- - Sunday, April 3, 2016


By Randall B. Woods

Basic Books, $32, 480 pages

The ill-disguised contempt with which much of post-Kennedy Washington viewed President Lyndon Johnson was on nasty display on election night in 1964, after LBJ routed Barry Goldwater. Art Buchwald, the Washington Post columnist, sneered at a cocktail party, “We were nice to this fellow when he was running against Goldwater because we were scared of Goldwater, but now we’re going to get him because he’s just a Texas clown!”

Buchwald was perhaps piqued because the “clown,” in his first months in the White House, achieved passage of a civil rights act for which JFK had struggled ineffectively for almost three years — a measure guaranteeing blacks equal access to public facilities and employment, among other benefits.

Further, Johnson’s early success was a prelude to a period of so-called “Great Society” legislation that was tantamount to a second New Deal. Although many conservatives viewed Johnson’s social programs with scorn, he overcame a Congress dominated by Southerners (Democrats, in the main) with legislative adeptness equaled by no other American president. Johnson combined persuasion with occasional brute force to achieve what he wished.

The reasons that many of his programs fell short of the intended achievements — “the unintended consequences of well-intentioned policy” — is the theme of Randall B. Woods’ account. A professor at the University of Arkansas, and an early LBJ biographer, Mr. Woods is both incisive and objective in appraising the origins of Johnson’s Great Society programs, and their fate.

Unlike Kennedy, who spent his life in cloistered wealth, Johnson understood poverty from his birth on a Texas Hill Country farm without electricity, to his teaching of Latin-American kids in Cotulla, an economically desolate village in South Texas. LBJ also sensed the mounting social turmoil in the country in the 1960s — racial, economic and otherwise — and he set about addressing the problems.

A former Senate majority leader, Johnson knew well the levers of congressional power, and he eschewed the glitzy dinner parties and social showboating beloved by the Kennedys. (See, for instance, Sally Bedell Smith’s 2005 book, “Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House.”)

Perhaps Johnson’s greatest initial legislative achievement was passage of a voting rights act in 1965 that knocked down racial barriers that had long denied blacks access to the ballot box. He recognized the political price, telling an aide that he likely had cost the Democratic Party the South forever.

Working in President Roosevelt’s 1930s National Youth Administration, Johnson had learned to loathe bureaucratic torpor. Hence he close to link his programs “to the grassroots aspirations of the people.” As Mr. Woods observes, “If the disinherited could become convinced that the good things in life were coming to them through the exercise of their own political muscle rather than the charity of philanthropists or government, they would be rid of the enervating feelings of dependency and powerlessness.”

Hence his War on Poverty creations relied heavily on an approach (the Community Action Program, or CAP) which bypassed local governments and political bosses. As Johnson aid Bill Moyers put it, “The poor in our cities, they have been the wards of the political machines.”

Thus Johnson ran headlong into an unlikely congeries of foes. Powerful mayors such as Richard Daley of Chicago and Sam Yorty of Los Angeles blasted LBJ for promoting “class struggle” and insisted that programs remain local. Loud-mouthed “liberal” groups such as Students for a Democratic Society and the “black power movement” sought to seize control of CAPs, touching off a white backlash that worsened race relations as the 1960s progressed — a cruel by-product of Johnson’s noble intentions.

Predictably, the liberal establishment — led by Sen. Robert Kennedy, who hated LBJ from the outset, and desperately wanted the presidency in 1968 — abandoned the Democratic administration and, in Mr. Woods’ words, reacted by “kowtowing” to the militants. Political scientist Daniel Patrick Moynihan (later a New York senator) commented, “The President was badly let down by the white political community which panicked at the thought that it might have to pursue for a moment a line of thought unpopular with the Negro militants “

In due course, opponents of the Vietnam War came to detest Johnson, leaving a historical blemish on his record. Nonetheless, accomplishments of the Great Society remain visible in present-day America — from Medicare, which benefits millions of persons annually, to increased spending on higher education, job training programs, and vast increases in national parklands.

And what a pity it is, as Mr. Woods concludes, “Ironically, it was Johnson who made Jack Kennedy the great liberal that he is remembered as being by many Americans today.”

Washington writer Joseph Goulden covered the Johnson White House for The Philadelphia Inquirer 1967-1968.

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