By James M. Perry
Lyndon B. Johnson was not a nice man.
He was loud and vulgar, and worst of all, he was a bully. Right now, though, we are witnessing a revival of the 36th president. These reassessments of various presidents happen from time to time. Most recently, we have had outbreaks of revised portraits of James K. Polk and Ulysses S. Grant. Now, it's LBJ's turn. If only, these revisionists say, Obama was more like Johnson.
The case for LBJ rests basically on two pieces of legislation -- the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (which the right-wing majority on the Supreme Court seems hell-bent of tearing apart). The case against Johnson rests almost entirely on the war in Vietnam. He got us into it and he couldn't get us out, and 58,286 Americans died because of it and another 153,303 were wounded in the most senseless war ever fought by the United States.
Journalists writing about Lyndon Johnson rarely resist the urge to describe him as "larger than life." Well, he was big, but, God knows, he was human. One of my first recollections of Johnson was when he was Jack Kennedy's vice president. We had been warned not to ask him what he did with himself every day, and so our extraordinarily naive editor proceeded to do just that. "Reedy," he bellowed, "get these people the hell out of here!"
George Reedy, his thoughtful press secretary, ushered the delegation out of LBJ's office.
He was incredibly abusive to his loyal, hard-working vice president, the ebullient Hubert Humphrey. The Washington Post published a letter to the editor on Sunday from Humphrey's old press secretary, Norman Sherman. In 1967, Sherman wrote, LBJ invited Humphrey to his Texas ranch. "He insisted they hunt deer, which Humphrey disliked. When they spotted a buck, Johnson gave Humphrey a rifle and ordered him to shoot. The president then taunted Humphrey, 'Bobby Kennedy got two.' He found a second deer and directed Humphrey to kill again. Later, he sent deer sausage and antlers to Humphrey, knowing that the antlers were not likely to be mounted nor the sausages eaten."
That, Sherman concluded, "is not greatness. It is not even decency."
Dan Balz, the Post's veteran political writer, noted in his Sunday column that voters and even members of Obama's own staff sometimes wonder why Obama can't be more like LBJ. Why hasn't Obama been able to cajole and threaten and sweet talk and bully the Congress into action the way Johnson did?
Obama, Balz answered, is a far different person than Johnson. "He is cool, cerebral, and detached. Johnson was the earthy, insecure political seducer. Still, it is questionable whether even LBJ could be LBJ in today's political climate. Could he really have found a way to bring tea party Republicans to the bargaining table with any more success than has Obama?"
Of course not. Give Johnson credit for winning passage of those two ground-breaking laws, but he had support among Democrats in the Congress and even among some leaders in the Republican Party.
His legacy will always remain that tragic, hopeless war in Vietnam. Anyone who traveled with Johnson during the Vietnam era is haunted by the sound of those young voices protesting the war. "Hey, hey, LBJ," they chanted, "how many kids did you kill today?"
James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, is contributing regular observations for post-gazette.com. . Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.