Lyndon B. Johnson - Consensus politics





Democratic voters thought that Johnson had earned the support he received because of the deftness he had shown in enlarging Kennedy's constituency of four years earlier. Moreover, following so closely on the heels of the assassination, the victory may have revealed the voters' desire not to have another change of president so soon. Johnson took his triumph to mean that he had a blank check to go ahead with an extensive program of social legislation. The president concluded happily that the national unity he had asked for in the sad days of November 1963 had been achieved.

Johnson's goal as president was to achieve consensus—to occupy that common ground on which the general citizenry and Congress alike could stand with him. One of his favorite sayings, "Come, let us reason together," became a rallying call to his banner. As a leader in the Senate he had already made known his fondness for consensus government even across party lines in the close working relationship he established with President Eisenhower. Now he would rely on the force and influence of his own personality rather than on the Democratic party itself. His persuasiveness with erstwhile colleagues on Capitol Hill, often involving psychological arm-twisting that long ago had been labeled the "Johnson treatment," would now be a feature of the relations between the executive and legislative branches.

Already Johnson's first year in office had revealed him a master, too, at self-advertising. Whether holding press conferences, walking his dogs on the White House lawn, or greeting new appointees with lavish fanfare, he was a constant item on the television screen. A photograph of him baring his new surgical scar (he had had his gall bladder removed) seemed undignified to many people, although it stamped him a down-to-earth man for countless others. He was at first an uncertain performer before the television camera, the now indispensable tool of politics, but he nevertheless conveyed a picture of strength. He projected a sense that with his bare hands he could seize the country's problems and subdue them.

The inauguration on 20 January 1965 was itself a symbol of national consensus. The first president elected from the South since Zachary Taylor in 1848, Johnson was serenaded by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, singing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." His inaugural address was a ringing call for national unity and noble deeds couched in almost biblical language. The president declared that "the oath I have taken before you and before God is not mine alone but ours together." And in rhetoric that evoked Franklin Roosevelt, he stated, "For every generation there is a destiny. For some, history decides. For this generation the choice must be our own." The destiny was to fulfill the American "covenant with this land"—to achieve justice, liberty, and union. In speaking of the toil and tears that each generation must expend, he unashamedly echoed Winston Churchill. A sentence that called to mind Kennedy's full-throated call four years earlier to defend freedom wherever it was threatened was soon to prove prophetic: "If American lives must end, and American treasure be spilled, in countries that we barely know, then that is the price that change has demanded of conviction and of our enduring covenant."

The new Congress was soon at Johnson's beck and call. It established two new cabinet posts: the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to which Johnson appointed Robert C. Weaver, the first black to hold a cabinet post, and the Department of Transportation. Johnson soon appointed the first solicitor general who was black, Thurgood Marshall (and elevated him in 1967 to the Supreme Court).

The special messages that Johnson sent to Capitol Hill began to inundate the lawmakers, even before the inauguration. On 7 January 1965 he called for Medicare, federally supported medical health services for the elderly, and improved health services for children, the mentally retarded, and the disabled; and he insisted upon millions of dollars for medical research. He traveled to Independence, Missouri, to sign the Medicare bill in the presence of former president Harry Truman, whom Johnson saluted as the law's true progenitor.

Before Congress could catch its breath, he sent it a billion-dollar proposal that became the Education Act of 1965 to aid elementary and secondary public schools, provide preschool programs for young children, grant subsidies to school libraries, finance scholarships and loans to needy students, and extend a variety of help to small colleges. He put his signature on the bill in the one-room schoolhouse he had attended as a boy near Stonewall, Texas. At his side sat "Miss Katie," his first teacher.

Soon the president was pressing Congress to pass a revision of the immigration laws, liberalizing the national origins quota system. Johnson journeyed to the Statue of Liberty to sign the bill into law on 3 October. Meanwhile, under the Voting Rights Act, which Johnson had approved on 6 August, federal examiners went to work immediately, removing impediments to the registration of black voters in the South. No field of reform seemed beyond the interest and reach of the president, and his zeal in dramatizing his concerns was limitless.

Committed to enlarging the "quality of life," Johnson supported legislation for the beautification of highways that Lady Bird Johnson ardently sought. In the field of the arts, Johnson established the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities, with a wide agenda of unprecedented duties. The variegated list of laws the administration pursued included the Highway Safety Act and the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act.

