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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Larger than life] Triumph and Tragedy of LBJ & America

Texans boasted of Bigness on their van.

Who else does embody that characteristic better than Lyndon Baines Johnson?

Tall. Imposing. All-encompassing. Blustery and bombastic. Passionate. Just a huge force of nature! His famous 'Johnson touch' is well known, literally dominating and suffocating his hearers on one on one session.

Doer. Go-getter. He got things done. And for what end?
He certainly craved power, but he was rather unique in that he genuinely comiserated with the downtrodden and sought to improve their lots. Episodes are legion in revealing his compassion. Bobby Kennedy said of him, 'What does he know about poverty?' But does a Kennedy know about it lol. LBJ actually worked on a cotton farm, experiencing that back-breaking labor first-hand. Also taught poor Mexicans.

He knew, and moreover, did something about it. Civil Rights Act, Voting Act, Great Society. The most dynamic administration since FDR: it was all his doing, as the Master of Senate dominating the recalcitrant Congress(don't be fooled about filibuster in the movie 'Mr. Smith goes to Washington'. Filibuster was the most potent weapon Southerners including 'the Southern General' Richard Russell wielded to obstruct the passing of every progressive laws in the 20th Century. Senate was truly a bulwark against it, more than the Supreme Court and the House).

His pursuing those Acts contributed to the Rights Revolution(along with the Warren Court), and effectively dismantled the FDR coalition, estranging those Southerners. In a different sense, he was like FDR, a Traitor to their Region(the South, not Class), and the Democratic party paid the price. He knew it, but he forged ahead, disregarding narrow political calculations(FDR skirted this issue, JFK didn't really care that much. He was much more enamored of Foreign policy, and was a lackluster Congressman and Senator, at best). What courage.

'We shall overcome' was one of the most impressive political address uttered by a politician, on par with Hubert Humphrey's impassioned speech at the 1948 Democratic convention, eliciting Martin Luther King Jr.'s tears.

Yet, he could not overcome his also gigantic flaws, his monumental ego, insecurity, and secrecy. Domino theory was the erroneous yet dominant Anti-Communist political theory at the time(McNamara and others were JFK appointees), and he feared backlash from the Conservatives after Truman and Acheson was excoriated when they 'Lost' China(FDR too for that matter, after Yalta).

The tragedy of Vietnam, and the Rights Consciousness which was partially fueled by his activism, heralded the Conservatives' major comeback(Goldwater, Reagan, etc. Democrats dominated Congress between FDR and LBJ), and also the death of optimism, American exceptionalism(Reagan revived it), and Liberalism(just like the demise of UK's Liberal party).

Hence the triumph and tragedy of LBJ was probably a distinctly American story, for good, or ill.

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