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I'm OK With Calling LBJ a "Liberal Hero" (and No, I'm Not Ignoring Vietnam)

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When I wrote my mixed assessment of “All the Way,” the engaging but often-cartoonish Broadway play about Lyndon Johnson, I criticized “Baby Boomers who insisted that the blunders of Vietnam should negate the triumphs of the Great Society.” I was thinking, when I wrote that, of various recent portrayals of LBJ, such as this column by Maureen Dowd and this piece by Adam Nagourney, about how Luci Baines Johnson and “the diminishing circle of family and friends from those White House years have commenced one last campaign” to shift the focus of historians away from Vietnam. Nagourney objected to my description of his article, and I apologized privately to him for a gratuitously snarky reference to his “tin ear for politics,” but I remain convinced that his article was unfair and shortsighted. The public recognition being accorded to LBJ this spring—in the form of not just the Johnson Library’s conference but also “All the Way” and two major books about the Civil Rights Act—is about much more than a “campaign” by his partisans. It’s about an overdue recognition of his uncommon talents and accomplishments. (For a Times article that probes deeper into Johnson’s rising appeal, see Peter Baker’s thoughtful, detached analysis last week.) 

Now Michael Kazin weighs in to fault those who would “portray [LBJ] solely as a paragon of empathy, a liberal hero with a minor flaw or two” (italics mine). I’m not aware of anyone who holds this view of Johnson; it seems to me a straw man. Then again, Kazin may consider my line about Boomers for whom Vietnam “negate[s] the triumphs of the Great Society” to be equally tendentious. After all, he writes that “to remember what the United States, during LBJ’s tenure, did to Vietnam and to the young Americans who served there does not cancel out his domestic achievements.”

So he and I agree that Johnson’s magnificent achievements in civil rights and other areas of domestic policy and his disastrous prosecution of the Vietnam War both deserve prominence in the history books. The question is one of emphasis. For my part, I think that the Great Society deserves attention every bit as much as Vietnam. 

The more I study history, and live through it, the more I’m forced to conclude that it’s exceedingly rare for our political system to introduce massive liberal reforms of the sort the nation saw in the Progressive Era and the New Deal. Indeed, apart from those two chapters, the only time we’ve experienced such transformation was in the 1960s, when Johnson implemented a sweeping vision of activist government. (I also think John F. Kennedy deserves more credit for this hour of liberal achievement than historians typically allow.) The list of important laws and measures that Johnson oversaw is simply staggering: the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, Medicare and Medicaid, urban renewal and environmental legislation, food stamps and the development of depressed regions, the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment of Humanities, immigration reform and fair housing laws, and much more. 

It’s been said that novelists are remembered for their greatest work; with the passage of time, the lesser novels fade from memory while the masterpieces continue to be read and discussed. Presidents can’t claim quite the same exemption from their errors, which—certainly in Johnson’s case—sometimes do lasting damage to the nation. But in the rearview mirror, presidents’ achievements come to loom larger. The inability of presidents after LBJ to effect positive liberal change on a comparable scale has justifiably brought a new appreciation for his immense political skills—as well as the importance he placed on compassion, activism, and government largesse as virtues in public policy. Obama’s failures have made us feel this with special acuity.     

Should LBJ be remembered as a “liberal hero”? If in labeling someone hero, we’re presumed to be ignoring or airbrushing his faults—then of course not. Does anyone really have heroes anymore, at least in this sense? My generation, born at the tail end of the 1960s, has never been able to regard any leader as a hero the way earlier generations did. Our sensibilities and our politics have changed too much since the 1960s. No one can overlook anymore (for example) Washington’s and Jefferson’s slaveholding, Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies, Lincoln’s and Wilson’s wartime civil liberties records, or FDR’s internment of Japanese Americans. We know these men to be deeply flawed, in some cases to the point where celebrating them produces in us considerable unease. But, ultimately, we still recognize them as remarkable presidents whose finest feats transformed the nation for the good. So if in calling someone a hero it’s also possible to simultaneously acknowledge his failings, even terrible failings, then Lyndon Johnson deserves a place in the pantheon. 

But maybe we don’t need to label Johnson a hero. Maybe it’s enough to say he did some heroic things, and that, as the state of American politics today suggests, is rare enough.