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The two worlds of Lyndon B. Johnson

According to historian Robert A. Caro (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power), “Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency (1963-1969) is arguably one of the greatest success stories of any president in American history, as well as one our worst failures.” With the assassination of Kennedy on November 22, 1963, Vice President Johnson assumed the presidency. He then caught the tide and momentum generated by Kennedy, together with his own unique talent and used it for purposes “Kennedy had enunciated for the passage of long-dreamed of liberal legislation whose purposes went far beyond any embodied in Kennedy legislation.” His great victories for legislation were “the embodiment of the liberal spirit in all its nobility.”His national approval rating was 77% in his victorious election over Goldwater in 1964. His accomplishments included The Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicare and Medicaid, The Water Quality Act, The Highway Safety Act, The Air Quality Act, The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, and his “War against Poverty.” Johnson will be remembered for the first part of his presidency with the words of the civil rights struggle, “We Shall Overcome.”

According to Caro, “Unfortunately, the foregoing words were not the only words which Johnson will be remembered.” In the second part of his presidency, the prior choruses of the civil rights were replaced with words of the Vietnam protesters, “Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” In the absence of a formal declaration of war, Johnson significantly escalated the U.S. role in Vietnam. Johnson’s presidential prestige disappeared, while the number of American, North and South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, killed and wounded, may have exceeded two million. In 1967, antiwar rallies took place throughout the nation, while young men burned their draft cards in protest. Upon Johnson’s death in 1973, Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy said he preferred remembering Johnson, “As President, his brilliant leadership earned him a special place in the history of civil rights alongside of Abraham Lincoln.” In 1982, the Chicago Tribune’s poll of 49 historians ranked Johnson as our 12th greatest president.

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