Landslide; LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of a New America by Jonathan Darman. Random, paper 2015.
Jonathan Darman’s book has joined together the political careers of Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan. It covers the landscape from John Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 to the end of Reagan’s second term in January 1988.
Johnson and Reagan were elected by two landslides, twenty years apart – 1964 and 1984. They both were gifted performers and raconteurs. Both were men of uncommon ambition. They both provided voters with images of an American future. But those futures differed widely. Johnson believed that enlightened government could help solve America’s problems. Reagan that government is the problem, not the solution. We must be freed from a leviathan welfare state that threatens our liberties.
Time stood still on that November day in 1963 when a bullet brought an end to the Kennedy saga. LBJ had to intrude on Camelot and its ending, to negotiate a delicate situation. Darman reminds us that no one knew who the assassin was, nor his motives. Johnson, riding in the car behind the Kennedys – and now the President, was rushed off on Air Force One to a secure site. But that left the grieving widow stranded in Dallas. In the days that followed, Johnson had to deal with the delicacies involved in taking up lodgings in the White House. Perhaps too rushed. Darman suggests, however, that Johnson believed the situation dangerous for the country.
Jackie Kennedy – the Kennedy family – had little regard for Lyndon Johnson. He had been badly treated by the clan as Kennedy’s vice-president. Once a powerful Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate, he had been relegated to the Vice Presidency and shunned by the Kennedy cabinet and advisors.
Johnson decided that he could best pay homage to the martyred President by ‘completing’ Kennedy’s New Frontier – mostly initiatives, few accomplishments, merging it into his own Great Society. And to maintain continuity with Kennedy’s years, he kept on the Kennedy Cabinet. His Legislative record is comparable to Franklin Roosevelt’s achievements in his first term. (Medicare July 1965, thank you.)
Darman then describes the great calamity of the Johnson Presidency, a lost war. Kennedy had viewed the civil war in Indo-China as a proxy war between the Soviet Union, still allied with China, and the U.S. Johnson recognized that no American President who wished to get re-elected, and more to the point, no American President who wished to push an ambitious legislative agenda through Congress, could fail to pursue and win a war in progress.
The war was enormously unpopular, particularly amongst college students. It had influential critics who believed it unwinnable: Senator J. William Fulbright, columnist Walter Lippmann, and Senator Frank Church, among others. Johnson tried various measures to bring the Viet Cong to the negotiating table, to no avail. Casualties mounted. Eventually 58,000 Americans died in the War.
Where was Ronald Reagan when all of this was happening? He was a two-term Governor of California elected as a Republican in 1966. Darman makes much of his role as a B actor in B movies and was by the 1960s definitely a “former movie star.” Having been a lifelong Democrat, he had switched parties. He supported Goldwater’s bid to defeat Johnson in 1964 and generally took on Goldwater’s vision for America. While governor of California, he began to formulate strategies for a run against Johnson. Darman suggests that Reagan adapted well to a candidate’s world – a big role yet dependent upon others, including his “co-star,” Nancy Reagan.
Johnson was taking Reagan seriously by now. He was keeping that Goldwater campaign button pinned to his, Reagan’s lapel, figuring that voters would reject this second iteration of Goldwater platform as well. But in fact Johnson was much more concerned about facing Bobby Kennedy for the Democratic nomination, though there was little he could actively do about the situation until Bobby entered the race.
By March 1968 Johnson felt that he had lost control of his story. Democrats had suffered badly in the midterm elections in ‘66. Even Johnson now believed the war in Vietnam was not winnable. He was depressed much of the time, had heart spells, and had come to the realization that the country could not both finance a war and his new welfare measures. On 31 March 1968 he announced that he would not seek a second elected term.
I recently toured the Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, went out to the Johnson ranch, and to his birth place. By the end of that tour I was ready to support chiseling Johnson’s profile onto Mount Rushmore. Landslide LJB and Ronald Reagan largely confirms my enthusiasm. Ronald Reagan’s Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, was not nearly as persuasive.