Was he a romantic with a vision of an America free of poverty and ignorance? Was he a craven war leader, sacrificing tens of thousands to his fear of losing a small country in battle — or the presidency in impeachment? Did he create a nation that celebrated and elevated fairness and justice? Or did his policies perpetuate social pathology and sow dependence? Did he possess the fatal flaw of hubris? Or is it a flaw at all to think big, plan big, dream big?
An unusual battle for history is now underway, pitting American memory against the historical legacy of an American president.
There hasn’t been an intellectual struggle like this for years. But the battle over how to regard Lyndon Baines Johnson almost certainly will be more emotional, more tendentious and more significant than the last struggle of this kind, over how history should rate Harry S. Truman.
The Truman battle over war (Korea), race (desegregating the armed forces) and style (the down-home manner of Independence, Mo.) was but a miniature version of the Johnson legacy of war (Vietnam), race (two civil-rights bills, bloody marches and urban unrest) and style (not so much the humanity of the Pedernales Valley as the brutality of the political perdition Johnson threatened to the reluctant and the rebellious).
The Truman battle was settled, probably permanently, by one book, David McCullough’s 1992 biography, which sold more than a million copies. The Johnson battle, stoked by scores of books, especially Robert Caro’s multivolume biography, is far from over. Indeed, this clash gives new meaning to Johnson’s remark that “yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or lose.”
In this battle are Johnson loyalists, particularly his daughters and some surviving former aides; Johnson rivals, especially those who will never forgive him for Vietnam; Johnson revisionists, who opposed him in life but came to recognize his vision and virtues after he died; Johnson folklorists, who exaggerate physical characteristics and a personal character that once were so overpowering that they seemed immune to exaggeration; and Johnson ingenues, who never knew Johnson or didn’t live in the Johnson years, but who view him as a distant figure, much like William Howard Taft or Grover Cleveland.