LBJ on what not to do

LBJ on what not to do

President Biden could learn from the mistakes President Johnson made as he managed a splintered Democratic Party

Among the many problems that face President Joe Biden is the question of how to manage his administration’s relationship with the progressive wing of his own party.

Although Biden actually moved significantly to the left on key issues over the primary and general election, progressives have been pushing the new administration to adopt its priorities in areas from health care to climate change to racial justice. Handling such intraparty tensions will be crucial to his ability to keep his coalition unified.

Biden is far from the first president to face ideological tensions within his own party. One case stands out, though, in part because a secret White House taping system captured key aspects of the resulting conflict: that of Lyndon Johnson in the aftermath of his landslide 1964 election victory.

LBJ provides a negative model: what Biden should not do in response to the new progressives of the 2020s.

President Johnson on the phone

With large Democratic majorities in the new Congress, LBJ succeeded in passing landmark legislation on voting rights, health care, education, anti-poverty, housing, environmental protection, and the arts—the full range of what the administration had dubbed “the Great Society.”

Yet all was not well. Protests against the war in Vietnam and rebellions against racial injustice in American cities grew larger and more divisive. By mid-1966, Johnson’s critics challenged not only his continuation of the war, but also what they saw as an inadequate response to poverty and racial discrimination at home.

Among those calling for a greatly expanded federal effort in the latter area was Johnson’s bitter rival, Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York, who had begun to fashion an urban anti-poverty program based on new ideas about direct public and private investment in community-based economic development. Meanwhile, Kennedy privately derided Johnson’s proposed Demonstration Cities bill (later known as “Model Cities”): “It’s too little, it’s nothing, we have to do 20 times as much.”

On August 1, 1966, the insurgency emerged in Congress when Senator Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut (formerly Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Kennedy) announced that he would soon hold a series of hearings on the problems of American cities in the Senate Government Operations Subcommittee on Executive Reorganization, which he chaired. Kennedy also served on the committee, and Johnson saw the hand of the slain president’s brother at work in the pending Ribicoff hearings. The next day, he explained this in a recorded phone call to Treasury Secretary Joe Fowler:

President Johnson: What I’m more concerned about than anything else now is that [Robert F.] Bobby Kennedy [D–New York], Martin Luther King [Jr.], that [Joseph W.] Joe Alsop, all the papers, New York Times—they’re getting on a hundred-billion-dollar jag for the cities.

Fowler: Yeah.

President Johnson: And I’ve got a 2-billion-dollar bill that they won’t pass, but they want a hundred billion. And that’s 10 billion [dollars] a year for 10 years. Now, if we got anything like that, we’d really be ruined. And I think that’s what they’re going to do with these riots. And I think they’re going to have enough riots going on. I think, just between us, that Bobby’s busy riding the labor people and riding the Negros so that he can provide the solution. [Snorts.]  

Johnson had thus concluded that Kennedy would take advantage of urban unrest, and possibly even tacitly encourage it, in order to further his own policy and political goals. In an August 10 conversation with Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana, Johnson warned that the hearings would jeopardize moderate and conservative Democrats around the country:

You know we’re going to destroy ourselves with this interparty politicking, don’t you?

President Johnson: Now, Mike, you know we’re going to destroy ourselves with this interparty politicking, don’t you?

Mansfield: Yes, sir.


President Johnson: And I think that you and Dirksen ought to sit down and talk to [John L.] McClellan [D–Arkansas] and the ranking member of Government Operations. And this committee has no jurisdiction in the world to report a damn thing. It—All it’s going to do is stir it up. It’s an oversight committee.

Mansfield: Yeah.

President Johnson: And I think that if you’ve got to stir up something, you ought to do it in January, because you’re just going to beat the hell out of people like [Lee W.] Metcalf [D–Montana] and these boys in Omaha, Nebraska, that are in Congress, and five from Iowa, with all this damn fool $100 billion Negro stuff.

Mansfield: Yeah.

President Johnson: They just cannot survive in those little rural states. And Bobby’s elected, but he ran a million and half behind me in New York. And they just—you see what happened in Arkansas yesterday.

Mansfield: Yeah.

...He was sitting on a tinder box. He’s got 100,000 Negroes, and the Poles, and the Germans, and everything are fighting each other. And we’re stirring it up, up there

President Johnson: And I don’t think we can stand this publicity. I think that [Chicago Mayor Richard J. “Dick”] Daley’s called me half a dozen times, and he said if you don’t stop Bobby and them here it’s just going to ruin me. He’s got all the Poles mad, and got all the Germans mad, got all the Italians mad, and [Mayor Henry W.] Maier from Milwaukee was in this morning, said he was sitting on a tinder box. He’s got 100,000 Negroes, and the Poles, and the Germans, and everything are fighting each other. And we’re stirring it up, up there, and Teddy [Kennedy] went down to Jackson, Mississippi, and said, “If you can spend 2 billion [dollars] on the soldiers in Vietnam, you ought to spend 2 billion [dollars] on the Negroes.” And [it is] the shearest demagoguery, saying that “if you can spend 24 billion [dollars] a year on 16 million Vietnamese, 14 million, [then] you can spend that much on 20 million good Negro Americans.” Well—

Mansfield: [faintly] That’s terrible.

