Lyndon the Bane and Presidential Character

LBJby Timothy Lane   2/27/14
These days it’s easy to say that the worst President ever is Barack Obama, and it isn’t even close. Prior to that, I would have gone with James Buchanan (who probably realized it at the end). But when it comes to having the worst character (prior to Obama, of course), I think I would go with Lyndon Baines Johnson.

LBJ was a determined, ambitious fellow, and since he wasn’t born to wealth he decided that his route to success (including both wealth and fame) would be politics. Unfortunately, it isn’t clear that he had much in the way of a purpose in government other than maximizing the state power that he hoped to exercise himself. I once read that the great Texan Sam Houston was in fact a rare individual who (like Washington) wasn’t corrupted by power. It’s a lesson LBJ wouldn’t have been interested in learning.

A good example of where LBJ’s ambition took him came in 1942. Naturally, he had to join the military to do his part – though unlike many (including Wisconsin Judge Joseph McCarthy) he didn’t quit his political job back home. Some have suggested that he was in reality a physical coward, and he certainly was quick to leave after a few weeks when FDR said that he (and others like him who joined without giving up their federal jobs) would have to choose which job to keep. But he was there long enough to earn a medal for going on an airplane flight for which no one else received a medal. It was clearly awarded for political reasons (LBJ was a reliable New Dealer), but it was enough to enable him to boast of being a war hero. And naturally, those who mocked “Tail-Gunner Joe” even though McCarthy did at least make many flights over enemy territory (as a photographer rather than a tail-gunner) had nothing ill to say of LBJ’s pretense of heroism.

Naturally, LBJ was elected to the Senate in 1948 by clear vote fraud because the party leadership in DC preferred to have a New Dealer instead of a more typical conservative Texas Democrat. In fairness, that’s how things were done in Texas, and LBJ had lost a Senate race previously to vote fraud in the same county. As a Senator, he eventually became Majority Leader and as such could look very good (majority leaders can usually get something passed); it helped that he was a ruthless, corrupt operator. But on the subject that he would later make a name for – civil rights – he was absent. Many liberal Democrats saw it was a typical issue, subject to the usual horse-trading and log-rolling. Not Lyndon. He may not have had the blatant racism of so many Southerners of that era, but he wanted their votes and thus consistently opposed civil rights bills until he decided it was time to run for President, and so needed to get something (however minimal) to provide some credentials.

LBJ is also famous (though the proper word should be infamous) for his Great Society programs. In particular, one must note that the declared goal of his “War on Poverty” (which has ended in the worst defeat in US history) was not to ameliorate poverty (which it arguably has accomplished, albeit at a heavy price), but to get people off of poverty. The only problem was that all his programs were designed to reward people for staying poor, not to provide sustainable employment. (Bobby Kennedy saw this and pointed it out on a visit to Appalachia, as I recall reading about at the time. Whether he would have actually done better than LBJ can never be known now.)

The other aspect of the Johnson presidency that is well remembered is the Vietnam War. At the time I was a hawk, like so many from military backgrounds (though even then I had no use for the President, and chose not to go when he was going to make a pretense of honoring my father’s death – a decision I’ve never regretted). But later I came to realize that Al Lowenstein had been pretty much right when he discussed the war with his friend William F. Buckley, Jr. Lowenstein noted that Buckley wanted to fight the war and win it, and might well have been wiling to go along with that. But he added, “The problem is that the people you’re supporting want to fight the war and lose.” To be fair, I’m sure LBJ would have preferred victory to defeat. But that wasn’t his goal; he simply didn’t want to be the man who “lost” Vietnam. The potential danger to his pride was far more important than thousands of lives and billions of wasted dollars.

But an anecdote from Lewis Boller’s Presidential Anecdotes may best demonstrate LBJ’s character flaws. He discussed once a college test in which the professor (he couldn’t remember if the subject was history or political science) had the students discuss in full what the Constitution says about education. LBJ proceeded to fill up pages of bullshit, only to get an F because the Constitution never mentions the subject (that’s why we can say everything he did was bullshit). He decided then and there to change that, and after passing all sorts of federal education programs, concluded that he had indeed done so.

Note what all this says. In the first place, he knew nothing on the topic, and tried to bullshit his way out of it even though he had to know the teacher would realize it was bullshit. And when his literary bloviating received the appropriate grade, he was obviously unable to get over it, an indication of just how petty and spiteful he basically was. Finally, his view that passing all sorts of bills that had no Constitutional basis somehow changed the document itself reveals a very interesting (and I suspect very typical) mindset. He could have tried to pass an amendment authorizing such bills; instead he ignored the law of the land and decided that ignoring it rewrote it. (“Living” Constitution, anyone?)

Well, now you all know why I refer to him as Lyndon the Bane. • (923 views)

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One Response to Lyndon the Bane and Presidential Character

  1. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    As a Texan, I have to agree with your appraisal of LBJ. He really was a corrupt SOB. How does a poor man who started out as a teacher and went into politics without any other job in between become so wealthy? I can’t recall the exact year, but something like 10 or 15 years back, the Johnson family sold their family holdings in the media company which was basically given to LBJ while he was a Congressman. If I recall correctly, the sales price was something like US$250 million. Not bad for a public servant.

    Johnson was also an incredibly crude man. The stories about him mixing his crudity with his vindictiveness are legendary.

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