Of the nine Presidents who have been in office in my lifetime, none had the impact that Ronald Reagan has had. Ronald Reagan succeeded in transforming not just the office of the Presidency, but also the nature of how politics and government is viewed by the country overall. To the Republicans of today, he is revered like no one else in the party, at times outstripping Abraham Lincoln in fame. To the Democrats of today, he is mostly reviled, although sometimes begrudgingly respected.
For historians and biographers, Ronald Reagan is a popular, yet somewhat difficult subject. Edmund Morris lived with Reagan during almost all of his eight years in office. And yet, he could not truly figure out who Reagan was. So, Morris created a fictional character as the narrator for his biography of Reagan called Dutch.
Lou Cannon, a longtime reporter in Sacramento, had a career of covering Ronald Reagan. He wrote a two–volume biography of Reagan. And Cannon never came close to figuring just who Ronald Reagan was.
I opted for a shorter tome, written by San Francisco State University professor Jules Tygiel. Tygiel, who passed away in 2008, is best known for writing a history of Jackie Robinson’s experience with the Brooklyn Dodgers called Baseball’s Great Experiment. Tygiel also wrote a book on the Julian Oil scandal called The Great Los Angeles Swindle.
One of the reasons for choosing this book is that I actually had corresponded several times with Tygiel about baseball history, and found that he was very generous and giving of his time. He was always willing to help out a researcher if he could. So, since I had a gift card to a bookstore, I picked up his book, figuring that his family would get some royalties for this. (Also, I would finish this series a lot sooner.)
Tygiel’s book is, like nearly all of the others I’ve read for this blog, a synthesis of many other writers works. The book is actually intended to be used as a college textbook. Nevertheless, Tygiel injects his opinion of Reagan’s time as President frequently. To Tygiel, Reagan’s biggest contributions (as the title would indicate) were ideological, but his actual achievements may have been less than what his reputation merits. As an aside, I have found this to be the case with every President from George Washington on. The better job that a President did, the more people expect more to have been achieved.
The book takes a while to get to Reagan’s Presidency, but that is hard not to do for someone who was not inaugurated until he was 70. And Reagan’s journey through life gives insight into how he made what was an unlikely career path from studio contract actor to conservative political icon. Continue reading →
I’m going to count to 10, if you don’t like this post, just stop reading before I get to 10
Richard Milhous Nixon was the first President I ever knew. He became President when I was three years old. He left office when I was all of eight. To me, he was the image of what the President of the United States is supposed to be. You can make of that what you will.
For a man who was not easy to like, he was elected President twice, once by a slim margin and the other time in a landslide. Nixon made himself into one of the towering figures in American foreign policy. But, his legacy is one of paranoia that fueled an unprecedented abuse of power by the Executive branch. In trying to be a statesman, Richard Nixon ended up a pathetic figure, even though history seems to be treating him better now.
One person not treating Richard Nixon better now is Elizabeth Drew, the longtime Washington correspondent for the New Yorker magazine. Nixon would likely be appalled that someone like Drew, an East Coast journalist and Wellesley alumna, is trying to write about his life. Drew paints a picture of Richard Nixon as a man who was deeply troubled. He was often depressed. He was often paranoid. He drank to excess. He could not form friendships or make small talk. And in Drew’s view, he was unfit to hold office and the nation was fortunate that Nixon did not steer the nation into a disaster.
Nixon’s childhood proved to be a key to understanding him as an adult. Even Henry Kissinger would say, “He would have been a great, great man if someone had loved him.”
Richard Nixon was born on January 9, 1913 in Yorba Linda, California. Today, Yorba Linda is a pleasant Orange County suburb that bills itself as “the Land of Gracious Living.” In 1913, Yorba Linda was a farming community. Nixon’s father tried to grow oranges, but was unsuccessful. The family moved to Whittier, which if you grew up in Southern California, you would know that it is the part of Los Angeles County that you just cannot seem to get to. Nixon’s parents were Quakers, although not the peace-loving, friendly types. Both Nixon’s father (Francis) and mother (Hannah) were rather demanding and often cruel to Richard. Two of Nixon’s brothers died of tuberculosis. (And there may have been an incident with a hobo. But you have to find this book. I’ve tried to read it. I have not succeeded in finishing it. Or making it through more than five or six pages.)
With good grades in high school, Harvard and Yale beckoned to Richard Nixon. But, financial concerns forced Nixon to attend nearby Whittier College. Nixon formed his own fraternity, called the Orhtogonian Society, to combat the influence of the fraternities on campus. (“Orthogonian” is not a real word.) Nixon played on the football team despite being small and unathletic. (During Nixon’s time in college, Whittier actually played USC twice, losing 51-0 in 1933 and 40-14 in 1934.)
Nixon hoped to attend an Ivy League law school after he graduated second in his class at Whittier. Finances again did not allow that. Nixon settled for going to Duke University Law School, which offered him a scholarship. After gaining his degree, Nixon returned home to Whittier to set up his own practice.
One of Nixon’s interests was community theater. He met a woman named Thelma Ryan, who went by Pat, after being cast in a play with her. Nixon pursued her, even to the point of driving her to dates with other men. Eventually, the two married in 1940. They had two daughters, Julie and Patricia.
When World War II started, Nixon served in the Navy. While not seeing any combat, Nixon did receive commendations for his work, which was almost all logistical. When Nixon returned home, he set out on a career in politics.
Step one for Nixon was the House of Representatives. He challenged Democrat Jerry Voorhis in a district that covered a large portion of the suburbs east of Los Angeles. Nixon painted Voorhis as a tool of labor, and, by extension, possibly involved with Communism. (Nixon and Voorhis held a debate at South Pasadena Junior High, now South Pasadena Middle School, which is about four blocks from where I am presently typing this.) Nixon won the election by 15,000 votes.
Nixon immediately made a splash in Washington. He got a seat on the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He took on a State Department official named Alger Hiss, who was accused of being a Communist spy. Nixon eventually produced evidence (via Whittaker Chambers) that would lead to Hiss’ conviction for perjury charges for lying to the Committee. (While some at the time thought that Nixon and HUAC had railroaded Hiss, an examination of the archives of the KGB would later reveal that Hiss may have had some espionage activities. The matter is still hotly debated.)
In 1950, Nixon decided to run for the open California Senate seat. Nixon easily won the Republican primary. The Democratic candidate was Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas, who upset Los Angeles newspaper publisher Manchester Boddy.
The Senate campaign would be a nasty one. Nixon came after Douglas hard, describing her as “the Pink Lady” because of the similarities in her voting record with Socialist Representative Vito Marcantonio. Of course, if you look at the roll call votes on any two members of the House, there will be a lot of similarities since many issues voted are procedural or the result of a compromise. Nevertheless, Nixon would claim that Douglas was “pink right down to her underwear.” Nixon won with 59% of the vote. Drew claims that most of Nixon’s efforts (through his campaign manager Murray Chotiner) were overkill as Douglas had little chance of winning anyway as 1950 was a down year for Democrats throughout the country. Also, Douglas had lost a lot of support among California Democrats as she was viewed as being too liberal.
After just two years in the Senate, Nixon found himself on the national ticket as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate. Eisenhower agreed to Nixon to satisfy the party’s conservative wing. Nixon’s anti-Communist credentials were strong; and, he was not considered as divisive of a figure as Joseph McCarthy.
Nixon’s political career almost came to a sudden halt during the campaign when it was revealed that
wealthy supporters had established a slush fund for Nixon and his family. (Nixon was far from the only person in Washington with one.) However, Eisenhower was thinking of dropping Nixon from the ticket because of the furor. Nixon gave a public speech to address the problem. It went down in history as “The Checkers Speech” as Nixon insisted that the only gift he received that he did not give back was a dog named Checkers. (You can view the speech in twoparts.) The speech was a big hit. Eisenhower publicly told Nixon that “You’re my boy!” And so, Richard Nixon was able to become Vice President.
Eisenhower did not have much use for Nixon, and did not particularly like him. There was little for Nixon to do, even with Eisenhower’s questionable health. Nixon would make headlines when survived a hostile reception on a visit to Venezuela. Nixon’s motorcade was pelted with rocks. However, Nixon remained cool under pressure. In 1959, Nixon held an impromptu debate with Nikita Khrushchev about capitalism and communism. This would be dubbed the “Kitchen Debate” as it took place in a sample kitchen at a trade show in the Soviet Union.
