In 1963, Lyndon Baines Johnson was inaugurated as president on a hot, over-crowded airplane on the tarmac at Love Field outside Dallas. He had spent the years since JFK’s inauguration in 1961 becoming increasingly irrelevant, unnecessary, and humiliated. All the power that LBJ had built up first in the house and then in the senate–the place where he became the master of power, process, and of men–all that power was gone.
He knew what lurked in the hearts of men, and knew how to use it or to buy it. He knew how to get things done, good and ill. It was Robert Caro’s recent book, The Passage of Power, that fully explained to me how kickbacks work. LBJ didn’t get rich by working hard in the conventional way. And yet: he never forgot Cotulla, Texas. Never forget the road gang, never forgot working hard with his (admittedly enormous) hands.
With the benefit of hindsight, does LBJ become clearer? We can never forgive him Vietnam, but we can remember the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Great Society. Johnson’s hero was FDR, his model the New Deal. In late 1963, when an ally told him that the fight for civil rights was a lost cause, Johnson had a rebuttal, according to Robert Caro.
“Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”
Johnson, not elected to the office he now held, and with another election about to swing into gear, asked that question. What was the presidency for, but to fight for lost causes, noble causes. Why else would you work so hard to build political capital, but to spend it?
What the hell’s the presidency for, but to fight for what a nation, or a nation’s most vulnerable people, need?
LBJ was corrupt, profane, adulterous, and coarse. I can’t say what he would have done in the political climate today, but the question he asked is worth asking today.