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Lyndon Johnson and 1960s Political Culture

Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency in the most trying of circumstances. The assassination of John Kennedy led both political parties to adjourn politics for a 30-day mourning period. Still, the new President never had conceded that a boundary existed between politics and policy, and Kennedy's death did not change the fact. In his first address before the Congress, Johnson committed himself to passing Kennedy's program, fully aware that success in this effort would also allow him to stand as a "can-do" President in the fall. In the process, Johnson not only established himself as chief executive in his own right: he also redefined the nature of running for the presidency.

In the initial weeks of his tenure, Johnson challenged long-established tradition by making an ability to shepherd legislation through Congress a tangible asset in presidential politics. By doing so, he shifted the playing field to an area where he possessed an overwhelming advantage over any possible foe. In 1999, C-SPAN asked 60 historians, journalists, and presidential scholars to rate the Presidents in 10 categories. In nine of the ten, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt received the highest ranking. But in one category-relations with Congress-first place went to Johnson.[1] The intensity and productivity of his dealings with the institution the Washington Star considered his "first and lasting love" represented one of Johnson's sharpest breaks from his predecessor.[2] Among 20th century chief executives, FDR might have pioneered the strategy of benefiting politically from performing presidential duties, but no previous President had established legislative success in and of itself as a political test-because no previous President had shared Johnson's confidence that he could perform the task.

Johnson did not make his first overtly political speech as President until February 29, 1964, thus confirming his mastery of FDR's strategy of shielding the presidency from the political arena. On the domestic front, Johnson pushed throughKennedy's major legislative items even as he ostensibly remained above the political fray. In championing the administration's civil rights bill, Johnson suggested that despite his Southern heritage, he would be a national, not a sectional, chief executive. Johnson's handling of his predecessor's tax bill accrued for him more political benefits than did civil rights: he willingly paid the price demanded by Senate conservatives-reducing the federal budget to below $100 billion-since doing so fortified his reputation as a Democrat capable of appealing to both business and labor. And on no legislative measure didJohnson's political motives appear more clearly than in his handling ofKennedy's farm bill, which he saw as a chance first to keep together the NewDeal Democratic coalition and then to woo Midwestern Republicans beyond the reach of the Democratic Party since 1936.[3]

That political concerns affected public policy decisions in the Johnson administration (or that of any other President) comes as no great insight. But this study seeks to understand how and in what specific ways politics shaped policy. A fusion of politics and policy extended to the international arena as well. Johnson has been portrayed-both at the time and by many historians thereafter-as a somewhat passive President on international matters,at least in the initial period of his presidency. "The frivolous answer here,"columnist Max Frankel mocked in early February 1964, "to inquiries from abroad about President Johnson's inclinations in foreign policy has been: 'Haven't you heard? There isn't going to be any foreign policy in the next year.'"[4] To Frankel, the President had ignored the truism "often proclaimed by PresidentKennedy [that] the line between domestic and foreign affairs has become almost nonexistent."[5]

In fact, Johnson fully understood how domestic politics and foreign policy intersected. But unlikeKennedy, who frequently worried about domestic forces constraining his international agenda, Johnson tailored his foreign policies to serve his perceived political needs. In the process, he assumed an active-and, indeed,decisive-role on a host of international issues. This pattern emerged most clearly in the administration's response to Latin America, but recent interpretations of Johnson's early Vietnam and European policies also show a chief executive decisive on international matters almost from the start of his presidency.[6] Unfortunately for the President, he lacked the magical touch internationally that he displayed with Congress. By the early summer of 1964, it appeared as if his handling of foreign policy matters could provide an opening for a strongRepublican candidate. That this ultimately did not occur represented one of the great surprises of the 1964 campaign.

For much of early 1964, in any case, it remained unclear whether the GOP would produce a viable challenger. Johnson's elevation to the presidency transformed all elements of the election, and perhaps most dramatically the contest on the Republican side. By late 1963, Arizona senator Barry Goldwater had assumed a healthy lead in Republican polls-due to the weakness of his principal opponent, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, party leaders' excitement at Goldwater's ability to outpoll JohnKennedy in the South, the senator's grassroots support from conservatives, and the fact that few prominent Republicans wanted to take on Kennedy. But few political observers, at least in early 1964, believed that even Goldwater,despite his criticism of civil rights legislation, could best Johnson in theSouth, although, in retrospect, clear signs existed to the contrary.Accordingly, several Republicans-Richard Nixon, William Scranton, and HenryCabot Lodge chief among them-looked seriously at the race. Lodge ultimately emerged as the most potent of these challengers, thanks to his upset victory in the New Hampshire primary and his strength in subsequent public opinion polls.Goldwater and Lodge not only differed ideologically but also tactically. While Goldwater focused on winning delegates through state conventions, Lodge embraced what had been dubbed "Kennedy's Law," after the Massachusetts Democrat's successin 1960: that political professionals would nominate the candidate with the greatest popular appeal.

