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9 things I wish people understood about Lyndon Johnson

For decades, Lyndon Johnson was reviled as one of the worst presidents in American history, the person who brought the nation into the disastrous war in Vietnam. More recently, there has been a revival of interest in Johnson's legendary ability to make Washington work. During his presidency, Congress passed a huge agenda of domestic legislation — which he called the Great Society — that included Medicare and Medicaid, civil rights and voting rights, War on Poverty, food stamps, immigration reform, federal aid to elementary and secondary schools, higher education funding, environmental regulations, and much more.

Americans have learned a great deal about the president through the wonderful work of writers such as Robert Dallek, Robert Caro, and Randall Woods. The White House presidential recordings, which are now available to the public online, have provided people with a seat inside the inner sanctum of the Oval Office to hear LBJ interacting with his friends and foes. Last year a Tony Award-winning play starring Bryan Cranston, All The Way, brought LBJ's frenetic energy to Broadway. Johnson is currently in the news as a result of a vigorous debate over how he is depicted in the film Selma.

But much of our understanding about Johnson is still based on misunderstandings about who he was and how he got things done. My new book, The Fierce Urgency of Now, provides a narrative history of the Great Society that challenges some of the popular myths about LBJ. While writing the book, I learned a great deal from the archives about Lyndon Johnson.

Here are nine things I wish people knew about the 36th president.

1) LBJ was a genuine liberal

Although there were areas where Johnson disagreed with liberals before becoming president, such as with his hesitant embrace of a strong civil-rights bill to end segregation, LBJ was still a product of the New Deal. He was part of a generation of Democrats whose identity was forged by Franklin Roosevelt. He believed that the federal government had a major role to play in solving social problems.

"Power. The only power I've got is nuclear and I can't even use that!" LBJ once quipped

Even before he came around to throwing his support behind strong civil-rights legislation, Johnson had gained a deep sensitivity to the plight of the poor and the problems of racial injustice through his own personal experiences in Texas and his work in government. As Senate Majority Leader in the 1950s, he moved bills that raised the federal minimum wage and provided federal support for housing. While many liberals suspected that LBJ was a conservative in liberal clothing, this was not true.

2) LBJ had been learning about the Great Society for years

The ideas that shaped the Great Society didn't come out of nowhere in 1963 and 1964, nor had they started with President John Kennedy. Congress had debated bills to provide federal funding for elementary and secondary education throughout the mid-1950s, when Johnson was Senate Majority Leader. Medicare was first proposed in 1957. Voting Rights had been debated, which resulted in a severely watered down compromise pushed through by LBJ in 1957, which he called a first step to much more.

Liberal Democrats in Congress, whose numbers vastly increased in 1958, had been pressing for a Democratic leader to build on the New Deal agenda. As Senate Majority Leader, Johnson constantly interacted with the main proponents of these causes, usually warning them that there weren't yet enough votes to pass their bills.

3) LBJ was obsessed with the election of 1952

To understand Johnson's foreign policies, it is essential to know how the election of 1952 loomed large in his mind. As a young senator, Johnson watched as Republicans retook control of Congress and the White House when the military hero Dwight Eisenhower defeated Adlai Stevenson, through a campaign that emphasized the weakness of Democrats on fighting communism.  Republicans railed against President Truman — who decided he wouldn't run for reelection — for allegedly "losing" China to the communists in 1949 and for the stalemate in Korea. The GOP argued that Democrats had not been aggressive enough fighting against communism at home, either.

The lesson for Johnson was that if Democrats appeared to be weak on national security, Republicans could defeat them. As a result, Johnson always insisted on maintaining a tough posture on defense even when, as with the war in Vietnam, advisors warned him the operation was futile.

Johnson watches the Apollo 11 liftoff on July 16, 1969.

4) LBJ believed that presidential power was limited

"Power. The only power I've got is nuclear and I can't even use that!" LBJ once quipped. Although now thought of as a leader who saw no boundaries, Johnson was always aware of the limits of presidential power. As a creature of Capitol Hill, he liked to say that Congress always got the best of every president, and they would do the same to him. He moved with such speed and vigor in large part because he knew just how short his window for legislating would be and how he depended on the right conditions to achieve success.

