The President and The People: Looking Back on Lyndon Johnson

Even Presidents of the United States cannot live forever. Within weeks of each other, two who in their time supervised a great act of organised mass destruction died, quietly at their homes.

A final human touch, this; and human touches are among the expectations which people have of their leaders, at the same time as they hope for elements of the superhuman. Lyndon Johnson specialised in folksy speeches; during his time as Vice President he gave out bail-point pens to the people of West Berlin and he was always one of the world’s champion handshakers. In his superhuman role he promised to unravel the tangle of Vietnam and to fashion America into what he called the Great Society — something which, unsurprisingly, is still awaited.

Truman was known as the small town haberdasher come to the Presidency, having greatness thrust upon him. His daughter Margaret was a singer of sorts and as such always good for a joke; Truman once offered to fight a reviewer who had been unwisely frank about one of her performances. At the same time, he was expected to juggle successfully with the new, fearsome crises of a nuclear-armed world capitalism and to survive politically under severe pressures.

The Right Place & Time

An adviser to Richard Nixon informed him in 1967 about the road to political success:

    “Potential presidents are measured against an ideal that’s a combination of leading man, god, father, hero, pope, king, with maybe just a touch of the avenging Furies thrown in.”

Sometimes a President survives the inevitable disappointment of these hopes, as Truman did. Sometimes, like Johnson, he goes under, ending his days sick and apathetic perhaps ready only to die.

Statesmanship is, as we all know, one of the qualities which all presidents are required to possess and to exercise. If the word has meaning, it must be one which includes a large measure of cynicism and political calculation and involve taking decisions which may later be reversed by what will also be known as acts of statesmanship. Truman pushed America into the Korean war (which by the time he died had been renamed a police action) which was hailed as a great example of statesmanship. His successor Eisenhower, happening into the presidency just as the war was exhausting itself and both sides were accepting the need to negotiate, was able to end the hostilities and thereby get himself also hailed as a great statesman.

Greatness Thrust Upon Them

Johnson took on the job of expanding the American involvement in Vietnam which Kennedy had begun, which marked him down as a statesman. In 1968, when American workers were growing sick of the war — not so much because of the killing and destruction but because of the apparent inability of America to crush so puny an opponent — Nixon made a statesmanlike promise to end the war. It took over five years for him to get a cease-fire — at any rate on paper if not on the battlefield — but having got that Nixon is assured of his place as one of capitalism’s great statesmen.

Words Appeal

In all of this the working class develop a political blind spot which they can learn to turn so that it blots out any facts which may disturb the golden image of their leader. Of all American presidents, none is more loved than John Kennedy, who was young and good-looking and who had an elegant wife and appealing children. Very human; and all rounded off by his violent end, bleeding onto his wife’s expensive clothes. So Kennedy is forgiven his venture into the Bay of Pigs, his perilous gamble in the Cuban missiles crisis, his beginning the American involvement in Vietnam. He is forgiven his failure to ease the problems of poverty which he made so much of in his election campaign; soon after he died Johnson reported to Congress that a fifth of American families were living in what even he was prepared to describe as poverty.

It need hardly be said that Johnson presented his report as a sort of fertiliser in which a fresh crop of promises could be cultivated. A few months later he gave out the slogan which clung to him for a long time:

    “The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice . . . The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and enlarge his talents.”

Changing the Tune

And so on. And so on. And on. Johnson’s conversion to a crusader against “racial injustice” was as abrupt as his elevation to the Vice-Presidential candidacy. As a Senator he was never in any doubt about where he stood when voting on laws which were aimed at curbing the excesses of the racists of the South. Between 1940 and 1960 he voted on such issues 39 times, always as one would expect a good, solid, prejudiced Southerner to vote. He was six times against abolishing the poll tax; twice against anti-lynch laws; twice in favour of racial segregation in the American forces. And so on. And on. And on.

