The presidency of Lyndon Johnson is described as having all the characteristics of a classic tragedy. Johnson aspired to be "the greatest of them all," and for a moment greatness seemed within his grasp. But his fall was as swift and as sure as that of any tragic literary figure.
Few dispute that Johnson was a master of the art of the deal, but in matters of deal-making is not the same as leadership, especially in matters of foreign affairs. And bold leadership is exactly what Johnson lacked during the most crucial junctures of his tenure as president. Johnson was not an ideologue, he was a politician. He was the swaggering Texan who lived most of his life within the urban confines of cosmopolitan Washington, DC. He took boastful pleasure in parading about in cowboy hat and boots, yet spent the vast majority of his days in specially-tailored suits.
Johnson spoke often about wanting to be the "president of all the people." He had great skill in crafting decisions that offered up something for everyone. In Vietnam increased bombing raids were conducted to appease the "hawks," while gradual troop increases and intermittent efforts at negotiation were touted to please the "doves." Johnson's efforts at consensus building on Vietnam often meant avoiding the more difficult decisions inherent in leadership positions.
If the record of Lyndon Johnson's presidency were to end in 1965, his would surely be ranked among our nation's finest. Thrust into the role of Chief Executive on that tragic day in Dallas in November 1963, Johnson reassured an emotionally devastated public by pledging to honor, and build upon, the legacy of his slain predecessor -- "John Kennedy's death commands what his life conveyed -- that America must move forward." Johnson did indeed move forward, presenting a program of domestic reforms originally crafted in the mold of the New Deal and imbued with the vigor of the New Frontier. By 1965, Johnson had devised and signed into law more than 200 pieces of major legislation, including a sizable tax cut, a billion dollar anti-poverty program, and a groundbreaking civil rights bill. But the promises of his Great Society were swallowed up in the quagmire of Vietnam.
The boldness with which Johnson moved on the domestic front was undermined by his own hesitance and duplicity concerning Vietnam. By March 1968 a Gallup poll recorded that only 26 percent of the American people approved of his handling of the war. Most damaging to the man and to the presidency itself was the opening up of a "credibility gap." Lyndon Johnson, who had done so much to fulfill the idealism of the Kennedy era, was blamed for ushering in an era of increased public cynicism toward official Washington.
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