5) LBJ depended on Congress — he didn't steamroll it

We think of Johnson as the person who ran roughshod over Congress. He knew how to get what he wanted, and he had no hesitation about steamrolling members who stood in his way. If they did, he gave them "The Treatment," where he hovered over them until they said yes.

But that myth belies the centrality of good legislative conditions to Johnson's success. Many of Johnson's greatest moments as president came after the election of 1964. Republicans were demoralized by the defeat of their presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, and scared to look as conservative as him. Democrats commanded massive majorities (295 in the House and 68 in the Senate), with liberals controlling the balance of power. After the 1966 midterm elections, when the conservative coalition of southern Democrats and Republicans regained their power, Johnson was far less effective.

6) LBJ and the civil rights movement were partners, for a while

The recent film Selma portrays Johnson and the civil rights movement at odds. King demands a voting-rights bill while Johnson hesitates and stalls. He's more concerned with FBI surveillance on King than with voting rights. The film, which brilliantly captures the impact of grassroots protests in this period, offers a skewed depiction of Johnson.

What was remarkable was that the president and the grass roots were often on the same page

Johnson was fully committed to the cause of voting rights by the time he was reelected in 1964. While it is true that King wanted to move much more quickly on voting rights than LBJ and that the movement forced the president's hand through the marches, they were both on the same page in terms of objectives. What was remarkable about this moment was that the president and the grass roots were often on the same page. Johnson and King were partners in 1964 and 1965, not adversaries.

Many movement leaders concluded that Johnson was eager to pass big domestic bills, while the president depended on activists — from civil-rights protesters to union members — to build the pressure on Congress that he needed to get bills through. The partnership would fray in 1967 and 1968. But for three important years, their goals converged.

7) LBJ and the Republicans didn't always get along

In recent years, there has been a nostalgia for the ways in which Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen got along with the Democrats. The truth is that Republicans were not always so easy to work with. Republicans, for example, mounted fierce opposition to the War on Poverty in 1964. When there was bipartisan cooperation, it was not automatic.

While Republicans worked with the administration on civil-rights bills in 1964 and 1965, they did so under intense pressure from civil-rights activists and religious leaders. Meanwhile, they continued to oppose much of Johnson's agenda, placing ongoing pressure on the White House to cut domestic spending.

After the 1966 midterms, Republicans were more often oppositional to the president. Even Dirksen, whose support had been instrumental for the two first civil-rights bills, wasn't helpful with a fair-housing bill in 1966 and 1967, and the GOP viciously attacked the president for rising deficits and federal spending, joining southern Democrats in pressuring him to cut the budget. While it's true that Republicans were not as obstructionist as a whole as they are today, it is important to remember that partisanship was still powerful.

Johnson at a news conference in 1966 (R. Norman Matheny/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

8) LBJ was not a very good public speaker

Anyone who has heard some of Lyndon Johnson's private phone conversations understands just how persuasive he could be in person. Johnson could be heard in lengthy conversations with legislators, activists, and members of the cabinet, bullying or seducing them to accept his positions. He is an ongoing encyclopedia of colorful stories and jokes that all made a political point. Given how mesmerizing his phone conversations are, it is hard for many people to remember that LBJ was not very good in front of the television cameras.

Most of his big speeches were mediocre in their delivery. He didn't have a very charismatic speaking style, and he appeared stiff and uncomfortable when delivering major addresses. One of the big exceptions was his address on voting rights in 1965, when Johnson mesmerized the nation by ending his speech saying, "We shall overcome," embracing a mantra of the civil-rights movement as his own.

9) LBJ was not indifferent to the causes behind the urban riots of the 1960s

Often, discussions about Johnson's response to race riots in Watts, Newark, and Detroit — that usually started in response to police confrontations with neighborhood residents — center on his frustration with the African Americans who were involved. And it is true that LBJ can be heard in many recorded phone conversations speaking in dismissive language about African Americans who he thought did not appreciate what he had done for them.

But Johnson was also extremely sensitive to the underlying factors causing urban discontent. In several conversations after the Watts riots in August 1965, Johnson told advisors that unless the government did something about high rates of unemployment, housing discrimination, narcotics and crime, and the dilapidated condition of the inner cities, it was unrealistic to expect that this kind of violence would stop. The problem was that most of the rioting would take place as Johnson started to lose his grip on Capitol Hill. The conservative coalition wasn't open to funding programs for these communities.

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