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All Downhill Since

“Part of the Way With LBJ”


“All the Way With LBJ” was a slogan in Lyndon Baines Johnson’s campaign for the presidency in 1964.  “Part Of The Way With LBJ” was a Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) slogan.

After Johnson won the election, he intensified the war in Vietnam.  In short order, an anti-war movement emerged.  It grew exponentially, and LBJ became a hated man.

Students played a leading role in the anti-war movement.  SDS became their leading force.

Under its aegis, the burgeoning “new left” flourished and the old sectarian left rose again.  There were SDS chapters in which factionalism was rife.  But on one point, there was unanimity: everybody hated LBJ.

Nevertheless, speakers at SDS rallies would sometimes bring up their organization’s 1964 slogan.

One might have expected that they would be embarrassed by it, but they were not.

Or with the Cultural Revolution underway in “Red China,” and with SDS high-flyers turning into Maoist wannabes, one might have thought that their aim in digging up that relic from the past would be to use it for “criticism and self-criticism.”  That wasn’t the idea either.

SDS turned its old slogan into a bragging point.  It showed how wonderful the new SDS was, and how far it had come.

Disingenuous?  Maybe.  But SDSers would have been the last to know.  Young, privileged, full of themselves, and not trusting anybody over thirty, they could do no wrong.

The people they became are way over thirty now; many of them are apolitical and nearly all have resumed the lives that were interrupted – superficially, in most cases – in their radical days.  For them, SDS is a memory, engulfed in nostalgia.  The broader public forgot about it long ago.

Therefore nobody nowadays cares what position SDS took on the 1964 election.  It isn’t just that SDS itself is history; elections held fifty years ago seem about as timely now as, say, Teddy Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill seemed then.

Nevertheless, it would have been fitting to dust off and unfurl SDS’s old slogan at the Johnson Presidential Library in Austin last week.  There, among other luminaries, Barack Obama and George W. Bush delivered speeches in Johnson’s honor.

The occasion was the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The law Johnson signed fifty years ago outlawed discrimination based on race, religion, sex and national origin.  It also ended unequal application of voter registration requirements; and it made racial segregation in schools, public accommodations, and the workplace illegal.

As much or more than any other legislation passed in the United States in the twentieth century, this was an achievement of major significance.

It would not have happened but for the civil rights struggles of African Americans and their allies.  The Kennedy assassination the year before was a factor too; it affected the mood of the country in ways that advanced liberal causes.

Also, by the early and mid-sixties, forward-looking capitalists were coming on board.  Corporate support for segregation in the South and for racial discrimination everywhere else was becoming bad for business.  Leading foundations took notice.

In short, the Civil Rights Act was not entirely, or even mainly, LBJ’s doing.  But his role was crucial in getting it through Congress.  For this, all praise is due.

Obama’s speech in Austin was remarkable in one respect; he spoke about racial justice.  To be sure, he had nothing to say that wasn’t anodyne.  But Obama seldom says or does anything about racial justice at all.  His maxim seems to be “don’t trouble trouble.”  Or perhaps he thinks he does his part just by being there.

Obama said that LBJ’s legislative achievement was a big part of what made his being there possible.  True enough, but somebody should have reminded him that he was there to praise LBJ, not to flaunt a reason for damning him.  Unfortunately, the audience was too polite to mention drones or assassins or full-spectrum, 24/7 surveillance.

George W. took a different line.  He rambled on about how unpopular LBJ was by the time he decided not to run for a second term, and about the high regard in which he is held today.  No doubt, he would have said much the same about Harry Truman had he found himself at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri.

Like his father, Bush the Younger is not a subtle man; he’d like the same to be said someday of himself.

Don’t hold your breath, George W; or, better yet, please do.

Johnson and Truman were complicated figures.  They accomplished great things; Johnson especially.  But they were also responsible for some of the greatest crimes in world history.

Bush, on the other hand, is distinguished only for his frat boy style and mediocrity.  No matter how much more our political culture declines, his stock can only go down.

Of course, the reputations of past presidents wax and wane for reasons that are often capricious or wrong-headed.  Jimmy Carter’s reputation too was in the cellar by the time he left office, and it has stayed there ever since.  But the reasons why could not be more different.

Like Obama, Carter was hamstrung by Republican obstinacy.  His accomplishments in office were therefore few.

Worse, he presided over the first steps in America’s and the world’s descent into neoliberalism.  By the time Carter left office, he had become became a Reaganite avant la lettre.

It is not clear how much of this was his idea, and how much was a consequence of circumstances beyond his control.  Either way, it was he, not Bush the Father, who became the true kinder and gentler Reaganite.