Nixon made his first run at the White House in 1960. Facing John F. Kennedy, Nixon narrowly lost. The 1960 campaign may be one of the most discussed in American history. And I already discussed it in the Kennedy review. So, go look over there.
Only 47 years old, Nixon did not want to leave politics. He went back to California, wrote a memoir called Six Crises, and took on incumbent governor Pat Brown. Nixon felt that these activities were needed the position to establish national credibility again. However, Brown clobbered Nixon by over 300,000 votes. After the election, Nixon gave a rambling speech to the press declaring “you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”
The losses to Kennedy and Brown reinforced for Nixon that the main reason he could not advance in politics was that the “Establishment” was out to stop him. This group consisted of Ivy Leaguers (like Kennedy) or the media (all forms of them whom Nixon felt were out to keep him from office and distort his views.) Later on, Nixon would begin to include Jews among his enemies.
Nixon then started one of the country’s most remarkable political comebacks. First, Nixon moved to New York to increase his earning potential as a senior partner in a law firm. Nixon endorsed Republican congressional candidates. Nixon targeted 1968 as the year to start his comeback.
With the country deeply divided over the Vietnam War, civil rights, and other social upheavals, the Republican nominee was going to have a good shot at winning the White House. Nixon’s principal competitors for the nomination were Michigan governor George Romney, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, and California governor Ronald Reagan. All the competitors had their shortcomings. Romney was too weak. Rockefeller had too much baggage. Reagan was too inexperienced. Nixon won the nomination fairly easily.
Much to the surprise of political pundits of the day, Nixon chose Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew as his running mate. Agnew had almost no national profile; but, Nixon liked some statements Agnew had made that made him appear to be tough on crime. Also, Nixon was trying for a “Southern Strategy” and hoped that Agnew would appeal to Southern conservatives.
The 1968 campaign saw Nixon not try to do too much since he had a substantial lead in the polls over Democratic challenger Hubert Humphrey. Nixon claimed he had a plan to end the war in Vietnam, but would not give its details. (It would be dubbed his “secret plan” even though it wasn’t secret or even a plan.) Nixon also stressed “law and order.” Nixon would “bring us together.”
Late in the campaign, Humphrey broke with President Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War and publicly declared his intention to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Around this time, Nixon’s campaign, using Anna Chenault as a conduit, got word to the South Vietnamese negotiators in Paris that Johnson and Humphrey wanted to end the war. The South Vietnamese pulled out of the peace talks. The war in Vietnam would continue well past Election Day 1968.
Nixon won the election in 1968, but by a narrow margin, 43.4% to 42.7%. This worked out to a little over 500,000 votes nationwide. Nixon earned 301 electoral votes to 191 for Humphrey. George Wallace won the other 45.
Now that Nixon was in office, he had to face the task of running the country. The problem was that Nixon was more interested in the process of becoming President than actually being President. He appointed a Cabinet that was made up of lesser lights in the Republican Party. There were no Ivy Leaguers in the group with the exception of George Shultz, who was the Secretary of Labor. The Secretary of State, William Rogers, would be routinely ignored by Nixon. The Attorney General, John Mitchell, wanted to emphasize that the Justice Department was a law enforcement agency, even though he would turn out to be violating Federal laws in the process.
Early on, Nixon had the chance to appoint a new Chief Justice. He chose Warren Burger, a conservative from Minnesota, whom Nixon thought would start to reverse the more liberal decisions of his predecessor, Earl Warren. In 1970, Nixon tried to appoint two different Southerners to another vacant seat on the Supreme Court: Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell, but both were rejected for a combination of reasons, but primarily both of the men were considered incompetent. Nixon would finally appoint Harry Blackmun to the seat. And Blackmun would go on to write the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade.
Drew examines Nixon’s attitude toward domestic policies and found them lacking. Nixon’s policies were actually quite liberal. The Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration were created under Nixon and consumer protection laws were greatly expanded. Under the direction of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, welfare and poverty programs were revamped.
The economy was in a strong inflationary period and unemployment was rising. Nixon tried to respond to this by imposing wage and price controls. He took the dollar off of the gold standard.
Drew does not believe that Nixon actually thought much about domestic policy, except he just wanted to adopt plans that were politically popular. There was no overarching idea for what Nixon was trying to accomplish. She insists that Nixon’s domestic policy was the result of cynicism and political calculation and little else.
What Nixon cared more about domestically were his political enemies. The White House became obsessed with monitoring the activities of Vietnam War protesters and other political opponents. Some of the ideas that Nixon and his aides developed for monitoring the opposition were considered too invasive even for FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s tastes.
The White House under Nixon was an odd place. The President would send formal memos to his wife about how to arrange the living quarters. The memos would be addressed to “Mrs. Nixon.” Drew relates that Nixon, through the assistance of some of his well-heeled supporters, used Dilantin, an anticonvulsant, as an anti-anxiety medication, washed down with helpings of Scotch. (Dilantin is not prescribed for anxiety and all anticonvulsants now come with warning labels telling you two or three times not to mix it with alcohol.) Nixon was showing signs of erratic behavior very quickly into his Administration.
Nixon always wanted to be viewed as a master of foreign policy. He relished the chance of negotiating with world leaders. And in this arena, Nixon tends to get the most praise from historians. Nixon also tended to give a lot of praise to himself in this field. Nearly all foreign policy initiatives from Nixon were orchestrated by National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, the only person Nixon trusted in this field.
The Vietnam War was far from over when Nixon was inaugurated. Nixon had promised to reduce troop levels in Vietnam in a process he described as “Vietnamization.” At the same time, Nixon ordered an expansion of the war into Cambodia. Protests over the expansion of the war into Cambodia turned into even more protests than during the Johnson Administration. A protest at Kent State University on May 4, 1970 resulted in the deaths of four people when Ohio National Guard troops fired on them. Ten days later, two student protesters were killed at Jackson State University in Mississippi.
Nixon would eventually end the military draft. Kissinger negotiated an end to American involvement in Vietnam that went into effect in early 1973. Kissinger and North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. (Le Duc Tho declined the prize, the only person to ever do so with a Peace Prize.)
Other parts of the world were undergoing turmoil. Bangladesh was winning its independence from Pakistan in a bloody civil war that also involved India. Nixon, who did not like Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, sided with Pakistan. It turned out that America’s desire to help Pakistan stemmed from a desire to use that country as an entree to an even bigger goal: relations with China.
During a diplomatic trip to Pakistan, Kissinger disappeared from public view for a spell with what was called “stomach flu.” Actually, Kissinger was negotiating a trip by Nixon to China. Before Nixon visited, the Chinese invited an American table tennis team to come visit and participate in exhibitions. This would be dubbed “ping-pong diplomacy.” (Except by the International Table Tennis Federation perhaps.)
In February of 1972, Nixon traveled to China, where he conducted high level meetings almost entirely on his own. Nixon went as far to use the translators that the Chinese provided instead of State Department translators, whom he did not trust. The visit began the process of starting the normalization of relations between the U.S. and the world’s most populous country.
The visit to China also made the Soviet Union more eager to negotiate with the U.S. on nuclear arms control. In May of 1972, Nixon went to Moscow. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) would be the results of these trips.
Despite Nixon’s good standings in the polls, he was worried about domestic enemies. The leaking of the Pentagon Papers, an in depth examination of the Vietnam War during the Johnson Administration, seemed to set off Nixon. Nixon wanted to tighten up internal security procedures and identify people who leaked information to the press. To stop these leaks, a group was formed in the White House that would become known as “The Plumbers.”
The Plumbers talked a much bigger game than they actually performed. The group, led by men like E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, (to join the group you had to not like your original first name it seemed), fancied themselves to be world-class spies. However, their incompetence would be Nixon’s undoing.
One plan the Plumbers came up with was to firebomb the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank in Washington. The plan was to steal safes that were supposed to contain leaked information about the Vietnam War that scholars at the facility. However, the scholars neither had safes nor did they have any leaked confidential information.
Another plan involved breaking into the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, the former Pentagon employee responsible for leaking the Pentagon Papers. That proved to be a fruitless endeavor.
On June 17, 1972, five men, including a White House official named Robert McCord were arrested at the Watergate Hotel trying to bug the office of Democratic National Party chairman Lawrence O’Brien. Six days after the break in, Nixon and aide H.R. Haldeman held the discussion linked here.