Lodge ultimately failed to sustain his public backing. Perhaps, as Rick Perlstein has most persuasively argued, the Massachusetts Republican never seriously threatened Goldwater's status as the frontrunner.[7] But the Lodge candidacy nonetheless requires students of 1964 to entertain some counterfactual considerations. The thrust of recent scholarship has portrayed the right's capture of the Republican Party as a linear process, either through the decline of the liberal Republicans, the emergence of a new suburban base for the GOP, or the creation of a powerful base of conservative grassroots activists.[8] But what if Lodge had prevailed in the Oregon primary, as he was favored to do,and a Lodge-Rockefeller coalition had then defeated Goldwater in California?Such results would have given Lodge a realistic chance at the nomination. And had the GOP selected this ardent champion of civil rights as its nominee,Alabama governor George Wallace almost certainly would have proceeded with a third-party presidential bid. An election with Wallace threatening Johnson's hold over the South and urban ethnic voters while Lodge challenged the President for predominance in the suburbs and with Cold War liberals would have yielded a different result on November 3-and possibly altered subsequent political history.

The collapse of the Lodge candidacy all but ensured Goldwater's nomination. Meanwhile, the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which Johnson signed into law on July 2, 1964,revived suspicions that a white backlash could determine the November outcome.In many ways, however, the most interesting question regarding the civil rights issue focuses on why the backlash failed to substantially assist the Republicans in 1964-in contrast to the 1968, 1980, and 1988 presidential races, where backlash sentiment peeled off enough Democrats to ensure GOP triumphs.Shortcomings in Goldwater's strategy alone do not provide a sufficient explanation. Although the 1964 San Francisco convention is generally remembered as an example of how political parties should not conduct national gatherings,commentary from the time viewed the affair differently, arguing that Goldwater had mobilized a conservative base that, when joined with a "silent" backlash vote, could propel the senator at the very least to an unexpectedly close finish.

In the event,the 1964 contest distinguished itself from its successors by featuring an issue to trump the backlash-national security policy. In October 1964, Richard Reston of the Los Angeles Times discussed how Johnson had used foreign policy"in a conscious political effort to isolate the more aggressive stand" of Goldwater.[9] Talking about a bipartisan foreign policy tradition represented the first aspect of this effort, linking Dwight Eisenhower, John Foster Dulles, and Henry CabotLodge into Johnson's portrayal of the mainstream foreign policy against which Goldwater was rebelling. Moreover, Goldwater's positions against the nuclear test-ban treaty and in favor of granting NATO commanders more discretion to use nuclear weapons allowed Johnson to portray the Arizonan as someone who would create "fear instead of confidence, division instead of unity, and controversy in times that demand a common front."[10] In this sense, foreign policy emerged as the President's most potent "political weapon."[11]

The end of the Republican convention in late July returned the political focus to Johnson,where it would remain for the rest of the year. At the time, the most significant undecided issue in the Democratic campaign was the identity of thePresident's running mate. Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey recalled the Johnson attitude: "It was the kind of situation he delighted in: floating a trial balloon, deflating it, suggesting different names. He held all the cards and played them as the whim struck."[12]

Until the end of July, the central figure in this drama was Attorney General Robert Kennedy. One author has termed the battle between Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy the "feud that defined a decade," and, if it was not quite that, it did play a critical political role in the early months of the Johnson presidency.[13] The two men first came into regular contact in 1960, when Robert managed his brother's campaign and fumed at the desperate tactics employed by Johnson in the weeks before the convention. On the other side, the convention instilled inJohnson a deep dislike for Robert Kennedy, whom Johnson believed wanted to eliminate him from national politics. Relations between the two deteriorated during John Kennedy's presidency.[14] In 1964, although the Attorney General made sporadic gestures of trying to forceJohnson to nominate him, the President was not intimidated. In late July, he announced that Kennedy, along with all members of the Cabinet, would not be considered for the vice-presidential slot.

