In light of Newsweek’s coming demise—and in defiance of its long descent into awfulness—it might be worthwhile to point out an otherwise interesting nugget from one of their many shallow sales-baiting features: in their recent “Ten Best Presidents [since 1900]” roundup, Lyndon Johnson finished third. Although he lagged behind the two Roosevelts, Johnson nevertheless trumped popular picks Wilson, Truman, Ike, and, perhaps most notably, Kennedy, the very man whose mystique Johnson so vainly sought to escape.
Even if you don’t buy into the industry of “greatest president” list-making, this seems noteworthy for several reasons. First, this was not another roundup of conventional wisdom from the usual journalist-historians and presidential biographers—think Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss—but instead pulled from ten of the most distinguished scholars of twentieth-century American history (including personal favorites Alan Brinkley and Lizabeth Cohen). Second, it seems to confirm the chatter that accompanied much of the adulation surrounding Robert Caro’s latest entry in his monumental, multi-tomed Johnson biography: Johnson is in line for a popularity boost.
After-the-fact surges in popular esteem are nothing new—political pundits always point to Truman’s unexpected rise in the public’s estimation. Certain contemporary trends now seem to suggest the same process is underway for Johnson. Certainly Caro’s improbable best-selling biographies have played their part, and will continue to do so, but in concert with a more pressing trend: the exasperating impotence of contemporary liberalism. Cast against today’s partisan gridlock, the meager accomplishments of liberalism since Johnson, and especially the many frustrations of the last four years, Johnson’s unparalleled torrent of legislative accomplishments seems utterly miraculous. Although Vietnam sunk his presidency, stained his legacy, and alienated a generation, the weight of Vietnam seems to be lifting, and Johnson’s domestic accomplishments seem to loom ever larger in the public imagination.
And why not? Although Johnson lusted for power—the idea of power undergirds Caro’s work—a clear moral consciousness coexisted with his ruthless ambition. Unlike his power-hungry rivals Richard Nixon and George Wallace, who seemed to learn only resentment from their own hardscrabble upbringings, Johnson never let go of the poverty of the Central Texas Hill Country and the debilitating effects of the Great Depression. Johnson’s longtime counselor, Harry McPherson, admitted in 1969 that, “as we all know,” Johnson was ruthlessly self-centered and maniacally ambitious, but he had a deep well of compassion as well. As McPherson put it, “when an old woman falls down in the street, his shins ache a little.” In Johnson, ambition collided with compassion. And so when Johnson acquired political capital, he spent it. Eagerly. And then he went looking for more.
Speaking before Congress and television cameras in support of the Voting Rights Act, Johnson highlighted his short-lived experience teaching poor Mexican Americans in South Texas, saying “it never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students, and to help people like them all over this country. But now I do have that chance. And I’ll let you in on a secret—I mean to use it.” That’s the key: for liberals frustrated with the powerlessness of recent Democratic administrations, Johnson beckons as the last great workman, the last great doer, of American liberalism.
Few presidents, if any, can match Johnson’s accomplishments. What, besides emancipation, really rivals Johnson’s civil rights program for sheer historical monumentality? If not for Vietnam (and that is one large “if not”), wouldn’t Johnson sit safely in the pantheon of American presidents? The Great Society was not without its many compromises and concessions and carried with it many halting efforts and frustrating failures, but as the generation defined and disillusioned by Vietnam fades, and frustration with the political driftlessness of our own times crests, Johnson seems destined to assume an ever-expanding place in our collective memory—or at least in the shallow musings of historical list-makers.