Tom Finneran: Remembering LBJ
Friday, February 22, 2013
While I was there I had a brief opportunity to visit the LBJ Presidential Library and boy did I enjoy it. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I went back for several hours the next day before boarding my flight home to Boston.
The Library is awesome. Not in its scale or its architecture or its setting is it awesome; on those points it is simply and appropriately tasteful. But it is truly awesome in its presentation of LBJ, his times, his Presidency, and our history. And what a period of history he moved in. Was there ever a more turbulent period of time in America than the years 1963-1968? Starting with that horrifically sad day in Dallas, November, 1963 through Johnson’s final days in the White House, transitioning to the Presidency of Richard Nixon, we staggered through the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, saw civil rights legislation enacted more than a hundred years after the start of the Civil War, were shocked then elated at the tragedies and the triumphs of the space program, were paralyzed and torn apart by the war in Vietnam, were scarred and horrified by explosive race riots in the cities of America, saw the programs of the Great Society enacted with such hope and promise, and watched one of the nation’s political giants with the utter fascination we accord to Shakespearean characters.
By all accounts, Lyndon Johnson was a political genius, obsessed with gaining and using political power in ways that were vicious and venal as well as in ways which would make Jesus smile. Perhaps it’s impossible to reconcile the many facets of his life. Maybe the mistake is in even trying to do that with any human being, let alone a human being like Lyndon Johnson. His ruthlessness was legend. So was his kindness and generosity. He used politics and political connections to become quite rich. And he used political power to address appalling poverty in America and even more appalling bigotry in our treatment of black fellow citizens.
The fact that he was a son of the South made his leadership on civil rights all the more impressive. I am convinced that he is the equal of Martin Luther King in moving the nation from its sordid past to its promising present. King made the moral and spiritual case for civil rights, but given the entrenched Congressional power of the Southern states, that moral and spiritual case fell on deaf ears. Johnson knew Congress better than any other man on the planet and he had an instinct for the jugular. He could and did charm, threaten, bully, buy, and maneuver every precious vote. His was a political strength and he delighted in its exercise. In combination with King’s moral and spiritual address to our better angels, Johnson’s political genius and skill made those angels sing.
Every President knows heartbreak. Sometimes it is self-inflicted, sometimes it is inherited. And sometimes events are in the saddle which are beyond anyone’s capacity to stop---think of September 11, 2001. Lyndon Johnson’s heartbreak was Vietnam. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy had committed military “advisers” in ever increasing number and the Cold War mentality of the ‘50s and ‘60s envisioned the dominoes of Southeast Asia falling under the grisly grip of Communist regimes. By the way, the cold warriors were not wrong as was seen in the brutal treatment of the South Vietnamese and Cambodians—beaten, brutalized, raped, pillaged, brainwashed and executed by Communist thugs.
Nevertheless, our country was torn by a desire to protect a small defenseless country from aggressive domination and by a growing recognition that an inept and corrupt local leadership and a less than impressive U.S. military leadership was sacrificing the lives of thousands of young Americans in an unwinnable war thousands of miles from home, utterly heartbreaking for those young Americans, heartbreaking for their parents, and heartbreaking for Lyndon Johnson.
I cannot go to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. without crying. It happens every time. And it happened again at the Johnson Library. I’ve come to the conclusion that the war broke his heart too. Perhaps his name belongs on that wall. The war first killed his dreams, then it killed him.
Hey, hey, LBJ, you deserved a better day. May you rest in peace.
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