The Watergate Scandal is far too complicated for me to describe here (not that I don’t like to talk about.) It turned out to be more than just the break in at the hotel. It turned in to a major Constitutional crisis. Nixon, despite being reelected in a landslide in 1972 against George McGovern, would soon lose the confidence of the nation. A pattern of criminal behavior in the Executive Branch was revealed. (It probably wasn’t as cinematic as this though.)
A Senate Committee was set up to investigate the scandal and it seemed that new revelations turned up every week. Some geeky kids, like this seven-year old, enjoyed sitting in front of the TV set with his mother and grandmother listening to the testimony of John Dean and others. Ahh, good times. (At the same time as this was going on, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned after pleading no contest to income tax evasion charges on kickbacks he received while governor of Maryland. Gerald Ford replaced Agnew.)
In the summer of 1974, the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon. After Nixon lost a Supreme Court battle to keep the tapes from being subpoenaed, a group of prominent Republicans in Congress visited Nixon and told him that he had to resign for the sake of the country. Hesitant at first to quit, Nixon relented. He announced his resignation on August 8, 1974, effective the next day.
Nixon’s final days in the White House were not pleasant. His drinking became more severe. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger told the Chiefs of Staff to run any orders from Nixon past him before enacting them. Schlesinger feared that an increasingly unstable Nixon could potentially involve the United States in a catastrophic war.
After leaving office, new President Gerald Ford would issue Nixon a pardon for any crimes he may have committed while in office. Nixon retreated for a time to his home in San Clemente, California.
Nixon had one more comeback of sorts left in him. After making a considerable sum of money for a series of interviews with David Frost, Nixon left California to move back to New York. Back in New York, Nixon would hold court and take on the role of the senior statesman. He wrote his memoirs and several other books on foreign policy.
In 1981, Nixon, along with former Presidents Ford and Carter, flew to Egypt for the funeral of the assassinated Anwar Sadat. Nixon would offer advice to Presidents Reagan and Bush.
Even when a Democrat, Bill Clinton, moved into the White House in 1993, Nixon was still trying to influence foreign policy. On April 18, 1994, Nixon suffered a severe stroke. Four days later, he passed away. He was buried on the grounds of his museum in Yorba Linda. President Clinton delivered a eulogy. Nixon could no longer see people kick him around.
Drew concludes her book with the examination of Nixon’s Presidency. She calls it the “Yes, but” question. Would Nixon have been a great President, if not for Watergate. According to Drew, the answer is no. Nixon’s mental instability and extreme paranoia almost destroyed the country. Nixon wanted his legacy to be his foreign policy success in China and Russia. But, Nixon’s legacy is mainly just an almost complete distrust in our leaders by the American public.
Nevertheless, Nixon’s historical profile is improving. The Ivy Leaguers that Nixon envied (or just hated) seem to be showing him more respect. Why this is so remains a puzzle to me.
Other stuff: Because of a dispute between Nixon and the National Archives, the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum was originally run by a private foundation. The National Archives took over the facility in 2007. Many parts of the museum are being renovated, including the section on Watergate. The facility is in Yorba Linda.
Richard Nixon was considered to be a California resident when he was chosen Vice President; but, he was considered a New Yorker when he ran for President. In his three runs for the Presidency, Nixon received over 113 million popular votes, about 1 million more than George W. Bush had in his two successful runs for the White House.
George Herbert Walker Bush (not that anybody called him that when he was President except when he was sworn in) did not have an easy act to follow, succeeding one of America’s most popular Chief Executives in Ronald Reagan. He came into office in a time when the entire post World War II world was changing in incredible ways. There were economic problems. And there was a war to be fought (but was it to be won?)
At one point during his Presidency, George Bush had an approval rating of 88 percent according to a Gallup Poll. And when he ran for reelection, few people were surprised that Bill Clinton soundly defeated him.
Timothy Naftali, who was written about U.S.-Soviet relations, and now serves as the director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, has the unenviable job of trying to figure out just where George Bush fit into the grand scheme of the rapidly changing world from 1989 through 1993. It is a difficult job to put a living figure just 16 years out of office with a far more famous son; but, I enjoyed Naftali’s presentation. He managed to distill the life of a man with a long resume and a Presidency filled with events of great import into an interesting narrative. You can see how George H. W. Bush (he dropped the initials before going into politics and then added them back to his name after George W. Bush became President in 2001) fits into the post Cold War world.
I did notice though it is impossible to write about George H.W. Bush without writing about Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. Much of George H.W. Bush’s life is circumscribed by his predecessor and his son. Naftali runs into this problem too. The last chapter of the book is more about Bush 43 than Bush 41 it seems.
George Bush was born in Milton, Massachusetts on June 12, 1924, the son of Prescott and Dorothy Bush. The Bush family moved to Connecticut when George was quite young. Prescott Bush was a successful businessman and would also go on to serve 11 years in the U.S. Senate.
Like his father, George Bush enrolled at Yale. However, World War II got in the way. Bush postponed his entrance into Yale to become a naval aviator, a feat he achieved just before turning 19. In 1944, Bush’s plane was shot down by Japanese anti-aircraft guns. All of the crew except for Bush perished. Bush was able to parachute to safety.
With the war nearing its end, Bush returned to Yale. He married Barbara Pierce in January of 1945. Bush captained a Yale baseball team that made it to College World Series. He and Barbara produced six children, some of whom went on to some renown (but that’s for a later post.)
It was a tradition in the Bush family for the men to go out on their own and not to rely on their father’s wealth. So, after graduating from Yale, the Bush family headed for Texas. George Bush started an oil drilling business, along with some friends from Yale. It proved to be quite successful and Bush became a millionaire in his own right.
Like his father, George Bush began to show an interest in politics. He decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and run for a seat in the Senate against Democrat Ralph Yarborough in 1964. Bush decided to ally himself with Republican Presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. This strategy raised Bush’s profile nationally, but did not help him in the election. Yarborough won with 56% of the vote.
Two years later, Bush opted to run for a House seat and won. He became the first Republican to represent a Houston district, serving two terms. In 1968, Bush took aim at Yarborough’s Senate seat. However, Lloyd Bentsen defeated Yarborough in the Democratic primary. Bush would lose to Bentsen.
Bush was not through with politics. Richard Nixon rewarded Bush for his efforts in Texas by naming him Ambassador to the United Nations in 1971. Two years later, Bush had an even more difficult job. He was named Chairman of the Republican National Committee as the Watergate crisis was coming to a boil. Bush, as was his nature, stayed loyal to Nixon as long as he could, but even he realized that the longer Nixon stayed in office, the worse off the Republican Party would be.
New President Gerald Ford decided to give Bush a less depressing assignment. In 1974, Ford appointed Bush as the United States Representative to China. (The two nations had not established formal diplomatic relations.) Bush had hoped to be named Ford’s Vice President (and he also had hoped that Nixon would have added him to the ticket in 1972), but that was not to be. Nelson Rockefeller was appointed to the position.
Bush worked in China for a little over a year, but was brought back to the United States to head up the Central Intelligence Agency, which was then under heavy fire after a series of Senate hearings revealed a pattern of illegal or unwarranted activities done by the agency. Bush thought this job would finish him off politically as there was too much baggage attached to it. But, Bush did not want to appear to be disloyal to the President, fearing that it would hurt his chances to run with Ford in 1976.
As it turned out, Ford chose Senator Bob Dole as his running mate in 1976, but lost anyway to Jimmy Carter. Bush offered to remain on as CIA director under Carter, but the new President chose Admiral Stansfield Turner for the job. George Bush was seemingly gone from public view.
Or was he? Bush decided to make a run at the White House in 1980. He adopted Carter’s model and announced early, in 1978. He started organizing in Iowa before the presumptive nominee, Reagan, had made much headway there. The move paid off and Bush surprised many pundits by winning in Iowa. As Bush proclaimed, he had “the Big Mo!”
However, it all fell apart quickly in the rest of the 1980 campaign. In New Hampshire, Bush got into a situation where he refused to debate all of the Republican contenders, except for Reagan. So, at a debate when the other candidates showed up (Howard Baker, John Anderson, John Connolly, Phil Crane, and Bob Dole), Bush wouldn’t speak. And when Reagan began to speak, the moderator ordered the microphones cut. Reagan then famously declared, “Mr. Green [the moderator] I paid for this microphone!”
