I HAD GREAT plans for this afternoon to do productive things. Instead, I’ve spent most of the afternoon listening to/watching old political speeches on YouTube.
I started with Hubert Humphrey’s civil rights speech to the 1948 Democratic Convention and ended with LBJ’s speech to Congress in March 1965, in which he prodded both houses to do the right thing by passing his voting rights legislation. (You can read the transcript here.)
I had convinced myself that the era of great speeches is long gone until I remembered some of President Barack Obama’s speeches, particularly the one he delivered after the church shootings in Charlestown.
I cried as I listened to those three speeches and I don’t know whether the tears were from the beauty of powerful people using their voices to bring hope to people or from a sense of loss, from a realization that those days of great speeches by great persons are long gone, that we must now settle for the weasely words of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Dan Patrick, little people with little brains and little hearts.
You have probably guessed by now that I’ve been reading Robert Caro’s LBJ books (I’m actually listening to them). For all his faults – and he had many – Lyndon Baines Johnson was a giant of an American and remains one of the country’s greatest presidents, despite his record on Vietnam.
Caro’s books are about Johnson’s quest for power. He was shameless and ruthless in this quest, and too often cruel and vicious. Caro describes in great detail the chilling details about how LBJ unabashedly used McCarthy tactics to defeat Truman’s nomination of Leland Olds, the chairman of the Federal Power Commission, for a third term.
Johnson and Olds shared many of the New Deal views, particularly those having to do with making electrical power to poor and rural Americans. Yet LBJ was willing to crucify him to prove himself loyal to the Texas oilmen whose money he would need to fuel his path to power.
Johnson was also a selfish, vain and pride-filled sadistic egotist who often treated his family and his staff, and his allies, like dirt. He was an ugly chauvinist, crude and rude. None of those personal quirks can be excused.
His pursuit of power, and what he did to amass it, however, can at least be, if not excused, then understood – if you are willing to look at the entire panorama of his life, particularly that period that formed his sense of what is right and what politics and government (a great society) can and should do for people, from his childhood in the Hill Country to his two years as a teacher in a Mexican-American school in Cotulla.
“Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face fo a young child,” Johnson told Congress that evening, speaking of his students in Cotulla.
LBJ wanted to be president. He thought he was qualified to be in the Oval Office and he also believed that only as president could he bring about the kind of changes he knew could bring hope to the nation’s poor. People like those he grew up with. People like the poor Mexican kids he taught in Cotulla.
Johnson was also in a hurry. He was convinced that, like most men in the Johnson family, he was doomed to an early death. He wanted to have enough time in the White House to make his dream of a better life for Americans a reality, and he could not afford to wait around for the nation to come to him to beg him to be president. (He also believed it would be next to impossible for a Texan to be elected to hold the nation’s highest office, so he couldn’t be just another Texas politician.)
COMPARE THAT TO the Current Occupant of the White House (to be referred to as COWH on this site from now on). COWH shares many of the same traits as LBJ: ruthless, cruel, rude, chauvinist, etc. Like LBJ, COWH is using his position to enrich himself and his family.
But that is where the similarities end. LBJ wanted to be president to do good. He put the full force of his White House behind the voting rights bill even though he knew it meant he would lose the South if he were to run again. COWH wanted to be president to avenge himself, to prove wrong all those who ridiculed the idea of him in the White House.
LBJ was a student of history and government and politics. He knew how government works better than anyone else. He knew the Constitution. COWH knows cowshit about government and is proud of it.
LBJ surrounded himself with bright, hard-working men who were loyal to him. COWH surrounds himself with ignorant sycophants who can’t wait to leak every last detail about their boss and to undercut their colleagues.
And, finally, Lyndon Johnson may not have been the greatest public speaker in the world, but he knew what a good speech was and what it could accomplish, and he knew how to get the right people to pen the right speech for every occasion. He knew the power of public words and chose to use them to uplift us, not insult and divide us.
And COWH? All I can say is, “SAD!”