Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency is remembered for the Vietnam War and the miss-handling of it but that’s only part of the story of a five year Presidency. When I think of Lyndon Johnson, I think of not only the best Senate Majority Leader America has ever seen for passing legislation but, also, someone who brought those skills to the White House and became the greatest legislative President America has ever seen. Whether you agree with all of the legislation that President Johnson got passed or none of it or are somewhere in between, you have to give him credit and acknowledge his ability to get legislation passed through Congress.
I also think about what would not have happened had Lyndon Johnson not become President. How long would African-Americans have had to wait for the full citizenship that the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act gave them? Without LBJ, who secured crucial help from then Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen and some progressive Republican Senators, those bills could not have passed.
How did LBJ get the Civil and Voting Rights Acts through Congress? He did it by scaring the hell out of Representatives and Senators, especially Southern Democrats, by telling them that if they didn’t allow votes on the bills he wouldn’t support their pork projects in the appropriations bills. If you really want to scare a member of Congress, find a way to prevent their delivering pork to their district or state. Pork to members is like cocaine to drug addicts. They don’t think they can survive without it.
In evaluating the presidency of LBJ. a very important consideration is how long would America have to wait for the Civil and Voting Rights Acts to be passed. I think that President Nixon would have signed those bills into law but he would not of put much effort into getting them through Congress. The same with President Ford. I think that President Carter would have of tried to get them through Congress but he didn’t have the respect from Congress that President Johnson did. I think that President Reagan might have been able to get them passed but he and the Republican Senate from 1981-87 would have wanted stripped down and compromised versions of the Acts.
We probably would have waited until President George H.W. Bush or President Clinton, a generation after LBJ, before those bills become Law. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton didn’t have the respect from Congress that LBJ had because they had not served in Congress. Both Congressional parties knew very well that LBJ would do whatever it would take to pass legislation that he thought was in the best interest of the country. Carter and Clinton had more of a “Get what you can now” approach to negotiating with Congress.
When I think of a Progressive in political (not pop culture) terms, I think of someone who wants the country as a whole to advance in a positive way. I think of Lyndon Johnson. He was a Progressive. He never saw a problem that he thought could not be solved, whether it was poverty, health care civil rights or whatever. A lot of times, as in civil rights and Medicare, it worked and sometimes it didn’t, as in Vietnam, but he was always working to bring positive change to America.
So when you look at Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency, there is the stain of the Vietnam War but remember to look at the whole story.