Actually, Reagan hadn’t paid for the microphone. But, it certainly looked like he did. Bush looked meek compared to the forceful Reagan. Reagan won in New Hampshire and cruised to the nomination.
When it came time to pick a nominee for Vice President, Reagan’s first choice was going to be former President Gerald Ford. But, Ford wanted to have unprecedented latitude for someone in the job. Ultimately, both Reagan and Ford realized the idea was unworkable. So, Reagan went for the safe choice, George Bush.
However, there were a few problems. For starters, the two men weren’t close. And during the campaign, Bush had referred to Reagan’s supply side economic plan for the United State as “voodoo economics.” However, Bush showed himself quite adaptable to what the top of the ticket wanted. The 1980 election would be described as “not close.”
As Vice President, Bush quickly had a chance to show that he was up to the job. On March 30, 1981, Ronald Reagan was shot and wounded in an assassination attempt by John Hinckley. In the confusion that ensued, Secretary of State Alexander Haig declared that he was in charge. Except Haig wasn’t. Legally, Reagan was still in charge. But, it was Bush who appeared on TV screens reassuring the public. Bush also declined to use the same privileges (such as special entrances to the White House) that the President was entitled to.
As Reagan recuperated, he began to include Bush in more policy-making decisions. Reagan and Bush won reelection in 1984 in a landslide.
Toward the end of Reagan’s second term, a scandal began to brew. The complex Iran-Contra Scandal would be one of the major blemishes on Reagan’s record. The convoluted plan involved the U.S. government attempting to gain leverage with Hezbollah groups holding American hostages in Lebanon. To accomplish this, the U.S. sold missiles to Iran, through an Israeli intermediary. Then, the plan was changed to sell the arms directly to Iran, but siphon off some of the money to help fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
However, it was against the law to give money to the Contras. Nevertheless, the plan was approved. Hezbollah released some hostages, but took more to replace them. It was a bit of a mess. Only two people, National Security Adviser John Poindexter and his aide, Oliver North, were tried in court in connection with this affair. Although both men were initially convicted, their verdicts were overturned for differing reasons.
Although Bush served on the National Security Council, he somehow managed to avoid any involvement (at least that has been shown to date) in the matter. Whether or not Bush agreed with the aims of the plan is still debated.
1988 would be George Bush’s year. He was the leading candidate for the nomination to replace Reagan. However, no sitting Vice President had been elected President since Martin Van Buren in 1836. Bush’s major opponent would be Robert Dole. However, television evangelist Pat Robertson also entered the race, changing the dynamic, making the evangelical vote more important.
Dole prevailed in the Iowa caucuses, but Bush came back to win in New Hampshire. After that, it was mostly smooth sailing. On May 12, 1988, Reagan endorsed Bush for the Presidency.
Bush went to the Republican Convention needing to pick a running mate. He settled on Indiana Senator Dan Quayle. The announcement was far from smooth. Quayle was at the back of a large crowd when the announcement was made and came charging up on to the stage with a great deal of exuberance. However, Bush’s team hadn’t completely vetted Quayle. Questions about Quayle’s avoidance of military service in Vietnam and seeming lack of experience would dog the campaign until Election Day.
During his acceptance speech, Bush decided to appeal to the conservative base of the party when describing how he would handle the rapidly increasing budget deficit. He said, “Read my lips, no more taxes.” It would be a catch phrase that would haunt Bush for his whole administration.
The general election campaign against Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts was decidedly unpleasant. Dukakis, who had started with a huge lead in the polls, quickly frittered it away, mostly by being himself. That is, he was an incredibly dull candidate who managed to make Bush look charismatic.
Bush’s campaign also continued to hit at Dukakis on issues such as prisoner furloughs (the linked ad was not directly paid for by Bush’s campaign), and whether or not Massachusetts school children should be required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The televised debates involved enlightened questions such as this one.
Upon taking office, Bush inherited a major financial crisis. The savings and loan industry, which had been deregulated to some extent in the early 1980s, was facing massive amounts of failures. The S&L’s were allowed to invest in even riskier real estate dealings (they previously had been limited to financing residential property almost exclusively) and other questionable financial practices. The whole industry was on the brink of collapse, as they had to offer higher and higher interest rates to investors, while being unable to raise interest rates to lenders. It would require $161 billion from the Federal Government to clean up the situation.
The S&L bailout only made the budget deficit problem worse. Democrats and moderate Republicans hoped to put into place a package of limited tax increases along with budget cuts. But, Bush refused to go along with any new taxes because of his campaign pledge. As has been the norm in the American history, the problem was deferred to a later date.
Some issues could not be put off. Bush’s National Security Team, with Secretary of State James Baker and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, in charge wanted to thoroughly study the changes going on in the Soviet Union before making a commitment to a new policy. But, there was no time for a study. The Iron Curtain fell apart in a matter of months.
Poland’s Communist leaders legalized the Solidarity movement of Lech Walesa in February of 1989. After a brief power sharing agreement, the Communists faded away. Yugoslavia began to split apart along on ethnic lines, although this would prove to be far from a peaceful process. The Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia pulled away from the Soviet Union.
The biggest change was in Germany. East Germany, which suffered under one of the most oppressive Communist governments, collapsed in October of 1989. The Berlin Wall, the most visible symbol of Communism, came down. As the rest of the Soviet satellite states sloughed off Communism, so too did the Soviet Union. It broke apart (although some hard-liners tried one last coup for old time’s sake) into independent republics.
Bush was restrained in his initial public statements about the events in Europe. “I’m not an emotional kind of guy,” Bush would say. It seemed odd when the primary foreign policy goal of the United States, particularly Bush’s predecessor, had been met.
However, not all went smoothly in the world of foreign affairs. While Communism in Europe passed away, Communism in China persisted. Demonstrations in the streets of Beijing in May of 1989 were suppressed by the military. The death toll was in the thousands, the exact total never known. Bush sent Scowcroft to Beijing for secret talks to ask for leniency for the protesters. The United States had no leverage though and could do little but complain.
Bush ordered U.S. troops into Panama to arrest Manuel Noriega, the leader of the nation, so he could be tried in the United States for drug trafficking. Operation Just Cause ultimately restored some semblance of order in a country that was once of the strongest allies of the United States.
On August 1, 1990, the Bush Presidency faced its biggest crisis. Iraqi forces invaded and occupied the nation of Kuwait. Saddam Hussein declared that he had annexed Kuwait as part of Iraq. Suddenly, the entire Persian Gulf region was in danger from Saddam’s forces.
At first, the United States sent in forces to Saudi Arabia to help protect the oil-rich nation. This was Operation Desert Shield. Delicate diplomacy in the UN was able to expand the forces in the Gulf Region and give it a UN blessing. Congress approved a joint resolution authorizing the use of force.
On January 17, 1991, Desert Shield became Desert Storm. The Iraqi forces were quickly driven from Kuwait, and they retreated back into Iraq. Bush and his generals faced the decision on whether to continue the battle into Iraq. The decision was to stop. The belief was that a prolonged war in the Persian Gulf was something that the country was not prepared for. (Similarly, I’m not prepared to write about this at length either. Because it would take several thousand more words. And I would get depressed.)
After the success of Desert Storm, Bush soared in his approval ratings. A calamitous drop would soon follow. As Naftali puts it, Bush’s support was wide, but it was not deep. By the time of the election, Bush’s unfavorable ratings were higher than his favorable ones.
Bush’s downfall would be the economy. Despite his pledge of no new taxes, Bush was forced to approve an increase in the income tax and the capital gains tax. Unemployment went up to 7.8%. Conservative Republicans felt betrayed. They did not believe that Bush was another Reagan. Bush’s approval ratings went on a sharp decline.
During the 1992 campaign, Bush faced a primary challenge in New Hampshire from conservative political pundit Pat Buchanan. Bush won in New Hampshire; but, Buchanan picked up a surprisingly high 37% of the vote. This forced Bush to move farther to the right, a place he was not comfortable.
Further complicating matters was the addition of Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot. Perot mounted a campaign based on a balanced Federal budget and an opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Perot said he would run for President if volunteers could get his name on the ballot in all 50 states.
The Democrats were going to nominate Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. Despite admitted extramarital affairs and his avoidance of military service in Vietnam, Clinton pushed on ahead to seize the nomination easily.