Kennedy's elimination made Humphrey, the Senate majority whip, the frontrunner for the nomination. Humphrey and Johnson had a longstanding, mutually profitable relationship. The Minnesotan won election to the Senate in 1948 after electrifying the year's Democratic convention with a speech endorsing a strong civil rights platform plank-the same plank that produced Strom Thurmond's brief departure from the party. The upper chamber, however, was far less receptive to his oratorical capabilities. His political rehabilitation came about largely from the efforts of Johnson, who saw in Humphrey a potential ally among Senate liberals skeptical of his commitment to traditional Democratic programs.[15]

In the early months of 1964, in a revealing commentary on their future relationship, Johnson and Humphrey never had a conversation between equals. Humphrey never challenged or chastised the President, while Johnson regularly disparaged Humphrey's political and intellectual skills, sometimes directly, more usually behind the senator's back.And the President, who obsessed over press leaks, frequently complained aboutHumphrey's habit of speaking excessively to journalists.

This hesitancy caused Johnson to search for an alternative to Humphrey as the 1964 Democratic convention in-of all places-Atlantic City drew near. This quest eventually focused on Montana senator Mike Mansfield, the Senate majority leader. Humphrey salvaged his nomination only thanks to Mansfield's obvious reluctance for the post and the Minnesotan's work in resolving a controversy over the composition of the Mississippi delegation. After Mississippi's segregated Democratic Party sent an all-white, pro-Goldwater delegation to the convention, civil rights activists countered with a mixed-race delegation calling itself the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The President harbored no particular sympathy for the Mississippi regulars, but recognized that denying them their seats would cause other Southern delegations to bolt the convention.Johnson eventually defused the crisis with a compromise that many liberals considered unsatisfactory and that generated surprisingly strong opposition from a significant supporting player in the 1964 contest, Georgia governor CarlSanders.

With even the moderate Sanders dubious about the President's political approach to civil rights, Johnson entered the fall campaign fully understanding that he lacked a secure base of Southern support. Both publicly and privately, however, thePresident expressed little concern: while commentators anticipated a backlash vote, he introduced a new word to the political lexicon. For several weeks following the convention, Johnson structured his campaign agenda around cultivating the "frontlash"-independents and Republicans uncomfortable withBarry Goldwater's positions on national security issues and civil rights. The fiscal conservatism of these voters had made them the core of the GOP in manyNorthern and Eastern states after World War II, and the New Deal economic agenda made them suspicious of the Democrats.

In 1964, Johnson not only wanted their votes-he wanted their permanent allegiance for his party. He used the early weeks of the fall campaign to outline a program based on peace,prosperity, and social justice that seemed tailor-made to persuade frontlash voters to switch to the Democratic Party. That process, however, proved much more difficult than the President, in his campaign manager persona, had anticipated; and it ultimately was undone by an attempt to balance the economic agenda demanded by frontlash voters with domestic policies preferred by traditional Democratic constituencies, such as labor unions, liberals, and,ultimately, the President himself. By the end of September, under criticism for offering only the blandest of economic proposals, even Johnson concluded that the frontlash approach would not produce a permanent realignment.

Just as theLodge campaign compels a closer look at alternative paths for the GOP, the frontlash effort forces us to reconsider the foundations of 1960s liberalism.Serious scholarship on the issue dates from Allen Matusow's magisterial Unraveling of America, which posited an ideological continuity between theKennedy and Johnson administrations based on what Matusow termed "corporate liberalism."[16] On the surface, Johnson's advocacy of a fiscally responsible, pro-business,pro-growth agenda would suggest a similarity between Johnson's economic approach and that of Kennedy, as would the retention of Kennedy's key economic advisers.But Johnson's economic program also included anti-poverty initiatives and a strongly favorable attitude toward unions, items that had assumed much less importance under Kennedy.

In this sense, Johnson's frontlash agenda represented much more a political than an economic program, a general approach that would resurface in the 1990s under the moniker "Third Way"in Europe and "New Democrat" in the United States. Like Tony Blair and BillClinton, Lyndon Johnson wanted to make liberalism acceptable to uppermiddle-class and middle-class voters, by de-emphasizing calls for expanding the welfare state and income redistribution, and stressing instead aspects of rights-related liberalism where the frontlash voters and traditional Democratic constituencies could make common cause. In the end, of course, Johnson would not duplicate the success of Clinton or Blair in this endeavor. But it is testimony to his political acumen that, recognizing how the Civil Rights Act would shatter the New Deal coalition, he made the attempt at all.

