Monday, February 20, 2012

A Day for the Unappreciated

My, for lack of a better term, obsession with the Presidents began when I was six years old and the amount of time I poured into the topic has left me with a few favorites that not many would praise. After Lincoln and FDR comes the initialed giant of the 1960's. LBJ, not JFK.

Johnson is shrouded in controversy--he was elected to the Senate due to a ballot stuffing scandal that even his advisors agree happened after the fact, yet claim to have not orchestrated. His Presidency came about with the death of Jack Kennedy, not by his own means--and some even speculate that Johnson played a role in Kennedy's assassination. His election in 1964 was aided by nostalgia for JFK and an awful GOP candidate in Barry Goldwater. He helped begin the Vietnam War and increased his power with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. From the conservative viewpoint, his Great Society programs (Medicare/Medicaid) expanded government far beyond the limits of where they should be. I know this.

Johnson played hardball, using bribery and blackmail to get Congress to vote with him on issues. He changed his position numerous times on multiple issues because he knew the stance of the day would allow him to win. He was crude and rude. I know this too.

But Lyndon Johnson did what few leaders do--instead of governing by consensus, he created consensus. In pushing through the Civil Rights Act, he worked the phone lines of every member of Congress in order to get the legislation passed. He saw it as finishing the work that Lincoln began, and he knew, as a Southerner, that this legislation would rip the party apart by ending the New Deal Coalition. (He was right and the loss of the Southern block precipitated the sorting of parties and, to some extent, the hyper-partisanship we now experience.) But he said, this is what we need to do. He outlasted the all-powerful 83 day  filibuster by Southern Democrats, and secured passage of one of the most important laws in our nation's history.

He knew that this was not the most politically expedient decision, but having grown up surrounded by poverty and racism in rural Texas, he knew it was the right thing. His Great Society aimed to reverse the problems he had seen early in his life, and he spent his presidency working to eliminate what he saw as some of the greatest evils in American life. He knew that poor people didn't vote, and he knew wouldn't add anything to his constituency.

And he did it anyway. It cost him his reputation, led him to forgoing nomination of in 1968, and led to a downfall within his party that Democrats have never fully recovered from. Nearly half a century later, his corrupt practices and policy downfalls are what he is remembered for.

But without Johnson's leadership--as a Southern Democrat leading the charge for racial equality--Barack Obama would never have been known to anyone outside of Hawaii. His idea was to help people who can't help themselves, and he didn't care about how it cost him politically. To me, that's putting the needs of your country in front of your own. To me, that's leadership--the kind that should be recognized today.

Does it outweigh the rest of his record? Do good intentions make up for mixed results?  That's for you to decide.

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