The three-horse race for a while turned into a two-horse race when Perot dropped out, citing interference from the Bush campaign, even accusing Bush’s people of trying to disrupt his daughter’s wedding. Perot would rejoin the race a week later, but now was more or less branded as a flake.
The campaign between Bush and Clinton was quite a contrast. Clinton was the first Baby Boom generation candidate. He had far more charisma than the dour Dukakis of 1988. Also, Clinton was not nearly as liberal as Dukakis, making him a much more palatable choice to a good swath of the country. Bush seemed to be older and out of touch. Clinton won the election by a wide margin in the Electoral College (370-168), although Perot’s participation kept Clinton at just 43% of the popular vote.
Soon after his electoral defeat, Bush’s mother, Dorothy, died at the age of ninety-one. As Bush left office, he gave pardons to many of the principals in the Iran-Contra scandal, including Poindexter, North, and former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. George and Barbara Bush retired to Houston, where the home they hoped to have built for them after he left office in 1993 was not yet finished.
Bush went on speaking tours. One such tour in 1993 took him to Kuwait, where it turned out that the local authorities had foiled a plot by Iraqi operatives to assassinate the former president. This event would be remembered by Bush’s son, George W. Bush.
The Bush family would be heard from again. It would take just eight years.
(Insert dramatic music and pause to create “To be continued…” effect like they do on TV.)
When I was a kid in the 1970s, the 1950s were considered a cool time. “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley” dominated television. Coming out of the turbulent 1960s (a decade glamorized in much different way from the 1950s), the 1950s were a time when America was strong, although tensions with the Soviet Union were high. People were happy. Girls dressed in poodle skirts. All guys were pretty much like Fonzie. Annoying baseball historians (and I’m looking at you Ken Burns) sometimes refer to the 1950s as the best time of the sport because New York teams faced off in the World Series in five of the ten years.
The President for a good chunk of this period (1953-1961) was Dwight D. Eisenhower, the last President to make his way to the White House, almost exclusively on the basis of what he achieved on the battlefield. He was a solid, dependable leader. He was able to bring people together. He seemed like everybody’s grandfather.
However, the reality of the 1950s was that it was an incredibly divisive time. The Supreme Court case of Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas transformed the civil rights issue in such a way that it could no longer be ignored.
Additionally, the country became paranoid about a Communist takeover from within. This led to the rise of men like Senators Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon. Their career paths would take extraordinarily different paths.
The United States increasingly turned to covert activities to achieve foreign policy goals. Some would succeed in the short term, but others, such as the intervention in Iran, would affect the United States for decades to follow. There would be international crises in places like Vietnam, Hungary, and Egypt. They seemed to pop up all the time.
And, although the United States had the largest nuclear arsenal on the planet, the public grew increasingly fearful of tensions with the Soviet Union. Topping it off would be the USSR’s foray into space with Sputnik before the United States could even launch a small object into orbit.
The Dwight Eisenhower who had to deal with all of the above crises is the one that Tom Wicker, a longtime political columnist for the New York Times, writes about in his biography of the 34th President. Wicker presents a portrait of a man who wanted to lead, but didn’t want to get his hands dirty. Wicker’s Eisenhower is a much shrewder politician than people realize. But, in the end, you still aren’t sure just what Dwight Eisenhower was all about. What did he want to accomplish? What were his motivations? Why did he want to become President?
Dwight Eisenhower was born in Denison, Texas on October 14, 1890 (and if you’re reading this on Wednesday wish Ike a happy 119th birthday!) His family moved to Abilene, Kansas when he was one. Eventually, Eisenhower made his way to the United States Military Academy in 1911, graduating in 1915.
This timing proved to be fortuitous for Eisenhower. The class of 1915 at West Point would eventually include 64 graduates who became generals, including Eisenhower and Omar Bradley. In 1912, Eisenhower, while playing on the Army football team, played against Jim Thorpe and his Carlisle Indian School team. (Carlisle won the game 27-6.)
Although Eisenhower was in the Army during World War I, he didn’t serve in any combat action during the brief American involvement in that bloody conflict. Eisenhower worked his way up the ranks as a career military man. He had married his wife, Mamie Doud, in 1916. They had two sons, one of whom died at age three of scarlet fever.
In 1926, Eisenhower found himself installed as the aide to the Army’s new Chief of Staff, Douglas MacArthur. Eisenhower learned the ways of Washington working under MacArthur. He also managed to endear himself to another Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall.
When the United States entered World War II, Eisenhower quickly shot up the ranks to become chief of the War Plan Division. Then, he commanded Operation Torch in North Africa. His success there put Eisenhower in position to assume command of the Allied Forces in the D-Day Invasion of 1944. The success of that operation made Eisenhower made him the envy of politicians from both parties, who saw Eisenhower as the Presidential material. MacArthur may have garnered more headlines, but it was Eisenhower who seemed to be held in the highest esteem by politicians. (Wicker whizzes through the pre-Presidential part of Eisenhower’s life figuring that most people already know it.)
There was talk of the Democrats trying to draft Eisenhower to run for President in 1948 in place of the unpopular Harry Truman. Obviously, he didn’t take that job. Instead, he took a position as president of Columbia University in 1948. He left that job in 1950 to assume the lofty title of Supreme Allied Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
In 1952, Eisenhower realized that it was his time to become President (Wicker claims that Eisenhower first realized that he had a shot at becoming President as early as 1943). Eisenhower announced that he was a Republican, although he had worked behind the scenes to start lining up support for the nomination. Eisenhower wanted to avoid being labeled, although he would declare himself to be a “liberal Republican.”
The Republican Party nomination battle in 1952 pitted Eisenhower against Ohio Senator Robert Taft, who was called “Mr. Republican.” The Republican nomination battle would between its “old guard” which was more isolationist against Eisenhower’s more internationalist wing. In a tight battle on the convention floor, Eisenhower prevailed on the first ballot. As a political compromise, Eisenhower allowed Taft’s faction to pick his running mate. This turned out to be California Senator Richard Nixon.
Eisenhower would face Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, who had won the Democratic nomination. Although Stevenson appealed to intellectuals and even cultivated an image as “an egghead,” he had little chance against Eisenhower. The Democrats had controlled the White House since 1933. Americans wanted a change. Eisenhower trounced Stevenson, winning nearly 55% of the popular vote, along with 442 electoral votes. The Republicans also took control of both houses of Congress.
Wicker doesn’t spend a lot of time on Eisenhower’s domestic accomplishments (such as the establishment of the Interstate Highway System and the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway) with one exception: civil rights. Eisenhower, however, didn’t accomplish much in this area except to react to events.
In 1953, Eisenhower unexpectedly got a chance to appoint a justice to the Supreme Court. And it was the Chief Justice position to boot. Eisenhower decided to appoint California Governor Earl Warren to the post. Warren had been Thomas Dewey’s running mate in 1948, and Eisenhower wanted to reward Warren for his support during the nomination battle.
This turned out to be a fateful appointment. A collection of school desegregation cases were before the Supreme Court and Warren served as a recess appointee and heard the cases being reargued. (The first set of arguments were deemed insufficient for the Court to make a decision.) After the arguments, Warren was confirmed by the Senate. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in the desegregation cases. Warren, writing for a unanimous court, declared:
“We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Eisenhower was not expecting the decision to be so sweeping and he was slow to embrace it. He expressed only begrudging support for it. Eisenhower wouldn’t take any action in school desegregation until 1957 when Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus refused to follow a Federal court order desegregating Little Rock’s Central High. Faubus mobilized the Arkansas National Guard to keep the African-American students out. This proved to be provocative enough to get Eisenhower to act. He sent in the 101st Airborne to work on crowd control and Federalized the Arkansas National Guard. However, aside from these actions, Eisenhower’s actions in civil rights were few and far between. (A very weak civil rights bill was passed in 1957, in part to Democratic Senate Leader Lyndon Johnson, who worked very closely with Eisenhower.)
One of Eisenhower’s biggest domestic problem was Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, who was determined to unearth the great Communist spy network that was going to ruin America. While many of McCarthy’s targets were Communists at some point in their lives, few were spies or disloyal to the United States. (The actual spies were too clever to get caught and most weren’t revealed until after the breakup of the Soviet Union.)
