MANY LIBERAL Democrats have yet to come to terms with Lyndon Johnson. There was—and remains in memory— a “good” Lyndon, the surprisingly compassionate Southerner addressing a joint session of Congress and exclaiming the civil rights movement’s protest refrain, “We shall overcome.” The “good” Lyndon masterminded passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and the Voting Rights Bill of 1965, and envisaged and then enacted the landmark programs of the Great Society. But there was also the “bad” Lyndon of Vietnam and the credibility gap. By the time Johnson abandoned the White House in 1968, the “bad” LBJ had thoroughly displaced the “good” LBJ as far as reformist liberals were concerned. Less than three years after he signed the Civil Rights Bill, Johnson, the champion of social protest, had become the reviled target of protests: “Hey, hey, LBJ/How many kids did you kill today?”
Vietnam was not Johnson’s only offense. Even before the 1960s, a strain of high-minded liberalism mistrusted Johnson for cunningly practicing power politics. Born of the old good-government tradition of the anti-party Mugwumps, and reinforced by the liberal bien pensants’ adoration of their icon Adlai Stevenson, and solidified by the cool John F. Kennedy followers’ disdain of the professional pol, this reformist outlook classified glad-handing politicians, with their party machines, arm-twisting, and smoke-filled rooms, not as agents of democracy but as corrupt evils thwarting the pursuit of open, efficient, and rational public policy. A matter of style as well as ideology, this lofty sensibility endures today among better-educated and more affluent liberal Democrats. Just as Lyndon Baines Johnson, the supremely expert practitioner of old-school party politics, made many liberals uneasy in the 1950s and 1960s, so does his history today.
Inspired by a Dump Johnson movement launched in 1967, anti-war liberals flocked first to Johnson’s challenger, Senator Eugene McCarthy, who attacked the president’s Vietnam policies with a waspish wit and a gloss of detached Stevensonian erudition. Then, to Johnson’s furious dismay, much of the liberal base bolted to Senator Robert Kennedy when he finally entered the primaries—the displaced prince of Camelot who would not just end the war but reclaim the presidency from the vulgar Texas usurper.
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