by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
As president, he cut a grandiose figure. He was a braggart and a frequent liar. He was suspicious of other countries, frequently saying, “Foreigners are not like the folks I am used to.” He had a reckless disregard for limits. He belittled and browbeat others to intimidate them and give him what he wanted. Historian Robert Dallek said that he “viewed criticism of his policies as personal attacks” and opponents of his policies “as disloyal to him and the country.”
He would bully and insult reporters, saying of one that he “always knew when he was around, because he could smell him.” He told whoppers about voter fraud in his elections. But he did get things done, dominating the political scene for good and for ill.
No, we’re not talking about Donald Trump. During a visit to the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, I was struck by just how many parallels there are between Lyndon Johnson and Trump. Liberals knew all about Johnson’s faults in the 1960s. But it was a different, more respectful media era, and his faults were underreported. The media were also willing to overlook them until Vietnam became a fiasco, because reporters liked his domestic-policy priorities in civil rights and his new government spending. “Would America have been better off without Lyndon Johnson in the Senate? And, consequently, without Lyndon Johnson as president?” asked historian Torsten Kathke, writing at his blog Thus, History! “It is a question of means and ends. Any answer can only be uncomfortable, but that is, precisely, the ground on which politics thrives.”
The answer that 91 mostly liberal historians gave for CSPAN’s new Presidential Historians Survey is clear. Despite all of Johnson’s character flaws and the Vietnam disaster, he was ranked as the tenth-best president. LBJ lost ninth place, by a historian’s hair, to Ronald Reagan, despite the Gipper’s manifestly greater integrity and honesty.