Johnson had clearly concluded that his interests lay with the center of his party, and in limiting a possible backlash from racially-conservative ethnic whites. As such, he saw little value in working with the party’s left, much less with even more radical figures in the Civil Rights movement. The next day, he expounded on that point in a conversation with Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach:

President Johnson: I’m afraid that it’s going to stir up these things out here in the countryside—the Stokely Carmichaels and so forth—to such an extent that we really get them antagonized. Now, what I’ve got is I’ve got the people just calling me every day on this civil rights thing and I think if we don’t get it through pretty quick, we’re not going to get many of them because they’re sure getting mad.

Katzenbach: Yes, I know they are.

President Johnson: [Daniel D. “Dan”] Rostenkowski [D–Illinois] called last night and was rather abusive because I hadn’t denounced the rioters or nullified, and they quoted him what I said in Indianapolis. [Roman C.] Pucinski’s [D–Illinois] written a big a letter to us. And I was talking to some of the boys from the northern areas, upstate New York and others, and they’re bitter. The Buffaloes and others.

Katzenbach: No, they are. There’s no question.

President Johnson: And I think we better—our whole future may not be with just Stokely Carmichael.

Katzenbach: No, I agree with that.

Although many of the witnesses at the hearings proved highly critical of Johnson’s anti-poverty efforts and called for a massive increase in federal and private support for development in the cities, neither Kennedy nor Ribicoff directly endorsed the level of expenditures that Johnson feared. Nonetheless, the hearings set out a liberal marker for a more aggressive approach than the President was willing to contemplate. In November’s midterm elections, the Democrats lost forty-seven seats in the House and three in the Senate, vastly reducing their majorities and limiting Johnson’s room to maneuver. By the end of the year, the fight over funding had turned back to the War on Poverty. Office of Economic Opportunity Director Sargent Shriver pushed for more funds for his agency, and contemplated resigning if Johnson and Congress did not agree. On the day after Christmas, LBJ discussed the situation with Press Secretary Bill Moyers:

I think that’s hurt poverty more than anything in the world is that these Commies are parading, and these kids, long-hairs, saying, you know, that they want poverty instead of Vietnam, and the Negroes. And I think that’s what the people regard as the Great Society

President Johnson: Now, I’m not anxious for him [Shriver] to stay, more than I am Bundy. I would like for him to, and I think he’s the best one for it. And he has my support and my confidence, and so forth. And I will, whatever figure I give in the budget, I will fight for it, as I did last year. But I cannot keep him from being the victim of Bobby [Kennedy] and [Abraham A. “Abe”] Ribicoff [D–Connecticut] and [Joseph S.] Joe Clark [Jr.] [D–Pennsylvania] and [Wayne L.] Morse [D–Oregon]. And I cannot keep him from being victim to the Commies who were out here yesterday and said, “Give the money to poverty, not Vietnam.” And I think that’s hurt poverty more than anything in the world is that these Commies are parading, and these kids, long-hairs, saying, you know, that they want poverty instead of Vietnam, and the Negroes. And I think that’s what the people regard as the Great Society.

So you look into that and call the signal; make the decision. And if he comes, maybe you come with him, or if you don’t want to be involved in that kind of discussion, suggest to him what the agenda is, what we [will] talk about.

Moyers: All right.

President Johnson: I do not want to debate the budget now, because I’m going to send up my budget late. And I cannot tell till I make the tax decisions how far I dare go. And I think . . . I don’t think he knows this and I don’t think he thinks this—[Henry H. “Joe”] Fowler’s calling me now—but, in my judgment, the bigger request I make for poverty, the more danger it is of being killed. I don’t think they’re just going to cut it. I don’t think—I think the same thing about [foreign] aid. I think if I ask for 2 billion or 3 billion [dollars] for poverty, when I got 3 billion jobs, and I’m spending 24 billion in other fields, I think they’d say, “Good God, it goes up every time he gets somebody a job; it costs you more.” I think if we increase it a reasonable amount, that we have a much better chance of fighting and holding it.

Johnson’s linkage here of his liberal opponents in the Senate to what he saw as the “commies” and “long-hairs” protesting in the streets is telling. By this point in his presidency, LBJ had let himself become boxed in not only by Vietnam and its resulting budgetary pressures, but by his own anger at his opponents on the left and his resentment at their failure to appreciate how much he had already accomplished on Civil Rights and through his anti-poverty efforts.

This is the negative model that Joe Biden must avoid in the difficult and controversial moments that are sure to emerge in the coming years between his administration and the modern progressive left. Anger at under-appreciation, or frustration at the left’s unwillingness to acknowledge the constraints that Biden may believe he faces, are both natural and human reactions. LBJ let these emotions overwhelm him.

Possessed of a very different personality, Biden should be better able to resist such destructive temptations. In his 2012 victory speech, President Obama referred to his vice president as “America’s Happy Warrior.” The phrase originates in a poem by William Wordsworth, and has previously been used to describe political figures as varied as Grover Cleveland (who applied it to himself), Al Smith, Hubert Humphrey, and Ted Kennedy (also by Obama). Biden would do well to maintain such a persona as a positive model in dealing with the left, in contrast to LBJ’s self-destructive rants, regardless of what the next four years may bring. For one, it will serve him well with less ideological elements of the American electorate, who will be crucial to his success. For another, it will help him remain open to real opportunities that progressives may recognize, and to the new ideas that the left brings to the table for addressing, and perhaps solving, the pressing crises that face the United States and the world. Biden need not agree to every demand from progressives, but unlike Johnson, he will need to maintain their help in the coalition that brought him the presidency. In showing what not to do, the example of predecessors such as LBJ helps to create space for more constructive models moving forward.

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