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When Politics Were (a Little Less) Foul
October 13, 2016 -- Disheartened by the state of the nation's current political scene, where presidential candidates have record low approval ratings and discourse has sunk to new lows? Me, too.
Nostalgic for better times, I recently read LBJ: The Way He Was, a little-known 1977 portrait of the ebullient Lyndon Baines Johnson. It was written by Frank Cormier, the Associated Press White House correspondent who covered LBJ for all of his 1963-1969 presidency. That includes the 1964 campaign, which pitted Johnson, who had a reputation for intrigue, manipulation and arm-twisting, against Barry Goldwater, a controversial, powerhouse conservative Republican. As rough as that election was, it was restrained, if not tame, compared with today's shenanigans.
Cormier's tightly knit collection of insider anecdotes and career highlights blankets LBJ's monumental presidency. It begins practically at the moment he takes office after John F. Kennedy's assassination (November, 1963) until he announces to a stunned nation that he would not seek a second full term in office (March, 1968).
A master Texas politician known for his raw ambition and explosive temper, the larger-than-life Johnson served six terms in the House of Representatives (1937 to 1949). He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1948 and served as both minority and majority leader. He was chosen as Kennedy's running mate in the 1960 presidential election after a contentious Democratic primary campaign and became vice president in 1961.
Once president, Johnson cultivated an impressive following among the press. He wooed--and wowed--them with his powerful personality, his enthusiasm, his anecdotes and his behavior, which ran the gamut from petty vindictiveness to a genuine kindness and concern.
An example: When Cormier's parents visited their son in Washington, Johnson went all out to deliver the royal treatment, shepherding them on tours of his home, showering them with gifts and making them feel welcomed and appreciated. That's a marked contrast to another Cormier first-hand experience: One Christmas, members of the White House press corps received a package that contained a gold tie clip and a card signed by the Johnsons. When Cormier opened his box, there was no gift. Turns out this was not an oversight. There was no definitive explanation of the rift, but Johnson apparently was piqued by some of Cormier's reporting.
I can personally attest to Johnson's good will. My then-wife and I, newly married, were vacationing in Acapulco in the late 1950s over Thanksgiving. At dinner in a nearly empty hotel dining room, the hotel's general manager, Roberto Zapata, came in to wish us a happy holiday. Summoned to a neighboring table--occupied by boisterous, happy and obviously alcohol-fueled Americans--he returned shortly after with an invitation.
Would we, fellow Americans, join the raucous table of guests? I said no, obviously far more interested in being alone with my new bride.
Zapata confided that the other party was led by a Senator from Texas who I was certain was Lyndon Baines Johnson. Who knows how my career arc might have changed had I opted to join the Johnsons and their friends?
LBJ's accomplishments as president are notable. He was architect of the Great Society. He signed the Civil Rights acts of 1964 and 1968. He appointed Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American justice to the Supreme Court. He was the driving force behind programs such as Head Start, food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid. And he signed the Immigration Act of 1965.
Despite that notable list of accomplishments, Johnson's record-high approval ratings crumbled when the U.S. involvement in Vietnam careened out of control. LBJ not only lost his public support, but also his sense of humor and his desire, once so powerful, to stay in office. Positive results of a secret poll confirmed Johnson could win the 1968 election, but he opted out.
The reasons for LBJ's decision, debated by many including Johnson's own staff, were said to be rooted in the debacle of the Vietnam War, which divided 1960s America almost as bitterly as the current differences that paralyze our government now. But it was also Johnson feeling his own mortality--his father died at age 64, as Johnson did in 1973--and the desire to finally return to private life.
The Vietnam disaster ultimately could not be attributed solely to Johnson. Three of his predecessors--Kennedy, Eisenhower and Truman--all sent "military advisors" to Vietnam. There were 16,000 American troops and "advisors" on the ground when LBJ became president. Of course, he expanded U.S. involvement dramatically, a decision that ultimately destroyed his legacy. But over time, his actions have deservedly begun to be reevaluated.
Also up for debate is which of his many domestic achievements deserve the most accolades. Getting the civil rights acts passed was considered an impossible feat at the time. A white, Southern politician, Johnson was able to manipulate and coerce Congress to pass the first civil rights bill in American history, although 100 years after the Civil War.
With LBJ: The Way He Was, you get quick and entertaining insight into the complex and multi-layered subject without having to plow through lengthy volumes that cover a broader landscape. Cormier's recollections do, in fact, give you the essence of who LBJ was.
The flamboyant Johnson was a real character, beloved by some and despised by others. Quirks and faults aside, with a lifetime of government service and a commitment to change, he pushed through tough-to-sell, landmark legislation and policies that helped improve the lives of millions of Americans.
His accomplishments remain among the most significant of U.S. history in the 20th century even with the festering black mark of the Vietnam War.
LBJ: The Way He Was is long out of print, but the Amazon.com marketplace sells both used and new editions from third-party merchants.
This column is Copyright © 2016 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2016 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Martin B. Deutsch. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.