Democrats like to think of themselves as the party of Franklin Roosevelt. In fact, they are the party of Lyndon Johnson. The 36th president’s virtues—his energy and passion, his willingness to tackle big social problems head-on and raise the search for solutions to the fervor of a moral crusade—can be seen, if in a somewhat diminished form, as the Democratic Party’s virtues today.
But his faults are also part of his legacy. The restless search for new worlds of inequality to conquer, the conviction that, because the power of the government to do good is unlimited, those who oppose it must be on the side of evil: These Johnsonian qualities can be found in more than a few leading Democrats of our own time.
THE TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY OF LYNDON JOHNSON
By Joseph A. Califano Jr.
Touchstone, 421 pages, $18
What is more, the Democratic Party is the official executor of the Great Society programs that Johnson instituted, costing taxpayers roughly $20 trillion so far (in constant dollars). The party is also heir to Johnson’s failure in Vietnam, which wrecked its Truman-Acheson internationalist wing and left many of its current members instinctively opposed to U.S. military intervention abroad.
For such reasons, Lyndon Johnson’s presidency deserves careful scrutiny, and two books, one new and one newly reissued, attempt to provide it. Both offer insights, but neither can fully rehabilitate Johnson, despite the authors’ admiration for their subject. In the end, LBJ is still one of the great wreckers in American history. Eugene McCarthy said that he knew of no one who worked for Johnson who was not diminished by him. Any chronicler of LBJ’s presidency needs to beware of a similar danger.
THE FIERCE URGENCY OF NOW
By Julian E. Zelizer
Penguin Press, 370 pages, $29.95
It was Joseph Califano’s fate to be both. Johnson recruited Mr. Califano from the Defense Department, where he had worked for Robert McNamara. When Mr. Califano arrived at the White House, serving as a special assistant to the president, he began releasing torrents of memos on all sorts of policies. Some staffers whispered that he was even putting his name on memos that weren’t his. When LBJ heard that, he exploded. “Don’t you criticize Califano. There’s never been a man around me who wrote so many memos.” Mr. Califano would spend his first post-Johnson years in Washington as a lawyer and then, in the late 1970s, become Jimmy Carter’s secretary of health, education and welfare.
In 1991, Mr. Califano set out to describe his years with “one of the most compelling and controversial—and perhaps most complicated—Presidents this nation has ever seen.” Compelling and controversial, yes, but complicated? Starting as a New Dealer congressman from Texas in the 1930s, Johnson learned to accommodate himself to whatever cause would facilitate his advance to power, whether it was oil money and anticommunism in the 1950s or big-government liberalism and civil rights in the 1960s. The man who put rattlesnakes in his car trunk to scare black service-station attendants would become the mastermind of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and think nothing of the contradiction.
Mr. Califano’s personal account in “The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson” doesn’t try to disguise Johnson’s thirst for power or his insistence on loyalty. We may remember that, in “The Best and the Brightest,” David Halberstam quoted Johnson saying of a staffer: “I want him to kiss my ass in Macy’s window at high noon and tell me it smells like roses.” Mr. Califano had a phone installed next to his toilet when Johnson demanded that he be reachable at all times. He wants us to believe that this volcanic, sometimes sadistic, man did great good in spite of the “tragedy” of Vietnam.
“Between 1964 and 1969,” Mr. Califano writes, “President Johnson submitted, and the 88th, 89th, and 90th Congresses enacted, hundreds of legislative initiatives—in education, health care, environmental and consumer protection, civil rights, immigration reform, housing and urban affairs, the arts and humanities, criminal justice, and many other areas.” The complete list fills four double-columned pages in the back of the book and is meant as a kind of honor roll—evidence of Johnson’s greatness.
For Mr. Califano, the Great Society, including the War on Poverty, is an enduring source of pride: “Lyndon Johnson forcefully put the thumb of government on the scale for the vulnerable among us,” he says. He makes no attempt to assess the effectiveness of the Great Society programs, to engage the many arguments about their (often disastrous) unintended consequences, to acknowledge the burden they place on the federal budget. It is clear that, for him, the mere aspiration to eliminate poverty by means of legislation—or improve education or save the environment—is sufficient: an emblem of virtue. Surely, one thinks, Mr. Califano—who has done important work in drug prevention in recent decades—knows better. But his hero-worship of Johnson seems to blind him to nuance or balanced analysis.
The making of the Great Society is the central concern of “The Fierce Urgency of Now,” by Julian Zelizer, a professor of history at Princeton. Johnson liked to pretend that, by pushing through a series of bills expanding the size and scope of the federal government, he was only carrying out the wishes of his martyred predecessor. In fact, as Mr. Zelizer shows, John F. Kennedy was a virtual conservative Republican in his approach to government and the economy, even urging across-the-board tax cuts just before his death. And although Kennedy knew that civil rights were a serious matter, he feared alienating Southern Democrats in the Senate, who would defend segregation to the last filibuster.
It was Johnson’s landslide re-election in 1964 that solidified his political clout and “produced the most liberal Congress since the Democratic landslide of 1936,” as Mr. Zelizer notes. The flurry of bills that would create the edifice of the Great Society would come in the next 21/2 years, until the midterm elections in 1966 brought a Republican rebound and opposition to the president’s ever-expanding agenda (though it had taken GOP votes in the Senate to overcome the filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights bill). But by 1966, Mr. Zelizer gleefully notes, the main architecture of the Great Society was so firmly in place that even Ronald Reagan could not budge it two decades later and George W. Bush could only add to it, as he did with the medication supplement to Medicare.
Like Mr. Califano, Mr. Zelizer sees the Great Society as a noble achievement. It “improved the lives of millions of citizens by creating a robust social safety net,” he writes, “and it affirmed the principle that intervention by the federal government was a good way, perhaps the best way, to guarantee rights, to help the disadvantaged, and to improve the quality of life for all Americans.”
No one today seriously questions the wisdom of the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act. But consider the Great Society’s record on poverty. From 1959 to 1966, the number of Americans living below the poverty line had fallen to 14.7% from 22.4%—without the benefit of the Great Society. Since then, the poverty rate has remained stubbornly above 11%. As Nicholas Eberstadt has noted, in 2012 (the year with the latest available data), it was at 15%—slighter above the 1966 rate.
Consider also the War on Poverty’s effects, like welfare dependency. In 1983, one in five Americans belonged to a family receiving means-tested federal benefits like food stamps or Head Start (in other words, not Social Security or Medicare); in 2012 the number had risen to one in three. Family life suffered related changes, as Uncle Sam steadily replaced parents as a family’s principal breadwinner and the number of reasons to remain married—or get married—dwindled away. The Great Society and the War on Poverty helped set off an explosion of out-of-wedlock births. That is one reason why the poverty rate for children today is higher than before the mid-1960s—and why more than half of black children (about whom Johnson expressed so much concern) live with only their mother and why nearly half of those children live below the poverty line.
The effort to assess the damage wrought by Lyndon Johnson and a willing Congress could go on and on, including the Great Society’s regulatory burdens, the mandatory federal spending that breeds runaway long-term debt, and the relentless transfer of power from the individual to government. But neither “The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson” nor “The Fierce Urgency of Now” is about to look at the other side of the ledger. “Love him or loathe him,” Mr. Califano concludes, “Lyndon Johnson was a President who knew how to make Washington work.” The question—then and now—is whether the price of making Washington work is that the rest of the country doesn’t.