But if Reaganism still doesn’t count against Reagan himself or his Reaganite successors (the two Bushes and the two Democrats), why should intimations of it tarnish Jimmy Carter?  If Democrats are good at anything, it is blaming Republicans for their shortcomings.  Carter has as much right to benefit from this maneuver as any of the others.

Nevertheless, in Democratic circles, the man is toxic.  The Iranian hostage crisis is one reason why. It was magnificently humiliating, and Americans don’t take humiliation well.  It smarts even to this day.

Just this past week, in plain defiance of its international obligations, the State Department informed Iran that it will not issue a visa to Hamid Aboutalebi, Iran’s choice for ambassador to the United Nations.  A renowned diplomat today, Aboutalebi had been involved in those events years ago.

Carter’s greatest sin, though, was speaking truth to power once he was out of power himself.  Years after leaving office, he wrote a fine book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.  The title alone epitomizes all that did him in.  For Democratic luminaries, it was the final straw.

No matter that, by forcing Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin to come to terms at Camp David, no American President ever did more to enhance Israel’s security; and no matter too that there is probably not a Christian in America whose support for a Jewish state in Palestine is less hate-ridden.

Carter used the A-word honestly and that is just not done in the Home of the Brave.  For Democrats and Republicans alike, linking “Israel” and “Apartheid” is even worse than using the O-word in the presence of Sheldon Adelson.

New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie violated that taboo in Las Vegas where he had gone to beg for Adelson’s support; he mentioned the Occupied Territories.  For that, he had to abase himself a dozen times over.

Were Hollywood to make a movie of The Elders of Zion, they could not do better than cast Adelson in the lead.  But his money has made him a GOP kingmaker, and if you want his support, you have to pay the price.

Fortunately, Adelson, a casino magnate, has a knack for picking losers.  Last time, it was Newt Gingrich.  Christie’s chances are even worse.  Not all the money in Macao could change that.

The Democratic Party’s propaganda machine has already made mincemeat of Christie’s corpulent, Jersey-shore persona.  He is in MSNBC’s crosshairs; Rachel Maddow won’t shut up about him.  And the more serious late-night comedians have only just begun.

Christie is a godsend for them; if he stays in the race, Saturday Night Live will become interesting again.  However aspiring actors, intent on becoming the next Tina Fey, should hold off on porking up.  The man is toast.

He must know it too; yet he still doesn’t have enough self-respect to tell Adelson where to go.

Carter, on the other hand, has never backed down.  For that, he remains persona non grata.

No doubt, someday it will be plain to all that Carter was a better (less bad) president than anyone who has so far come after him.

This could happen sooner than one might think, as the Israel lobby’s hold over public opinion diminishes, and as memories of an insult suffered thirty-five years ago fade.  In the United States of Amnesia, that day can’t be too far off.

After all, the Vietnam War was a far greater humiliation, and it no longer rankles.  When LBJ is honored now, as he was in Austin, it doesn’t even come up.

Curiously, when it does in other contexts, it seems that, back in the day, almost everybody was against the Vietnam War.  Yes, there was lots of Sturm und Drang; that’s what made those times interesting.  But who knows what it was all about.  The only sure thing is that “mistakes were made.”

Of course, everybody was at Woodstock too; just as in France everybody fought in the Resistance.  Evidently, “folks,” Obama’s word for people, care about being – or rather having been — on “the right side of history,” to put that point too in Obama-ese.

If the facts speak otherwise, fables can always be concocted.  Thus we soothe ourselves.

This is why almost everybody nowadays considers the formerly vilified Daniel Ellsberg a hero for doing what the currently vilified Edward Snowden did – informing the American public by exposing government lies and embarrassing government officials.

The Iran hostage crisis continues to rankle because, unlike Vietnam, Iran is still a thorn in the empire’s side.  When that changes, as it will sooner or later, Carter’s stock will rise – unless of course the Apartheid regime Israel operates in the Occupied Territories remains a taboo subject.  But that toois unlikely to last much longer; the facts are too obvious, and the general public is already beginning to take notice.

For his good works after 1980, Carter is still sometimes in the public eye; LBJ, on the other hand, is a remote figure from the distant past.  It is therefore easier than in Carter’s case to put his presidency in perspective. The enormity of what he did to Vietnam continues to reverberate, but after all these years, it is possible also to acknowledge his achievements.

It is the same with Richard Nixon.  Before turning the war over to the South Vietnamese, who then went on to suffer a resounding defeat, he made it his own.  Then, notwithstanding the plain fact that it was wrong from every pertinent moral and political point of view, he expanded it – though it was already a lost cause.  In other words, Nixon undertook a “surge” strategy, but on a grander and more horrific scale than the one pursued by the current Commander-in-Chief.

Nixon was notorious too for ignoring constitutional constraints.  In this way too, he and Obama seem almost like-minded.

