Editorial: No separating LBJ from Vietnam
Time changes the way Americans think about presidents who live in their memories. Historians have opinions, too, but they don’t really take over until the generations who remember a president have died away.
Richard Nixon won a landslide re-election in 1972, but two-thirds of Americans today disapprove of his presidency, according to a November poll by CNN and Opinion Research Corp. Ronald Reagan, a divisive president in his time, now has a 78 percent approval rating. John F. Kennedy, who, despite the Bay of Pigs, apparently did little that offends anyone anymore, is at 90 percent.
That Kennedy’s posthumous reputation for womanizing has not hurt his rating reflects a trend. Seventy-four percent of those polled approve of Bill Clinton’s presidency despite the Monica Lewinsky scandal. After the fact at least, Americans appear to be as libertine as the French toward their leaders’ extramarital escapades.
But let’s think about Lyndon B. Johnson. According to a recent New York Times story, Johnson’s daughters and other admirers believe he is under-appreciated. The Vietnam War, they say, has obscured his legislative record, which includes the Civil Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, public broadcasting and federal aid to education and the arts.
The historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who worked for LBJ and wrote a book about him, told the Times that emotions over Vietnam during Johnson’s presidency made it “hard to see everything else he had done.” Joseph A. Califano, a top aide to Johnson, said: “I don’t think people understand that this country today reflects more of Lyndon Johnson’s years in the White House than the years of any other president.”
Over the past quarter century Johnson’s approval rating in polls has risen from 40 percent to 55. Still, of the nine presidents back through Kennedy, he rates above only George W. Bush (42 percent) and Nixon (31).
Johnson’s record as a champion and broker of legislation that changed the country for the better is an important part of his legacy. But Vietnam wasn’t just his tragedy, it was a national tragedy. It didn’t just happen on his watch; he used his power to pursue the war even after he knew it was lost.
The war killed 58,000 Americans and untold thousands of Vietnamese. It fractured the nation. It is, as it should be, the centerpiece of Johnson’s reputation.