Just a few weeks shy of my 9th birthday, he became president upon the assassination of John Kennedy, and I'd just turned 14 when he turned over his responsibilities to Richard Nixon. I think of him as the President of My Childhood, in much the way I associate Nixon, who resigned a few months before my 20th birthday, with my teenage years.
Let me say, here at the outset, that I don't believe any of the conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination, least of all that LBJ was in any way behind it. Indeed, there were some strange coincidences. It is little remembered that LBJ--as well as Robert Kennedy--were in some increasingly hot water over what was then called the Bobby Baker Affair, a matter quickly forgotten after the assassination. JFK was killed almost exactly a year before the next presidential election, in LBJ's home state, while on a political trip to heal a rift in the Texas Democratic Party. Johnson had definite presidential ambitions, and it was almost certain that Kennedy would have been re-elected. With the Bobby Baker matter, it was also quite possible he would have sought another running mate in 1964. The timing of the assassination was certainly convenient for LBJ. With the election so close, it was unlikely that Americans would have "switched horses," allowing the White House to be occupied by three different presidents within barely a year.
Strange coincidences these, but my own life has been full of strange coincidences, matters that could have landed me in jail for something I didn't do as well as random quirks of fate that brought me successes I probably didn't deserve. That's just the way life is, and as far as I'm concerned the circumstances that ended Kennedy's life and brought Johnson to the presidency are just more of it on a grander scale.
LBJ was the first president I became aware of on a day-to-day basis. I knew who Kennedy was when he was president, and was just learning elementary civics. It was my understanding that President Kennedy lived in "The Lighthouse" in a city called Washingtondeesee. In contrast, around the time of the assassination I was finally reading beyond the Go-Flip-go level, and LBJ was in the news every day. He was the last adult I'd believe, in a little kid's way, to be way smarter than everybody else and virtually infallible. He was older than my dad and he was the F'ing president of the United States, so he had to be some kind of superman!
Indeed, if you have a chance to visit the LBJ Library, a person of my age can't help feeling as if he's stepped into a time warp, where all the odds and ends of a 1960s childhood come alive. The nation was prosperous, the times were optimistic, and--as Jack Valenti once famously put it--you slept a little better at night knowing LBJ was our president. Bits and pieces of nostalgic memory are jogged, and I find myself longing to sit in front of the black and white TV at our old house on College Avenue and watch first-run episodes of The Lucy Show or The Beverly Hillbillies.
On July 3, 1964, I sat in the living room of my maternal grandparents' rural house across the Ohio River from Cincinatti on the Indiana side, watching something quite different on the TV. It was my first trip outside of California, and only the second of three times I'd ever meet my mom's folks. The first few minutes of the speech LBJ gave upon signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, up to the spot where he invokes JFK's name, is among the most eloquent and important discourses in American history:
"From the minutemen at Concord to the soldiers in Vietnam, each generation has been equal to that trust..." No matter how many times I listen to it, I get misty-eyed over the hopefulness of the era, and over the impressionable kid I was. I'm older now than the president was then, yet there's a fatherly sincerity in the man's face that I've never seen in any president's since. I'd read later that many thought of him as the ultimate cynical politico who didn't really believe in anything, but he was more complicated than that. I see now--as I did then-- something deeper in that grainy black-and-white footage.
Things went sour shortly thereafter, as we know. In the link below, we see LBJ at the conclusion of his last public appearance in December 1972, a civil rights symposium at the LBJ Library. He is a month from death, and visibly weakened by his heart condition. Jack Valenti describes in his account the tears in the eyes of Roy Wilkins and other civil rights leaders as "the champ" entered the ring one last time, and gradually warmed to his task. Julian Bond, in the last half minute or so of the video, sums up the LBJ Legacy wonderfully. I include it without further comment:
If not for Vietnam... Caro repeats that phrase at the end of one of his volumes. It was the graveyard of many an expert's reputation, a war the U.S. wasn't really prepared to fight, but one we figured we ought to be able to win without working up much of a sweat.
The best account of one important aspect of the air war, Operation Rolling Thunder, appears in the link below, a documentary on the F-105, the world's first supersonic fighter-bomber. Christened "Thunderchief," but commonly called "Thud" by pilots who grew up on Howdy Doody and recalled the recurring character of Chief Thunderthud, the F-105 was designed as a kind of Doomsday Machine, ready to carry a single nuclear weapon deep into Russia at low altitude and supersonic speed. We had a lot of them, and they were largely made obsolete for their original purpose when the ICBM fleet was developed and deployed.
Thus were they adapted for use in the air war in Vietnam, with the bomb bay re-fitted for extra fuel storage. As a kid, I remember a photo of a squadron of them flying past Mount Fuji on the cover of National Geographic, and reference articles were forever showing photos of them with various kinds of ordnance spread about on the ground. The message seemed--even at the time to my ten year old mind--that the U.S. had the capability to fuck with anybody anywhere anytime and was quite self-satisfied with that fact. This effect would come to be called "the arrogance of power," and LBJ was not beyond becoming infected with it. He was never able to understand how such a "raggedy-ass country" could hold out against the world's greatest superpower.