When he became President, Johnson applied all that he had learned about political arm-twisting, and used all the power of patronage he had built up during his time as Senate leader and Vice-President, to push through Congress the anti-discrimination laws which had baffled Kennedy. Johnson did not necessarily like what he did but, as he once shouted at a Senate subcommittee . . this is happening!” He was giving way to the inevitable, to the progressive grind of modern capitalism which the South has resisted for so long. As a simple Senator for Texas Johnson could, indeed he must, pander to the racial bigots and killers of the South, no matter what that meant in terms of negro terror and suffering. When he was in the White House he was acting for American capitalism as a whole and, again with no thought for human suffering, he was forced to do things simply because they were happening.

His success in these ruthless battles and manipulations confirmed the Johnson reputation as a masterly politician, one of the world’s greatest exponents of compromise and double dealing. When he crushed Goldwater in 1964 he might have thought to be set fair for an endless passage of triumph. But Vietnam, for one, proved a problem typical of capitalism — beyond the most skilful negotiator. Johnson’s failure here, and the intensifying fever of American society in the Sixties — the crime, the race riots, the economic crises — finished him. The uproar of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago epitomised the result of Johnson’s presidency and what he, the great unifier, had done to his party. The pay-off came hard in 1972, when the Democrats chose a certain loser for their candidate, a symbolic lamb to the slaughter. Johnson died soon after the debacle of last November.

Selling the Goods

It is usual for political commentators to analyse a politician’s failings in terms of his personal failings, or defects in his advisers, or sometimes even simple bad luck — in fact in any way which evades the facts. They can never explain, why problems which baffle one leader are apparently so easy to another. Why bad luck afflicts one President but not another. Why none of them seem to learn from the failures of their predecessors.

The simple explanation of the inability of politicians to deal with the situations confronting them and to keep their promises to the electors is that they are attempting the impossible. America might, as the protesters demanded, have kept out of the Vietnam war, but it is hard to see how they could save done so without denying the presumptions upon which a modern, powerful capitalist state must work. Johnson might have been able to legislate racism out of existence, if it were possible to wipe out three hundred years of history and the economic drives on which it was based. Nixon might now be able to abolish poverty, if capitalism suddenly stops being a society in which everything is made to be bought and sold.

No politician can ever confess to the impossibility of the tasks he sets himself. The gap between promises and reality must be bridged by other means. Sometimes, as we said, it might be by a little bit of luck, like the bit which enabled Nixon to claim, in time for the election last November, to have solved the financial problems of American capitalism. Mostly, the gap is bridged by a more calculated method, which brings the public relations and the advertising men into the picture.

Eisenhower, whose image was of the simple, honest soldier who wanted to serve the people of his country in peace as in war, was one of the first to engage a regular advertising agency to promote him as something the American working class might buy. The Republican national chairman of the time, Leonard Hall, put it without any delicacy:

    “You sell your candidates and your programmes the way a business sells its products.”

The Presidents they Want

Nixon, under a cloud in the 1956 election, kept his place as Eisenhower’s running-mate by a blatantly tear-jerking television appearance with his family and his dog. Probably he never forgot how effective a publicity method television can be. His campaign in 1968 was an object lesson in the skilful use of it, to persuade the voters away from reality. And who better to help in this than the admen, who get their living in that way? Advertising, said Daniel Boorstin in The Image, ” . . has meant a reshaping of our very concept of truth.” That’s nice, that use of the word “reshaping”. Nixon had admen to help him to do his bit of reshaping.

The occasional exposures of the techniques of political promotion ignore the fact that behind the leaders who are promoted stands a mass of accepting and condoning voters, members of the working class who suffer under the social system they expect the politicians to modify to acceptable human standards. In many ways, this is the root of the problem. American workers, like workers throughout the capitalist world, support a society which must impoverish and degrade them. At present it is painful for them to face the reality of their support for capitalism — to face their own responsibility for Vietnam, for the riots in Watts, for the city slums and the rural destitution.

Yet to face reality, and to live up to our responsibility, is all that it needs. The world has everything now to make it a place of peace and abundance except the political will to make it so. That means people, it means human beings — which is where we came in.


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