Johnson shared with his 1990s Democratic successor one other important trait-a tendency toward blowing small scandals out of proportion by responding to them inappropriately. In 1964, Johnson's ethical difficulties originated in an influence-peddling investigation involving his former aide and protégé, BobbyBaker, and inquiry that revealed what Cabell Phillips of the New York Times termed a "moral climate where the habitual wheeling and dealing in the coin of politics, privilege, and the reciprocal good turn tends to dull the sensibilities."[17] If leveled at John Kennedy or Dwight Eisenhower, allegations of rampant ethical improprieties would have been dismissed out of hand. But regarding "Landslide Lyndon," the man who amassed a net worth of eight figures while serving exclusively on the government payroll, such charges seemed entirely plausible.

Months of investigation uncovered only two specific-and very minor-links between Johnson and the scandal. Had the President been immediately forthcoming, the matter might have passed with little political damage. Instead, Johnson's conduct magnified the problem. He first offered legalistic responses that, while technically true, made him appear evasive. He then argued that even if everything of which he was accused were correct, the charges involved private morality rather than public policy and therefore were inappropriate for apolitical campaign. He pressured Senate Democrats to close down the inquiry. He urged the FBI to investigate Baker's foes, and turned a blind eye to the leaking of confidential personnel information designed to discredit Baker's attackers.And finally, when the investigation began examining possible campaign finance law violations, the President authorized his lawyer and friend Abe Fortas, the man whose legal strategizing had saved his political career in 1948, to obstruct justice.

His having already gone to such extremes makes understandable Johnson's response to the biggest scandal of the fall campaign-the arrest of his closest aide, Walter Jenkins, on what was delicately termed a "morals" charge. With virtually no other line of attack, Goldwater had made restoring "morality" in Washington the centerpiece of his campaign. To provide himself with political cover from additional criticism, Johnson responded to Jenkins' arrest by ordering a full-scale FBI inquiry into the affair, only to realize that Jenkins' office safe contained damaging files including, among other things, evidence of campaign finance irregularities. Accordingly, the President, at the time in NewYork for a campaign address, ordered Fortas to remove the files from the office,thrice calling his counselor to confirm his instructions. And it was all captured on tape.

The Jenkins affair and Johnson's difficulties in articulating a frontlash agenda prevented the 1964 campaign from producing a permanent realignment. Instead, the contest's closing weeks featured the President trying to solidify his historical legacy, largely by outperforming the 1936 showing of his mentor, Franklin Roosevelt and by using his margin of victory to ensure the defeat of his most vituperative congressional foes. Johnson achieved a mixed record in this regard, and this tactic-an approach he chose over the advice of most of his political counselors-paved the way for the quick collapse of his 1964 coalition when economic and international conditions subsequently soured. In this sense, 1964 represented a hollow victory; the President received a short-term boost but little long-term political strength.

[1], visited 10January 2003.

[2] Washington Star, 3 Dec. 1963.

[3] Washington Post, 3 Dec. 1963.

[4] New York Times, 3 Feb. 1964.

[5] New York Times, 3 Feb. 1964.

[6] See especially Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peaceand the Escalation of the War in Vietnam (Berkeley; University ofCalifornia Press, 1999), and Thomas Alan Schwartz, Lyndon Johnson andEurope: In the Shadow of Vietnam (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,2003).

[7] Rick Perlstein, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of theAmerican Consensus (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001).

[8] Perlstein, Before the Storm; Nicol Rae, The Decline and Fall of the Liberal Republicans: from 1952 to the Present (New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 1989); Mary Brennan, Turning Right in the Sixties: TheConservative Capture of the GOP (Chapel Hill: University of NorthCarolina Press, 1995).

[9] Los Angeles Times, 14 October 1964.

[10] Los Angeles Times, 14 October 1964.

[11] Los Angeles Times, 14 October 1964.

[12] Hubert Humphrey, Education of a Public Man: My Life and Politics (NewYork: Doubleday, 1976), p. 289.

[13] Jeff Shesol, Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and theFeud that Defined a Decade (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997).

[14] Shesol, Mutual Contempt, pp. 82-7.

[15] Mann, The Walls of Jericho, pp. 100-4.

[16] Allen Matusow, The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the1960s (New York: Harper and Row, 1984).

[17] New York Times, 7 Nov. 1963.

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