The Thunderchief became the first U.S. aircraft in history to be withdrawn from service due to its high casualty rate over North Vietnam. Yet in retrospect, the problem was not with the plane itself, which turned out to be an incredibly adaptable and resilient weapons platform, but with the fact that we were stepping slowly and gradually into our second great "limited war" at the absolute height of the cold war era. Unlike Korea, the terrain and the very nature of the conflict in Vietnam made superior weaponry almost irrelevant. The Russians happily provided the North with the capability to shoot the F-105s down in great numbers, while LBJ fretted over how to respond appropriately without starting WWIII.
The documentary is about 45 minutes long, and worth watching in its entirety. Several pilots pay tribute to this amazing plane at the end of the video, and the opening and closing scenes in the airplane graveyard at Davis Monthan AFB, the latter overlapped by a fading clip of LBJ presenting the Medal of Honor to a Thunderchief pilot, get to me every time:
The Thunderchief was retired with honors in the early 1980s, being used in its last years by a few Air Force Reserve units to provide pilots with flying hours. It was known for its distinctive howl, no better demonstrated than in these videos of a 24-ship flyby and of the squadron landing at the end of the practice. A co-worker describes the video clips as "majestic," and indeed the old birds seem to possess a proud and dignified persona of their own:
Like LBJ himself, I see the F-105 Thunderchief as a capable instrument of perhaps the greatest force for good in human history, yet caught in a terrible twist of history that relegated it--unfairly--to the status of a dubious failure.
Once while thinking over the irony of all of this, and wondering if anyone else at some point had attempted to articulate what I was feeling, I came upon this section of a website. It is filled with pictures of LBJ in conference with various "experts," and seeming utterly bewildered by their inability to make reality conform to their expert predictions. These were the times I grew up in, and they made for a generation of skeptics... most of whom have less empathy for our 36th president than I do:
With long contemplation and study, my own conclusion is that LBJ had two great failings as a leader in those difficult times. First, he presumed that he could use military force, particularly strategic bombing, as a negotiating tool. He underestimated the effectiveness of Soviet military assistance to the North, and the fanatical devotion of the adversary to uniting Vietnam under their auspices. Being communists in the cold war era, it was perhaps understandable that LBJ felt obliged to oppose them no matter how ineffective the South's position appeared. However, he was unwilling to treat the U.S. role in the conflict as anything beyond a police action to retain the status quo.
This brings us to the second great failing. LBJ--a master politician--tended to approach the commander-in-chief's role as if he were still Senate Majority Leader. By trying to please hawks and doves alike, he pleased no one. It made for a stalemate with no end in sight until, finally, he turned the problem over to someone else. That someone, of course, was Richard Nixon, who recognized early on that there was no viable military solution to the war. As some of the pilots in the Thunderchief documentary allude, the plan then shifted to extracting the U.S. from the mess while ensuring the safe release of American prisoners of war (who were largely F-105 pilots).
Everyone knows the famous scene at the end of LBJ's March 31st 1968 address to the nation, in which he announces a partial bombing halt and intones in his inimitable cadence:
"Ah shaaaaaaall nooooooot seek............................................. and ah wiiiiiiiiill nooooooot accept........................................ the nomination.................................. of maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah party.................................... for another term........................................... as yooooooooooooooour prez-dunt."
There is no need to link to it here, nor to the many other public addresses now available through YouTube and other sources. He was--let's face it--a lousy public speaker. His ears stuck out, he tried too hard to appear solemn and serious, and he lingered over words so emphatically that it sounded at times as if he were dictating to a stonemason. Yet the text of the speeches are among the most eloquent and meaningful orations in American history, all the more so because they often accompanied dramatic actions such as the signing of bills into law.
He believed in the Great Society, where material abundance was only the beginning of a nation's measure of greatness. He believed in the innate value and dignity of all human beings. He believed in the power of education and knowledge. He believed, also, that he had a unique opportunity to push the nation in the direction of a truly great society.
There was no other time like that in human history. We were coming off the retreat of colonialism in the post-war (post-WWII) period. New nations were born with great feelings of hope. Disneyland had opened less than a decade before, and less than 100 miles from where I lived. It was fresh and new and accompanied by any number of Southern California infrastructure projects, all designed with an eye toward the glorious future. All human problems seemed solvable, and wonderful dreams and opportunities waited to be harnessed under effective government leadership. I grew up in the middle of that; I cannot get it out of my head.
To end, I will link to a 25 minute video biography of LBJ. Some sections are better than others, though the entire biography is certainly watchable and not lengthy. If nothing else, go to 16:25 of the video and learn something that few remember or ever knew about our 36th president, the small town schoolteacher:
|LBJ with MLK, in a favorite photo|
|Listening to a report on the Tet Offensive, early 1968.|
Note the bust of JFK in the background.
|Awarding the Medal of Honor|
|The incomparable F-105 Thunderchief|