There is a important difference, however.  Even if Nixon wasn’t entirely what he famously declared he was not, a crook, he was a close enough approximation.   Obama is most certainly not a crook.  He is less interesting than that.

But when it comes to protecting crooks, the ones who are too rich to jail or too guilty of war crimes and crimes against the peace to incarcerate without upsetting the military-national security state complex, Obama is without peer.

There is another difference too: unlike Nixon, Obama will leave office in good standing.  The press had a field day with Nixon, the “liberal” press most of all.  The liberal press today, such as it is, exists to cut Obama slack.

Yet Nixon was our last liberal president.  In comparison, Obama, like Clinton before him, is a joke.  Post-Johnson Democratic presidents, even Jimmy Carter, hardly begin to measure up.

Then there was Kennedy.  His days in the White House have always been relevant for understanding how LBJ’s presidency is viewed.

Remarkably, there are still well-meaning, well-informed people who think JFK would have been a great President, if only he had had more time.

The taint of Vietnam never stuck to him, and despite all we now know about his recklessness (to put the point as euphemistically as I can), his reputation remains secure.  Kennedy fooled a whole lot more people all of the time than Abraham Lincoln would ever have imagined.

It was the Kennedy style that did it; movie star handsome, Harvard educated and Irish tough, rich as Croesus but with the common touch; vigorous and virile  – if only the world had known how true that was! – but yet a dedicated family man – ditto! — wedded to the world’s classiest and most glamorous woman.

JFK presided over a Camelot so shining that even now, a half-century later, its dark side barely registers.  Where he is concerned, appearance has always trumped reality.

Compared to that, how could a Texas bumpkin out of central casting compete?  That Johnson got all the abuse, and that much of it came from “the effete intellectual snobs” that Nixon’s attack dog, Spiro Agnew, would later rail against must have galled him no end.

In a more just universe, Kennedy’s villainy would be more widely acknowledged than it has been, and Johnson would be blamed more for continuing than for initiating the war for which his name will forever be associated.

But this injustice does not begin to mitigate the fact that LBJ more than deserved all the animosity he drew upon himself.

Neither, though, does Johnson’s villainy detract from his achievements.

He did more to advance racial justice than any president before or since, except perhaps Abraham Lincoln.  That includes Bill Clinton, whom Toni Morrison called our “first black president,” and it goes without saying that it also includes the president upon whom “folks” with less beclouded minds would bestow that description.

Like other post-New Deal liberals — Truman and Kennedy and, for that matter, Eisenhower and Nixon too – Johnson defended the New Deal’s achievements.  More than any of the others, he also added on new social programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Head Start.

He also tried to move beyond the New Deal.  He succeeded too, though he didn’t get far — mainly thanks to Vietnam.  Even so, his short-lived “war on poverty” did indeed move the country forward – part of the way.

Its goal was not just to relieve poverty but also to empower the poor.  In this respect, it had a genuinely counter-systemic dimension, in contrast to more traditional New Deal programs designed to save capitalism from itself.

And unlike the New Deal itself, LBJ’s Great Society was in no way predicated on an alliance with southern racists.  As the speakers in Austin made clear, just the opposite was the case; the Great Society dealt the most flagrant forms of American racism a mortal blow.

There was greatness in this, such as we have not seen since.

Johnson’s war making in Vietnam was a crime so awful that nothing can make up for it, and his machinations in Indonesia, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere were deplorable.  But his achievements stand nevertheless.

As the war dragged on, SDSers were therefore right to see LBJ as the devil incarnate.  But SDS was also on to something in 1964 when it supported his campaign for the reason it claimed.  Johnson did try to lead the country part of the way – beyond the horizons of its last great liberal moment.

All these years later, America is still bogged down in what Obama, before he entered national politics and could therefore still be candid, called “dumb” wars — wars that were not only wrong-headed but also unwinnable.

The conception and execution of dumb wars has gotten worse in the Bush-Obama era.  Today’s wars are more destabilizing geo-politically, and they put the American people at greater risk.  But their sheer immorality is not on the same scale as the war Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon waged; the level of wanton killing and destruction, though still prodigious, is less.

For this, our twenty-first century presidents have their own good luck to thank.  To the extent that they care about their legacies, they should also be grateful for technological advances that have made it possible for imperialist predations – now called “democratic” and “humanitarian” interventions — to proceed with fewer troops getting killed.

In stewarding the empire, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  In  domestic politics, the more they change, the worse they get.

It has been all down hill since LBJ, with backsliding and mediocrity reaching unprecedented, and previously unimaginable, levels.

“Part of the way” was faint praise in 1964.  In the Age of Obama, it is a utopian vision.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).