A Look Back at History and the Legacy of Lyndon B. Johnson

A Look Back at History and the Legacy of Lyndon B. Johnson

Robert Caro's Passage to Power, the fourth volume of his monumental biography of the life of Lyndon Johnson, is a worthwhile read for many reasons. Most commentators have praised its intimate depiction of the day of John Kennedy's assassination and its in-depth coverage of the great political feud between Johnson and Bobby Kennedy, perhaps one of the most intense such feuds of modern times. However, my reading of it helped focus me on a different aspect of our political life which Caro illuminates so well.

In 1937, Franklin Roosevelt, fresh from a resounding win in the 1936 elections and blessed with a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, attempted his ill-conceived plan to pack the Supreme Court. He failed and history has not been kind to his apparent intrusion into the separation of powers that is the foundation of our political system. More importantly, he failed,despite his party's majority in Congress, because of a coalition of Southern conservatives, almost all Democrats, and the republication minority.

From that point, as Caro makes clear, FDR had no further success with domestic social legislation. This impasse carried over into the administration of his successor, Harry Truman. To such an extent was Truman blocked by Congress, he made the "Do-Nothing Congress" a major issue in his campaign for election to the presidency in his own right in 1948. He won a stunning victory, yet he was still unable to break the logjam on social legislation and he resorted to Executive Orders in things like ending racial discrimination in the Armed Forces. Truman's efforts at national health insurance, expanded unemployment insurance, aid to education and tax reductions for the poor all died on the vine.

During Eisenhower's two terms as President, the conflict was less visible. Caro gives much of the credit for the temporary thaw to Johnson's role as Majority Leader in the Senate, as one might expect Johnson's biographer to do. However, one can also make the case that the Republican Eisenhower did not push the types of legislation that would have provoked the conservative reaction.

In any case, the stalemate returned in force with the election of Kennedy. His major domestic programs, Medicare, federal aid to education, tax cuts and civil rights legislation, all stalled. By the year of his assassination, another major tactic used by the conservative coalition was delay in appropriations. Funds that should have been forthcoming to implement decisions already passed by Congress were delayed. Instead of operating under an ongoing budget resolution, Congress employed brief continuing resolutions, which prevented  the initiation of new programs and funded existing programs at reduced levels.

In 1963, Walter Lippmann said, "This Congress has gone further than any other within memory to replace debate and decision with delay and inefficiency." William Shannon, a widely read New York Post columnist and soon to be a member of the New York Times editorial board, pronounced this "the least productive Congress in memory."

In effect, the stalemate had been going strong for 26 years. It would be broken by Johnson, who would use the death of a popular president to force through what he wisely called "Kennedy's programs," although Johnson would carry them much further than Kennedy probably ever would have.

The war in Vietnam would derail Johnson's Great Society efforts and would define his presidency. Forced from office, Johnson left a legacy of social legislation that became the focal point of conservative reaction in much the same way that FDR's New Deal had. 

Looking back on the conflicts with a conservative Congress and the tactics employed by that Congress, one is struck by the similarities to our present political impasse. These insights are just another reason to admire the labors of Robert Caro as he continues to produce one of the great political biographies of our time.

This was written for CMC Digest by Vincent Conti, who resides in Cape May Court House, N.J., a senior administrator in higher education for more than 40 years.