Eisenhower had to pay some lip service to McCarthy and his smear tactics during the 1952 campaign, but he quickly tired of the Senator. McCarthy finally overreached when he decided to take on the Army, an institution that Eisenhower was understandably quite proud of. McCarthy blamed George Marshall for harboring Communists in the military, an accusation that rankled Eisenhower. McCarthy even suggested in a speech that Eisenhower failed to occupy Berlin before the Soviet Army did in 1945, further endangering the country.
McCarthy was given televised hearings to investigate the Army. But, Eisenhower and his aides had developed a strategy to thwart McCarthy. If McCarthy asked for any White House documents involving the Army, Eisenhower would cite “executive privilege” and claim that he could not disclose certain activities to Congress. McCarthy began to become increasingly frustrated.
The hearings went poorly for McCarthy. He began to look more like a bully picking on defenseless people than a man thwarting the Red Menace. Eventually, McCarthy was dressed down on national TV by Army lawyer Joseph Welch. McCarthy would soon be condemned in the Senate for his behavior soon after. He would pass away in 1957 from the effects of alcoholism, which was one weakness Eisenhower and his staff tried to exploit.
Eisenhower had early successes in foreign policy. He was able to negotiate an armistice in Korea in July of 1953. That armistice lasts until this day. A covert revolution sponsored by the CIA overthrew Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh and consolidated power in the Shah. This seemed like a good idea at the time as the U.S. gained a steady ally in the Middle East. But, eventually, there would be … complications.
In 1954, the French suffered a major defeat in Vietnam at the hands of Communist revolutionaries at a fortress called Dienbienphu. After the French withdrew, Vietnam was partitioned into a Communist north a non-Communist south. Elections to unify the country were scheduled for 1956. But, the elections never came to pass. Eisenhower spoke of how the U.S. had to support Vietnam because if it fell into Communist hands other parts of Asia would do so as well. This gave birth to the “Domino Theory,” which became a centerpiece of American policy in Southeast Asia until the 1970s.
The nation was shaken up in September of 1955, when news that the President had suffered a heart attack while traveling in Colorado. Vice President Nixon never formally took over the Presidency while Eisenhower recovered. Fortunately, Eisenhower made a fairly rapid recovery. However, Eisenhower’s mortality would now be a campaign issue in 1956 if he chose to run for a second term. (Eisenhower would also suffer a small stroke in November of 1957, but recovered quickly with no noticeable side effects.)
As it turned out, most Americans weren’t too worried about Eisenhower’s heart. They wanted him around to look after the troubled world situation. 1956 brought about two crises, both of which the U.S. could only act as a spectator. In Egypt, President Gamel Adbul Nassar, blocked in an attempt to get financing to build the Aswan Dam, moved to nationalize the Suez Canal. This brought about the ire of Britain and France, who didn’t trust Nasser and Egypt to operate the vital waterway.
The British and French, along with Israel, mobilized forces in Egypt. Israel attacked the Sinai Peninsula. The British and French moved forces in toward the Canal. This all happened very close to Election Day on November 5, 1956. U.N. peacekeepers would be called in to settle down the situation.
Meanwhile, in Hungary, dissatisfaction with the Soviet-backed leadership exploded in wide scale protests. Former Prime Minister Imre Nagy returned to power, and it appeared that Hungary would throw off Communism and return to some form of a multiparty democracy. Nagy said that Hungary would withdraw from the Warsaw Pact.
But, the Soviet Union would not accept this. On November 3, 1956, the Soviet Union, which now had Nikita Khrushchev in charge, sent troops into Hungary. Nagy and many members of his government were arrested and later executed. By November 10, a new regime, one sympathetic to the Soviet Union, was in place.
Eisenhower was caught unaware by the Suez Crisis and could only react to it and try to contain it the best he could. The Eisenhower Doctrine was developed which stated that any country could request economic or militar aid from the U.S. if it felt threatened. (This policy would be invoked in 1958 when American forces intervened in Lebanon.) As for Hungary, it was impossible for Eisenhower to take any action to support the Nagy regime in Hungary without triggering World War III.
Under the terms of the 22nd Amendment, Eisenhower couldn’t run for reelection. He was the first President to face this dilemma. Some thought he would be hamstrung in his ability to accomplish anything. As it turned out, Eisenhower’s problems in his second term would mostly come from events not in this world.
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union announced the successful launch of Sputnik. It was the first successful launching of an earth-orbiting satellite. It would make one orbit of the earth every 96 minutes, beeping along happily.
Eisenhower, to his credit, realized that the problem with Sputnik was a political one, not a military one. Eisenhower appointed a science advisor and established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Presidents Kennedy and Johnson would get the fame for the space program, but it was under Eisenhower that it began.
Wicker spends a fair amount of time in the book on one of the last big crises of Eisenhower’s administration. One of Eisenhower’s goals was to negotiate a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. Before Eisenhower would go to meet with Khrushchev in Paris of May of 1960, the President possibly overreached in his attempt to gather intelligence on Soviet nuclear capabilities.
The main instrument of intelligence gathering in the era before satellites was the U-2 aircraft. Eisenhower continued to order flights over Soviet airspace in the days preceding the summit. One plane, that took flight on May 1, 1960, was shot down and the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was captured in the Soviet Union. On May 5, Khrushchev announced to the world that an American pilot had been captured and that Soviet airspace had been violated. Eventually, Eisenhower had to admit that he had ordered the spy flights. The summit meeting that would start on May 14, accomplished nothing.
Wicker holds Eisenhower’s feet to the fire for this, feeling that Eisenhower wasted the best chance to negotiate a test ban treaty and greatly reduce the threat of nuclear war. Wicker believes that many of the U-2 flights that Eisenhower had ordered were needless. They were inviting disaster. And a disaster occurred.
In 1960, Eisenhower stayed on the sidelines for most of the campaign between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. Nixon did not seek out Eisenhower’s help during the campaign. Eisenhower, when asked by a reporter for a major decision that Nixon took part in, replied “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”
Eisenhower’s most famous speech as President was his Farewell Address. In it, Eisenhower warned against the creation of a permanent armaments industry as part of the American economy. He most notably came up with the phrase “the military-industrial complex” to describe the situation.
After leaving the White House, Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower retired to his home in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Aside from a speech at the 1964 Republican Convention, Eisenhower spent much of his retirement out of the public eye. On March 28, 1969, Dwight Eisenhower died in Washington, D.C. His Vice President, Richard Nixon, was now in the White House.
Wicker’s book is not one of the better efforts. The book needed some editing and several events are listed as taking place in the wrong year. You don’t get a feel of just what Dwight Eisenhower was about. What made him tick? What was his political philosophy? Why did people like him so much? There aren’t enough answers here. Just a lot of questions.
Lyndon Baines Johnson was President for just a little over five years. However, if you try to read some of the biographies that have written about him, you may feel like you need five years to get through all of them.
Robert Caro has written threevolumes of a biography on Johnson, and he hasn’t even gotten Johnson into the White House. That’s 2,555 pages just to get you through the 1950s. I read an excerpt from the third volume once on a flight home from New York to L.A. I don’t even think I had enough time to finish. Or, quite possibly, there was a good in-flight movie.
Robert Dallek managed to fit Johnson’s life into twovolumes. Dallek’s works stretch for 1,456 pages.
Randall Bennett Woods opted to go the one volume route. That book is just a little over 1,000 pages long.
Johnson’s own memoirs (ghost written by a young Doris Kearns, who had not yet married former Johnson aide Richard Goodwin) for the time of his Presidency are a piddling 636 pages.
My choice for finding an LBJ (the man loved those initials) biography involved the following criteria:
Was the book more or less objective?
Was the book about all of Johnson’s life?
Would I experience severe and/or potentially disabling back pain while carrying it around?
The book LBJ: A Life by Irwin and Debi Unger passed all three tests, especially the important third test. This book runs for just 586 pages. It covers Johnson from his birth to his death. Although it’s somewhat sympathetic to Johnson, it’s not a hagiography. Still, you get the feeling that there is so much more that can be said about one of the most potent forces in 20th Century American politics.
Lyndon Baines Johnson was born on August 27, 1908 in a city his ancestors founded in the Texas Hill Country. As people with great imagination, they called the town “Johnson City.” Lyndon’s father was Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr., a member of the Texas State Legislature. His mother was named Rebekah Baines, which provided him with his middle name.
