a succession leading to George W. Bush, one of the least popular presidents in history.
Johnson is sworn in aboard Air Force One (Wikimedia Commons/Cecil W. Stoughton)
And while Bush retains the support of 75 percent of Republicans, no one loved the departing LBJ. Robert F. Kennedy, who famously loathed his late brother’s onetime vice-president, ran a primary campaign that inspired young voters precisely because it was an implicit rebuke to the isolated, imperial Texan in the White House. After RFK’s assassination, Hubert Humphrey’s efforts to succeed Johnson were hobbled in part because both left-leaning Democrats and right-leaning Dixiecrats saw him as too close to Johnson. That November Humphrey managed less than 43 percent.
Four years later, when the liberal George McGovern was the nominee, Democratic rhetoric featured none of the remember-when-we-were-in-charge odes to the good old days that rally parties out of power. And in 1976, the first election after Johnson’s death, the party engaged in little of the posthumous paeans that, say, contemporary Republicans use for Ronald Reagan. Though Carter was Johnson’s fellow Southerner, his promises of humble, transparent government were meant to set him apart from Nixon and Johnson alike.
Johnson’s posthumous popularity, even among the Great Society’s admirers, wasn’t aided by historians. Every important president has an important biographer, but he had the misfortune of having his story turned into the life’s work of Robert Caro, a brilliant scholar known for rendering his subjects in microscopic detail and voluminous length. The three volumes — so far — of Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson stretch to 2,000 pages, and have yet to reach even Johnson’s election as vice president. Caro’s story of Johnson’s life up to 1960 alone is damning. In separate volumes that chronicle his path from Texan obscurity to Washington power, his ascent from congressman to senator, and his rise to Senate majority leader, Caro paints a picture of a relentlessly duplicitous, power-mad, manipulative figure, a man who used fraud to get ahead and whose progressive politics were perpetually twinned with shameless opportunism. After years of political futility, Democrats might have been tempted to feel somewhat nostalgic about a party member who actually managed to dominate legislative politics and get his agenda through. Caro’s books quickly dampen any such nostalgia.
They also provide some context to an unusual set-to about Johnson’s legacy that briefly grabbed headlines during last spring’s Democratic primary contest. “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act,” Hillary Clinton noted in a television interview, stressing her campaign theme of insider experience. “It took a president to get it done.” Controversy quickly ensued about whether Clinton was disparaging the civil rights leader. But of course she was right: Johnson — having been prodded by the moral leadership of King’s movement — did the right thing. It’s just a lot harder to lionize those who cajole, bully, and twist arms in Congressional corridors than those who risk their lives to face down Bull Connor.
Johnson meets with civil rights leaders after passing the Civil Rights Act
Johnson, at any rate, knew what he was risking. Signing the bill in 1965, he famously told an aide that he’d just handed the South to the Republicans for a generation. The prediction was dead-on.
But a generation has now passed. And according to a pair of scholars who crunched the numbers on election 2008, the coalition that powered Obama's victory was created by LBJ's own policies.
A new article by political scientists Philip Klinkner and Thomas Schaller argues that the diverse new constituency that lifted Obama was a long-delayed byproduct of three Great Society efforts. The first was the Voting Rights Act, which set the stage for the generation of African American elected officials who made it possible to even imagine Obama's candidacy — while also empowering the black voters who put him over the top in Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina. The second was the Johnson-era change in America's immigration laws, ending 40 years of limitations and throwing open the doors for the polyglot electorate that found Obama's diverse background so appealing. And, finally, Johnson’s Great Society eased the way for a generation of people who might otherwise have stopped at high school to attend college. Last November, college-educated voters, once solidly Republican, played a key role in Obama's new coalition.
Klinkner and Schaller dub Obama's supporters the Great Society Coalition — African American voters, immigrants, and college graduates who would never have existed in numbers sufficient to elect a president had it not been for Lyndon Johnson. Even a shrewd pol like him was probably not thinking about 21st century voter demographics when championing those particular causes. But legacies have a funny way of transforming themselves over time. The article's title? "LBJ's Revenge."