fb-pixelBursting the myths about LBJ - The Boston Globe Skip to main content
Michael A. Cohen

Bursting the myths about LBJ

President Lyndon B. Johnson discusses the Voting Rights Act with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Lyndon Johnson is back.

The new movie “Selma” looks at Johnson’s role in the civil rights movement, and a new book by Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer, “The Fierce Urgency Of Now,’’ demystifies LBJ’s role in passing the laws that came to define the “Great Society.”

Both are a much-needed corrective to our historical memory of LBJ, who is often depicted as a master politician, capable of cajoling members of Congress into bending to his will.

In “Selma,” proper attention is given to the courageous and decisive role of civil rights activists, particularly Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in building pressure for civil rights legislation (even if the film unfairly depicts Johnson as an opponent of King and the civil rights movement). Zelizer’s excellent book goes deeper and shows how much of Johnson’s success was the result of big legislative majorities in Congress and strong public support for his liberal initiatives — not his larger-than-life personality.

Bursting the “great man/president who can change history” myth about Johnson is long overdue; the notion of an omnipotent president distorts Americans understanding of how the legislative process works — and how little power the president actually has, particularly on domestic policy.


However, as I’ve been working on my own book on the 1968 presidential election, a race Johnson abandoned in March of that year because of growing dissension over the war in Vietnam, I came in conflict with another reigning myth about Johnson — that he was a particularly good politician.

In the narrow confines of Congress, he was — as his biographer Robert Caro puts it in “Master of the Senate” — a brilliant student of not only legislative minutiae, but also of the needs, wants, and political constraints of his fellow senators.

As president, however, he was something of a political disaster.

In his desperation to move forward with his legislative agenda, Johnson made several dubious decisions — both at home and abroad — that ultimately destroyed his presidency and irreparably damaged his party.


In the wake of his 1964 demolishment of Barry Goldwater — and huge Democratic majorities in Congress — LBJ moved quickly to accomplish as much as possible before his political advantage was lost. With Republicans on the defensive — and reasonably cooperative — and two years before midterm elections, Johnson had a small legislative window with which to operate.

In that narrow space, he and Congress made extraordinary progress: Medicare and Medicaid became law, public education was expanded, and there were new initiatives on children’s health care, mental health, and anti-poverty programs. There was immigration reform, highway beautification, and environmental restrictions on air and water pollution. Bills that had been bottled up in Congress for years, even decades, were now suddenly the law of the land. And when Alabama state troopers brutally assaulted civil rights marchers in Selma in March 1965, Johnson moved quickly to pass the Voting Rights Act.

But there would be a cost: a lack of attention to execution; a failure to cultivate the necessary constituencies to sustain the programs that were created; and a lack of monies devoted to Johnson’s domestic vision. Over and over, LBJ promised more than he could possibly deliver, which only added to his ever-expanding “credibility gap.’’

As a legislative battler, Johnson viewed politics in crude, transactional terms, where political support could be traded for a parochial benefit that he, as president, could provide. (This was a man, after all, who believed that he could convince Ho Chi Minh to give up his fight for a unified Vietnam in return for a Tennessee Valley Authority for the Mekong Delta.)


That approach might have worked in the Senate, but among the American people it was a harder sell. Increasingly Americans came to see the rapid pace of change that Johnson was shepherding into law as harmful to their own interests, which produced a political backlash, first in midterm elections in 1966 and later in 1968.

In trying to accomplish so much, Johnson found himself and his party too far ahead of the American people.

Indeed, frustration at Johnson’s domestic agenda was less about opposition to the Great Society per se and more that he was trying to do too much, too quickly.

His narrow view of politics, however, was the least of Johnson’s political failures. In the winter of 1965, Johnson made a far worse political decision. Believing that his domestic agenda could not be sustained if he didn’t show sufficient hawkishness on Vietnam, he began the journey down the slippery slope of war in Southeast Asia, even though most of the country opposed escalation.

This is perhaps the most fascinating dynamic about Johnson — he exuded enormous confidence as a politician. “Like the old-time Texas cattle barons on their vast domains, Lyndon Baines Johnson seems to stand a good 20 feet tall in these parts,’’ wrote New York Times columnist Tom Wicker in early 1965. “There is nothing in the capitol that can look down on him except the Washington Monument.”


Yet the same president who showed such courage on pushing civil rights legislation governed in fear on Vietnam. He was convinced his Republican critics would savage him if he failed to prosecute the war. Even as strident opposition to the war grew in the Democratic Party, he made no effort to patch up the rifts, convinced that liberals would eventually support him in a reelection battle against Richard Nixon. Johnson’s view on how the politics of national security worked — developed in the 1950s during the time of the “Who Lost China?’’ debate and at the height of Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communist excesses — were practically unchanged by 1968. Indeed, if Johnson were as tough as he is often depicted, he would have taken a much bolder stand in winding down the conflict. Instead he followed what he believed was the political path of least resistance.

What Johnson lacked are skills so often derided in American politics today: a willingness to change course or to factor in new evidence and political realities into his actions. In the fall of 1967 when Johnson and the war were increasingly unpopular; when Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy directly challenged him for the Democratic nomination; when the military situation in Vietnam appeared to increasingly be a stalemate; when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was telling him it was time to get out of Vietnam, Johnson stayed the course — and tried to convince Americans that there was in fact a light at the end of the tunnel on Vietnam. That decision not only made it impossible for Democrats to respond to the growing concerns of Americans about the impact of integration, rising crime rates, and larger cultural and generational changes, but it also fiercely divided his party and helped to cost Democrats the White House in 1968.


To be sure, Johnson’s legacy of domestic accomplishments is an impressive one, even if his role is sometimes overstated. But it’s impossible to give the man his proper due without taking into account his limitations as a national politician. In many ways, his failures and successes are at the root of our politics today.


Renee Graham: ‘Selma’ pushed to the back of the bus

Ty Burr: In ‘Selma,’ man and icon are one

They heard the cry of freedom

A big slice of Texas big enough to hold some LBJ

Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. His column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.