Young Lyndon did well in the Johnson City schools, but didn’t wish to go to college at first. He ran away from home, and found work in places like San Bernardino, California. He hoped that a family friend would be able to get him to pass the bar in Nevada, which had rather low standards in the 1920s. But, Lyndon Johnson ended up back in Johnson City when that plan failed.
Reluctantly, Johnson enrolled at Southwest Texas State Teachers College (now called Texas State University) in San Marcos, Texas. While it wasn’t nearly as prestigious as the nearby University of Texas, it was a school that Johnson’s parents could afford. And, even with its lower admission standards, Johnson still needed a full year of preparatory classes.
In college, Johnson would first demonstrate one of his ways of getting ahead. He would find an older authority figure (in this case, the university president), befriend him, and then use those connections for personal advancement.
Johnson graduated from college in 1930. He had been deeply involved in campus politics. But before he could make politics his career, he needed to get a job first to establish himself in the community. So, he worked as a high school history teacher in Houston. From this position, he parlayed that connection into a job in Washington as a secretary for a Texas House member named Richard Kleberg.
After making himself indispensable to Kleberg (who wasn’t very interested in doing much work), Johnson got himself appointed to be the head of the National Youth Administration work program in Texas. The NYA was a Roosevelt New Deal program that employed thousands of college age men and women in a variety of public works projects. Along the way, he met a woman named Claudia Taylor. Everybody called her “Lady Bird,” a nickname she picked up at birth.
Johnson was attracted to Lady Bird for a variety of reasons. She had access to money. She understood politics. She was intelligent, a University of Texas graduate. She would improve his station in life. The two were married in 1934. She would always be called be Lady Bird Johnson from then on, so she could have the same initials as her husband. They would have two daughters, Lynda Byrd and Luci Baines.
In 1937, Representative James P. Buchanan (no relation to the former childless President) passed away. This left an opening for Johnson to run for a House seat back in his home district in the Hill Country. Johnson won the special election and became the youngest member of Congress at the time, just 27 years old.
Johnson caught the attention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was looking for more sympathetic members of Congress from the South. Some New Deal programs were starting to face opposition from conservative Southern Democrats. Roosevelt took Johnson under his wing, helping out with projects back in his district. Johnson, in turn, became one of Roosevelt’s staunchest supporters in Congress. Johnson also became friends with Sam Rayburn, who would soon become Speaker of the House. Both Roosevelt and Rayburn took something of a paternal interest in the young Texas representative.
In 1941, Johnson decided to run in a special election to fill a Senate seat left vacant by the death of Morris Shepard. Governor W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel appointed Andrew Houston, an 87-year old descendant of Sam Houston, to hold on to the seat until an election could be held. Johnson assumed O’Daniel himself wouldn’t run for the seat, but that was not the case. Johnson seemed to have won the election when the polls closed. However, O’Daniel had enough connections throughout the state to get enough counties to change their vote totals just enough to push him over the top. Lieutenant Governor Coke Stevenson, who wanted to move up to the Governor’s office, massaged the vote totals. O’Daniel would win by about 1300 votes.
Since it was a special election, Johnson held on to his House seat. When World War II began, Johnson temporarily left his office in the hands of Lady Bird while he served in the Navy. (Johnson was a member of the Naval Reserve and had served on the Naval Affairs Committee.) Johnson spent most of his time on the West Coast, but was sent out in 1942 to do some observation in Australia, where he was invited on a bombing run. One of the two planes sent up was shot down and Johnson’s plane was damaged, but landed safely. General Douglas MacArthur awarded Johnson a Silver Star for his efforts. Roosevelt ordered all members of Congress in the Armed Forces back to Washington soon after.
By 1948, Johnson felt it was time to make another go at the Senate. He knew he couldn’t wait around in the House to move up the ladder. O’Daniel wasn’t going to run for reelection as he turned about to be something of a joke. Johnson would face off against the incumbent governor, Coke Stevenson. (Coke was his given name. Texas politicians had very cool names at this time. There was also a governor named Beaufort Jester around this time. ) This election would be epic. Caro and Dallek both devote hundreds of pages each to the event. I will try to be more brief because you have likely already stopped twice while reading this to go to the bathroom.
The election was a battle between the conservative establishment of Texas in Stevenson and a more progressive style favored by Johnson.
Johnson toured the state by helicopter, a novel method at the time. His face was omnipresent. At the same time, Johnson was suffering from a painful attack of kidney stones. Somehow, Johnson was able to work through the pain for most of the campaign. Eventually, he would go to the Mayo Clinic for the still experimental treatment of having the stones removed with a cytoscope. This was actually the second method tried. The first was to drive Johnson over a lot of bumpy roads with the aim of dislodging the stones. In the end, Johnson missed two weeks of the campaign, although the normal recovery time during that time for kidney stone surgery was six weeks.
In the primary, no candidate got a majority, although Stevenson led. There would be a runoff between Stevenson and Johnson one month later on Saturday, August 28, 1948. The race was extraordinarily close. On August 30, Stevenson led by 119 votes. On September 2, the lead moved up to 351. But, Johnson, remembering his defeat to O’Daniel in 1941, knew what needed to be done. The counties close to the Mexican border reported their votes last. And Johnson controlled (i.e., bought off) those counties. When they reported, Johnson ended up winning by 87 votes. And so was born “Landslide Lyndon.” (By comparison, Al Franken won his Senate seat in Minnesota by 312 votes over Norm Coleman.)
Johnson quickly worked his way up the ladder in the Senate. He befriended Georgia Senator Richard Russell, who had no family (similar to Rayburn), and learned from him. Russell would prove to be far more conservative than Johnson on civil rights issues, but the two men remained friends until the late 1960s.
After just two years in the Senate, Johnson was voted Minority Whip. And in 1952, when Democratic Senate Leader Ernest McFarland was defeated for reelection in Arizona by Barry Goldwater, Johnson was chosen as Senate Minority Leader.
Johnson developed a reputation as a forceful leader who was able to work well with Republican President Dwight Eisenhower. In 1955, the Democrats regained control of the Senate and Johnson became Majority Leader at the age of 46.
Many historians consider Johnson to be the most effective Majority Leader in the Senate’s history (the position didn’t exist until the 1930s). The Majority Leader sets the agenda for the Senate and has great control over its actions. Johnson strongly believed that Congress should get things done. He did not wish to obstruct the Eisenhower Administration, although he did always keep an eye out for the interests of the Democratic Party.
Johnson was an adept vote counter and master of persuasion. He developed a way of speaking to people known as “the treatment.” He would get very close to a person and speak directly to their face. He was not afraid to touch other Senators or lean into them. The linked illustration shows Johnson giving “the treatment” to Rhode Island Senator Theodore Green in 1957. Green was 90 years old at the time.
After his first session as Majority Leader, Johnson had worked himself so hard, he ended up suffering a heart attack. He rested for the second half of 1955, but made a triumphant return to the Senate in 1956. In 1957, he was able to push through the first major civil rights bill through Congress since Reconstruction. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was far from revolutionary, it served notice to Northern politicians that Johnson was not a typical Southern segregationist. Southerners looked at Johnson’s actions in the Senate as an act of betrayal.
Johnson was constantly driven to seek higher office in part because he feared dying young, like his grandfather and father. So, in 1960, Johnson made a bid for the Presidency. However, Johnson, the master politician, didn’t understand that Presidential nominees weren’t going to be chosen exclusively in backroom deals as they had before. Johnson’s younger Senate colleague, John Kennedy, ran in primaries and used his success in them to make himself a viable national candidate. It also had the effect of eliminating the competition, in particular Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey.
When the Democratic Convention convened in Los Angeles in 1960, Johnson still thought he had enough delegates that he could win nomination on a second or third ballot. But, Kennedy’s forces were better organized and outmaneuvered Johnson to get the nomination for the young Bostonian on the first ballot.
Then, for reasons that are still debated, Kennedy offered Johnson the Vice Presidential slot on the ticket. Did Kennedy offer Johnson the spot figuring that he’d be turned down anyway? Did Kennedy think that Johnson would help him with Southern voters? Nobody seems to know for certain. But, Johnson accepted the spot, and became Vice President on January 20, 1961.
Johnson hated the Vice Presidency. He found out that there was little to do. He wanted to serve as the head of the Democratic Senate Caucus, but was told by his old colleagues that such an arrangement could not work. Even worse, Johnson felt marginalized and belittled by the Easterners in the Kennedy Administration.
