By John Ballard
Lyndon Johnson will forever be remembered for the Civil Rights bill of 1964, Voting Rights act of 1965 and his War on Poverty -- all larger than life historic events, like LBJ himself. In the clouds of time we tend to forget the downside of his presidency, the Vietnam Conflict, his visceral dislike of the Kennedys, and his last-minute decision not to run for another term as president. Many of us who saw him through the anti-Vietnam lens deeply mistrusted the man and had a hunch that the War on Poverty and civil rights moves were nothing more than political gimmicks in the toolbox of a guy whose whole career was a monument to the exercise of manipulative power.
The New York Times has published a book report by Bill Clinton. Toward the end of the report (Robert Caro's THE PASSAGE OF POWER The Years of Lyndon Johnson) we get a glimpse of Clinton's adroit revisionism looking back on those dark days. I recall clearly my decision to vote for Bill Clinton in 1992. He and his wife were being attacked by the usual GOP vile, including that tired old foolishness about his being an enemy of the country, a closet Socialist, and worse than a deserter because he was one of those anti-war hippies in his youth. When opponents threw a light on what they thought were his worst qualities they were inadvertently providing information that I saw as favorable, not negative. When I learned he was a Rhodes scholar and had been against the war that was all I needed to know. From that moment I was in his camp.
Here he pays homage to LBJ in a manner that truly lays to rest any previous animosity he may have had for the man.
As Caro shows in this and his preceding volumes, power ultimately reveals character. For L.B.J., becoming president freed him to embrace parts of his past that, for political or other reasons, had remained under wraps. Suddenly there was no longer a reason to dissociate himself from the poverty and failure of his childhood. Power released the source of Johnson�s humanity.
Last year I was privileged to speak at the funeral of Sargent Shriver � a man who served L.B.J. but who in many ways was his temperamental opposite. I said then that too many of us spend too much time worrying about advancement or personal gain at the expense of effort. We might fail, but we need to get caught trying. That was Shriver�s great virtue. With Johnson�s election he actually had the chance to try and to win.
Even as Barry Goldwater was midwifing the antigovernment movement that would grow to such dominance decades later, L.B.J., Shriver and other giants of the civil rights and anti�poverty movements seemed to rise all around me as I was beginning my political involvement. They believed government had an essential part to play in expanding civil rights and reducing poverty and inequality. It soon became clear that hearts needed to be changed, along with laws. Not just Congress, but the American people themselves needed to be got to.
It was hard to do, absent a crisis like the losses of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. By the late 1960s, America�s increasing involvement and frustration in Vietnam, the rise of more militant civil rights leaders and riots in many cities, and the end of broad-based economic growth that had indeed �lifted all boats� in the early �60s, made it harder and harder to win more converts to the civil rights and anti�poverty causes.
But for a few brief years, Lyndon Johnson, once a fairly conventional Southern Democrat, constrained by his constituents and his overriding hunger for power, rose above his political past and personal limitations, to embrace and promote his boyhood dreams of opportunity and equality for all Americans. After all the years of striving for power, once he had it, he said to the American people, �I�ll let you in on a secret � I mean to use it.� And use it he did to pass the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the open housing law, the antipoverty legislation, Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start and much more.
He knew what the presidency was for: to get to people � to members of Congress, often with tricks up his sleeve; to the American people, by wearing his heart on his sleeve.
And if the reader doesn't already know how highly regarded is Bill Clinton himself, a quick scanning of the many comments will be a confirmation. Effective politicians have a way of looking good all the time but even better when heaping praise on each other. It's too bad Republicans don't seem to appreciate that. Or maybe not.