The Neighborhood today honors a President that has provided more legislation, more controversy, and more belly laughs than many other chief executives in our history.
Happy Birthday to Lyndon Johnson (1908-1973), 36th President of the United States. LBJ was a lot of things–a high school teacher, a Congressman and Senator who powered his way into prominence, Vice-President and then President. He was not an easy man to figure out, either. He was a vestige of the “Solid South”, the Democratic bloc of White Southerners that were for the New Deal but against desegregation. Yet ever the wheeler-dealer, Johnson worked (brutally, at times) to get legislation passed in many areas, including civil rights, health care, welfare, and space exploration.
Under his guidance, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became a reality–even though he had to make it look like Martin Luther King forced him to do it, in order to save face. The Great Society, a massive expansion of the federal government, included a slew of programs both white and black Americans use today: Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, etc.
LBJ wanted the Great Society to be his legacy. Yet a thin little country in Southeast Asia will forever define his presidency. Starting in 1964 with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the Johnson Administration deployed more and more troops to the Vietnam conflict. By 1968, Johnson’s popularity was so low that he retired from politics rather than suffer the humiliation of an almost certain defeat in the next election.
The LBJ I love, however, is the casual Texan who cusses and laughs and cracks off-color humor. I’m ending today’s post with a link to one of Johnson’s most famous phone calls. On August 9, 1964, LBJ calls up the Haggar clothing company in Houston to order some pants. I’m still amazed that the salespeople on the other end could keep a straight face. It’s linked below:
I’d love to know if anyone else has ever described a tight inseam as “riding a wire fence.”
Movies for the Classroom: Decisions that Shook the World
As many here in the Neighborhood are aware, I am not a huge fan of the policies of President Obama.
However, I do appreciate the difficulties he faces in making decisions that carry far-reaching consequences. As the above quote suggests, George Washington, our first President, understood this far too well.
In fact, nearly every President since Washington has reached that point: the place where you cannot delegate any more authority, you cannot “pass the buck” any further to a lower-ranking peon. The President, and only the President, has to make the decision–and people will be unhappy one way or another.
There’s no certainty that the decision he made was the right one. It may be many years before that decision is vindicated or villified. Few people can make such leaps in the dark without some sort of mental or emotional breakdown, yet we expect nothing less from our Chief Executives.
I thought about this as I stumbled upon this StarzFilms documentary made in 2004. Decisions that Shook the World discusses three Presidents who reached a moment of action. First, Lyndon Johnson, an accidental President thanks to a tragic assassination in 1963, makes a decision to support a Civil Rights bill, even though it meant alienating most of his white Southern base of support.
Second, Ronald Reagan steadfastly supported a “Star Wars”-like missile defensive program called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), even when a Democratic Congress howled at the expense and pundits rolled their eyes at the folly of such a “fantastic” program.
Lastly, Franklin Roosevelt, in the midst of an economic depression in his own country, decides to provide Great Britain with arms and materials before our entry into World War II. This was at a time when many Americans thought the United States should maintain its neutrality from what seemed to be a mostly European affair.
In each instance, the consequences were felt long after the decision was made. Johnson, as it turned out, made the right decision on civil rights–albeit the wrong one when it came to Vietnam. Reagan’s solid approach to anti-Communism helped ensure that the Cold War would end. However, “Star Wars” opened up the floodgates for massive spending from the Pentagon that we still cannot control. Roosevelt’s actions kept Britain going until we did enter the war. Yet the war we initially entered was in the Pacific, with the European war, in the beginning, as an afterthought.
The documentary works well as an episodic series to use piecemeal in classrooms. It works well with creating “case study” scenarios where students can make executive decisions using the same information available at the White House at the time.
Finally, I hope the film will get students to appreciate the extraordinarily difficult position that the President has. He has the toughest job in the world, and it gets harder with every passing administration.
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