Johnson reserved special earnestness for the continuing War on Poverty. The Appalachian Regional Development Act of 1965 authorized $1.1 billion to rehabilitate and develop the mountainous region from Pennsylvania to Alabama and Georgia, which was experiencing severe social and economic hardship. The far-reaching Housing Act of 1965 made possible the construction of 240,000 low-rent public-housing units and provided $3 billion in grants for urban renewal. In May 1966, Johnson approved a supplementary appropriation bill to make possible the subsidization of rents for low- and moderate-income families. Said the president as he signed the act, "While every man's house cannot be a castle, it need not be a hovel." Under the Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Development Act of 1966, Johnson hoped to see large-scale rebuilding of the total economic and social environment of depressed urban communities. The law recognized, he said, "that our cities are made of people, not just bricks and mortar." The Eighty-ninth Congress completed under Johnson's baton the agenda of liberalism opened originally by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Speaker McCormack, who also had formed his views in the 1930s of the role of the federal government, shared Johnson's enthusiasm: "It is the Congress of accomplished hopes. It is the Congress of realized dreams."

Johnson never received the public adulation for his labors that he believed he had earned. In the private quarters of the White House, he had placed on the wall an old photograph of himself facing Roosevelt. Johnson had captioned it, "I listen." And unquestionably he had gone to school to FDR. Johnson's close aide Bill Moyers once said that to Johnson, Franklin Roosevelt was a book to be read and reread. Now, as a reform president, Johnson had "out-Roosevelted Roosevelt," but the beneficiaries did not make Johnson their hero as once they had deified Roosevelt.

By the 1960s the United States had become a welfare state. The largesse of government was no longer a gift but a due. Perhaps the relaxed atmosphere and general prosperity of Eisenhower's time had made it impossible to rekindle enthusiasm for a reforming president. Perhaps, too, many Americans saw Johnson as building a monument to himself as well as sweeping away the problems of industrial America. Where thoughtful people had once hoped to create a good society, Johnson had decided that his legacy to the nation would be Texas-size: the Great Society. He aroused not so much division as disbelief, a contaminant in the brew for immortality.

The liberalism Johnson espoused had been bred into his bones, so he could not see that its time might be drawing to a close. From his father, who taught the young Lyndon how to put his arm on people and serve the cause of social justice in the bargain, he acquired a model and the confidence to go and do likewise. When Johnson was imploring northern city bosses and southern cronies to take his way on civil rights, his nose almost on top of theirs, Texas old-timers could see Sam Johnson alive again.

From his mother the future chief executive acquired a sense of what he could make of himself. Even in his most rebellious time as a destructive and occasionally violent youth, Johnson must have had a picture in his mind's eye of a better young man who one day would please his mother. He later would say that he never made a major decision in his career without consulting her. It is not too much to guess that when Johnson said he wished to be remembered as "the education president," he could feel the influence of his mother who would accompany him to the front gate of their house each morning, reviewing with him the stuff of his lessons for the day.

Finally, Johnson was stamped by the models he took for himself from among the affluent cattlemen and oilmen he admired and envied. They tended to see the world through red-white-and-blue glasses and to regard physical power as the ultimate arbiter of disputes. Moreover, the Texas cowboy tradition of fiction and fact left its impress on Johnson. It reinforced his determination to plump for what was right and to be quick on the draw.

In a nation addicted to television, Johnson's personality became an object of public scrutiny. His penchant for secret conferral and for needlessly refusing to show his hand, which sometimes could seem conspiratorial, grated on associates and, after he entered the White House, on representatives of the media. Many of them began to see a "credibility gap" between the truth and certain White House utterances. The habit of dissimulating thwarted Johnson's hope to be loved by the people. The eager heartiness with which he embraced others by seeming to take them into his confidence may have been an indication of his awareness that he was not really loved in return, although this mannerism may have been accentuated by his considerable deafness, which he never acknowledged publicly.

The bawdy language that notably peppered his conversation suggests that he harbored a deep feeling of inferiority, which even his size—he stood six feet, three inches, and weighed two hundred pounds—could not overcome. The frustration of his youth that there were people richer and luckier than he appeared never to have left him. It seemed to show in his frequent comment that he came from "the wrong part of the country"—an irascible reference to the eastern establishment, which steadfastly regarded him as an outsider. Possibly he compensated for the felt deprivation in his remarkable love of creature comforts and especially in the fervor with which he outfitted his ranch on the Pedernales River.

Never far from his thoughts was the fear that his presidency, like Wilson's, might be destroyed by his physical incapacity. He later wrote, "Whenever I walked through the Red Room and saw Woodrow Wilson hanging there I thought of him stretched out upstairs in the White House, powerless to move, with the machinery of the American government in disarray around him." Johnson may have felt unconsciously that he had no time to lose, that the clock was running against him. Possibly his concern over his health helps explain the frenzy of his presidential activity. Or possibly with his eyes on history's judgment of him he simply wanted to "do it all." The White House staff was aware of Johnson's expressed concern that he might run out of problems to solve—never out of solutions.





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