John Kennedy was a Harvard-educated Bostonian with a glamorous wife who went to school in France. Johnson felt like Kennedy’s advisers treated him like a country bumpkin. The greatest amount of animus was between Johnson and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who had angered each other during the Los Angeles Convention. The two men, both with short tempers and huge egos, never saw eye to eye. (And that’s putting it politely.)
Everything changed on November 22, 1963. John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Prior to the trip, Johnson was hoping that Kennedy would take him off the ticket in 1964. Now, he was President.
After the initial mourning period for Kennedy, Johnson set to work to implement some of Kennedy’s policies, most importantly a civil rights bill. Johnson wanted Kennedy’s Civil Rights Bill to be adopted in part as a memorial to the slain President.
Johnson used his Senate connections to avoid a Southern filibuster. Most importantly, Johnson got Republican Senate Leader Everett Dirksen to back the bill. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination in any public facility, in employment, and in government. Although the Act still had many loopholes and would be toughened up throughout the years (including today), it was a landmark bill nonetheless. Johnson’s biggest fear about the Civil Rights Act was that it would be eventually turn Southern whites from reliably Democratic to reliably Republican voters.
However, Johnson knew that to be elected President in his own right in 1964, he would need to have accomplishments of his own. Johnson was both realistic, in that he knew that it was impossible to ride into office on the memory of John Kennedy, and proud, in that he wanted to show the Kennedy people that he could do more than their leader.
Johnson’s bold legislative plan was announced on May 22, 1964 in a commencement address at the University of Michigan. In that speech, Johnson said:
We are going to assemble the best thought and broadest knowledge from all over the world to find these answers. I intend to establish working groups to prepare a series of conferences and meetings—on the cities, on natural beauty, on the quality of education, and on other emerging challenges. From these studies, we will begin to set our course toward the Great Society
The Great Society was supposed to be Johnson’s legacy to the United States. There would be hundreds of government programs established in the fields of education, welfare, conservation, agriculture, and, most importantly, health care.
But, the Great Society had a counterpart when it came to government spending: the Vietnam War.
On August 2, 1964, a Navy destroyer, the U.S.S. Maddox, was fired upon by North Vietnamese forces in the Gulf of Tonkin. (A second attack on a different ship supposedly took place, but that has been denied by the Vietnamese.) Johnson knew that in an election year, he could not allow an attack on an American vessel go without retaliation. So, Johnson asked Congress to give him the authority to use force to assist any member of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, i.e. South Vietnam.
Congress passed a joint resolution giving Johnson the authority to send more troops to Vietnam with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. There were only two dissenting votes.
Johnson ordered the bombing of several North Vietnamese supply sites. This then developed into a larger bombing campaign. And then more soldiers were added on the ground. And so on.
Back at home, Johnson faced conservative Republican Senator Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election. Goldwater had emerged from an unusually contentious campaign. The 1964 Republican Convention in San Francisco would see Goldwater’s supporters boo New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Goldwater took a very hawkish position on the war in Vietnam and facing off against the Soviet Union overall. Goldwater’s most controversial position was advocating giving field commanders the authority to use nuclear weapons, albeit low-level ones.
Nevertheless, Johnson jumped on this suggestion to paint Goldwater as a dangerous man hell-bent on sending the world into nuclear annihilation. This led to one of the most infamous political ads in television history, the “Daisy Girl Ad.” The ad ran only once. But it did its job.
With overwhelming Democratic majorities behind him, Johnson started to enact a dizzying array of proposals. The most durable legacy of this time period was Medicare, the first time the Federal government was providing health insurance to civilians on a wide scale basis. Health insurance had been backed by both Roosevelt and Truman, but it took Johnson to push it through.
Johnson also had the Voting Rights Act passed in August of 1965. This measure removed many barriers to registration for African-Americans throughout the country. It was one of Johnson’s proudest moments. And, a few days after it passed, the Watts district of Los Angeles exploded in racial violence.
The racial violence that would mark Johnson’s term in office from 1965 to 1969 deeply disturbed Johnson. But, it wasn’t because Johnson felt that there was more work to be done in the area of civil rights and poverty. Rather, Johnson felt that African American voters were not suitably grateful for all the hard work Johnson had done for him. Johnson seemingly always a politician who saw every issue in terms of trading off favors to different sides so something could be done.
Despite all of Johnson’s social programs, his term in office is remembered primarily for the Vietnam War. Johnson was fearful of being the first U.S. President to lose a war. (James Madison seemingly gets credit for a tie.) Johnson kept seeing parallels in Vietnam to World War II. The “Domino Theory” was an accepted way of thinking in the Johnson Administration. If Vietnam fell to Communist forces, the rest of Southeast Asia would follow. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a holdover from Kennedy’s Cabinet, tried to figure out some way for the U.S. to “win” while fighting a “limited” war. But, a solution was nowhere to be found.
According to the Ungers, the situation in Vietnam sent Johnson into deep depressions after dealing with it. As much joy that Johnson received from his Great Society programs, Johnson felt a corresponding amount of pain over Vietnam. The Ungers even go as far to assert (without much documentation) that Johnson suffered from a very mild form of bipolar disorder. Johnson was also reported to have made aides stand beside open bathroom doors while he defecated as he gave dictation. He also was reported to deliberately stand up at seemingly random times in meetings to force political opponents to stand up and sit down repeatedly in an effort to annoy them.
Whatever was troubling Johnson, many of his aides sensed that Johnson was mentally unstable. Richard Goodwin and George Ball were advisers who left the Administration feeling that Johnson’s mood swings were too difficult to deal with. Johnson would describe people like Goodwin and Ball as disloyal.
Protests over the Vietnam War became larger and more widespread after 1965. Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas held public hearings to examine the conduct of the war. The American effort in Vietnam appeared to accomplish little.
Early in 1968, there was a cease fire in the war to observe the lunar new year in Vietnam, a period called Tet. During the cease fire, the North Vietnamese unleashed a major offensive, catching much of the South Vietnamese forces unprepared. However, American forces managed to repel most of the North Vietnamese forces.
Although the Tet Offensive may not have been a military success for the North, it proved to be an enormous psychological victory. The war in Vietnam appeared to be headed toward a long and bloody stalemate. Walter Cronkite, in an editorial on his CBS newscast, declared the war to be “unwinnable.”
Johnson was going to run for reelection in 1968, but antiwar Democrats had already found a candidate to run against Johnson. Their first choice would have been Robert Kennedy, now a New York Senator after leaving his post as Attorney General in 1965, but he declined, feeling that Johnson was unbeatable. Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy decided to take on Johnson.
In the New Hampshire primary on March 12, 1968, Johnson was a write-in candidate (which was not unusual at the time) against McCarthy. Johnson won by a 49-42 margin, a surprisingly small margin for an incumbent President. The results were interpreted as a condemnation of Johnson’s Vietnam policies, although some historians think that much of the anti-Johnson vote came from people who felt that Johnson was too weak in his approach to Vietnam.
In a speech on March 31, 1968, Johnson announced a pause in the bombing of North Vietnam in the hopes of starting peace negotiations. At the end of the speech, Johnson said, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”
The rest of Johnson’s administration would be marked by tragedy. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4. Robert Kennedy would be killed on June 6. The Democratic Convention, which nominated Johnson’s Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, would be marked by violence.
Johnson didn’t think that Humphrey would make a good President. He hoped that Nelson Rockefeller would get the GOP nomination. But, Richard Nixon would be the Republican candidate.
Reluctantly, Johnson backed Humphrey, although he felt betrayed when Humphrey announced a peace plan in a speech on September 30, 1968. (Johnson felt betrayed a lot.) Johnson sincerely believed that his efforts in Vietnam were in the country’s best interests.
Nixon would narrowly defeat Humphrey in the 1968 election. Johnson would retire to his ranch in Texas, where he worked on his memoirs and tried to repair his legacy.
His retirement was not long. He suffered a second heart attack in 1972 that left his heart beyond repair. He passed away on January 22, 1973. He was 64 years old. It was the same age that a team of actuaries told him his life expectancy would be when he was weighing a run for a second term in 1968.
And with all of my ramblings here, I think I only covered the tiniest fraction of the life of Lyndon Johnson. And with all that has been written about him, there are so many places to turn to find information on this most complex man. Lyndon Johnson’s life was full of contradictions. It seemed that for every step forward, he took a step or two backward. He definitely got things done, but the question is: did he do the right things?