May 12, 2014

1965. Lyndon Johnson's Legacy


Letter sent to Bill Downs from President Johnson on March 26, 1965
March 22, 1965 
Here in Washington there's a game called "President-watching." It's the favorite indoor sport of most of the diplomatic corps and absolutely all of the politicians who jam this capital.

"President-watching" also is the main assignment and bounden duty of the White House correspondents...who by the very nature of their jobs, vicariously live the official life of the man who occupies the Executive Mansion. We have just returned from a long weekend in Texas covering Mr. Johnson. White House correspondents keep his appointments and engagements under constant scrutiny; they analyze his temper foibles and fevers; they criticize and sometimes praise his speeches. They make private jokes about him and the life he leads them. And pro or con, the men and women who cover the White House are always sympathetic about the terrible burdens of the presidency—no matter how much they approve or disapprove of the man himself.

Out of this close observation of the Chief Executive comes the stuff of biography and of legend—which eventually distills itself into the thing called history.

Today Lyndon Johnson completes his 16th month in the White House. It is clear, even to this part-time "President-watcher," that the past year and four months in the White House already is leaving its mark on Mr. Johnson. There has been a change...the Texas politician who left the Congress with the respect and admiration of his fellow Senators because of his skill as a master persuader and maneuverer of no longer the same man.

It has been a subtle and basic kind of change...part of it has been the result of holding the awful power of the office...and part of it appears to have been a personal and deliberate effort to improve the Johnson image, as they say on Madison Avenue.

The corrupting influence of Executive power has been proved in history too often to argue about it. The other side of this coin in the American democracy has been the responsibility that goes with the office of the Presidency. And it is the responsibility which seems to contain the magic of the White House which changes the men who live there.

This magic worked on Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. And before his assassination, the Presidency already had left its sobering mark on John F. Kennedy. The youthful brashness was being replaced by a maturing patina of real statesmanship.

The past 16 months have produced a notable contrast in the public personality of Lyndon Johnson. There has not been—nor will their be—any apology for his political history...but at the same time, there seems to be a discarding of much of the southwestern "dressage"...the regionalistic emphasis on the acts and words which produced the "wheeler-dealer" charges his critics likes to repeat.

Although Mr. Johnson could not erase the twang of the Texas hill-country from his speech if he wanted to—and he doesn't—the Presidential vocabulary has taken on a new dignity which goes beyond the demands of his office and becomes deeply and sincerely personal. It must be assumed that when a man becomes President, he eventually asks himself "what kind of President do I want to be?"

For the answer, he must look back at his own beginnings and his root-country for the truth.

Anyone who looks at the personal history of Lyndon Johnson will find throughout the many biographies the constant references and pride he took in becoming a country school-teacher. In fact, it was his knowledge gained in teaching Spanish-American youngsters in South Texas that put him on the road to a political career. He always carried the minority vote in his district. And following up, an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the so-called minorities voted for him in 1964 to put him in the White House by a landslide.

It would appear that the 36th President of the United States now has decided his personal goal in history.

In this era of exploding knowledge, Lyndon Johnson would like to be the kind of President who teaches his people while he leads them. Perhaps he sees himself as a kind of philosopher-President, a Texas Plato guiding Americans to build the perfect Republic.

But more likely, he prefers the role of the teacher...keeping his pupils in line with stern discipline when they are fractious—as in Alabama—but who sees himself as a failure if he does not make his student-body aware of the immeasurable benefits due to them when they are graduated into his Great Society.

From now until the President gives up the office, we-the-people can expect a lot of free instruction and high level lectures from the head master and superintendent of the biggest democratic institution on earth. And school-teacher Lyndon Johnson already has warned us that we have a lot of homework to do if we are to matriculate from this society into the Greater one...which he insists is America's destiny.

This is Bill Downs, substituting for Edward P. Morgan, saying good night from Washington.