Presidents who make history also understand the history they made is constantly changing. The nation that in 1953 was mild about Harry was, 60 years later, almost wild about Truman, and this September’s 40-year retrospectives of Gerald R. Ford’s decision to pardon Richard Nixon will vividly underline how perspectives change with time.
In the case of Johnson — battered and blamed for city riots, student protests, family permissiveness and street violence by the time he left office in January 1969 to the strains of “Stormy Weather,” one of his favorite songs — the revisionism began with the new century.
Around the beginning of 2000, two major critics of the president, Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith (a principal in the effort to dump Johnson from the 1968 ticket) and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George S. McGovern (a leader in the antiwar movement in the Vietnam era), proclaimed publicly their admiration for LBJ. McGovern, who served in Congress when Johnson roamed the Capitol halls as a colossus, went so far as to argue that, aside from Wilson and the two Roosevelts, “Lyndon Johnson was the greatest president since Abraham Lincoln.”
Now the debate is raging again, and not only because half-century reassessments are so seductive.
In the White House today is a legatee of the Johnson years, a black man who acknowledges he was the beneficiary of LBJ initiatives and whose health care plan has antecedents in the Great Society. Yet, Obama repeatedly is criticized for not being more like Johnson — for not herding vast amounts of legislation through Congress, for not bending lawmakers to his will, for not frightening his opponents, for not seducing his putative supporters into submission over Cutty Sark and sweet talk.
The 36th president lingers in the American consciousness by virtue of the triumphs and the tragedies that filled his era. This year and the years that follow will be filled with historical re-runs. Johnson as president didn’t get everything right. But now it’s important for us to get Johnson right.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.