Saturday, March 5, 2011

LBJ: From A Roar to a Whisper

Last weekend I discovered CSPAN 3 – also known as CSPAN History. Amazing that I never got into it before, as its programming caters directly to my penchant and passion for American history.

I was especially fascinated by this half hour program from the LBJ presidential archives. Apparently, it had never been aired before.

When he was president, LBJ directed the White House Naval Photographers Unit to record various happenings during his administration as part of a legacy building project. This video – which features Lady Bird Johnson conducting a tour of the White House in 1968 – was part of that effort.

It’s not unusual, of course, for presidents and their families to give televised tours of the White House. Harry Truman, Jacqueline Kennedy, Barbara Bush, and Laura Bush all performed similar tours, focusing on the history of the mansion and its many historical artifacts. Mrs. Johnson covered much of the same ground, but also tried to tie in her own family’s experience of living there.

For me, the program got interesting at about the 20:45 mark, when the camera crew caught up with LBJ in the Oval Office. I recommend that every student of the presidency take a moment to watch it. Rarely have I seen better evidence of the job’s ability to grind down even the strongest, most ambitious men who have held it.

At the time this film was made, Johnson had already abandoned his reelection plans and was finishing up his administration as a lame duck president. Looking sad with dark circles under his eyes, Johnson engaged in a rambling, five minute, seemingly off-script monologue.

He talked wistfully about his four decades of service in Washington, and then touched upon his accomplishments in the areas of education and health care.

Then he expressed hope that the new president would be able to "communicate with young people" and “foster understanding” among the races – as if he were admitting that he himself had failed to achieve either goal during a time of such social unrest.

He concludes by noting that, while every president has makes mistakes in office, no person who ever ran for the job did so wanting to do the wrong things. “And, as we leave office,” Johnson sadly notes, “in a good many instances, many of the people seem to feel that most of the things we’ve done have been wrong.”

I listened carefully to see if the camera crew had picked up the sounds of chanting protesters outside the White House gates that day. I could not hear any, but it was clear that LBJ could, even when they were not there.

The goal of the program was to give LBJ another historical vehicle to tout his accomplishments to posterity. Instead, he came across as a depressed, defensive, beaten man.

I have never cared much for LBJ as a politician or a president – read Robert Caro’s excellent biography series The Years of Lyndon Johnson to understand why – but I found myself feeling sympathy for him.  Here was a master politician known for his legendary powers of persuasion, stripped by circumstances of his ability to sway his audience.

Another unpopular Texan who waged an unpopular war – George W. Bush – left office with a strutting sense of confidence and cocksureness which vexed his enemies on the left. After watching LBJ’s very human, spontaneous vulnerability, I can't decide if that makes me like Johnson more and Bush less, or vice versa.


  1. I can't imagine what would make a man seek out the job of POTUS. Seems like the quickest way to a crushed and bitter spirit if you ask me.

    On a completely unrelated note, I highly recommend Will Ferrell's satirical take on Bush's post-presidential attitude in "You're Welcome America" -- provided you can put aside any political opinions for the duration and just enjoy a good laugh.

    I think it's important to remember not to take politics too seriously. People need to be able to admit that even their strongest opinions may be wrong. Laughter is part of that.

  2. Regardless of where people stand on the love/hate Bush 43 issue - I've always thought Bush left office with the confidence knowing (in his mind) that the decisions he made at the times he made them were the right ones. It was what he knew in his mind to be best for the country. I respect that greatly. This was reiterated in his book and in the interviews he did in promoting his book.