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LBJ: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Recently people in the media have marked the fiftieth anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty. That is what is remembered, by them.

Most people in the mainstream media are Democrats, of a sort. They tend to forget about Johnson’s role in Vietnam, though not always. They really have forgotten about how controversial the LBJ presidency was, for reasons other than Vietnam, too.

For example, the Bobby Baker affair. LBJ was accused of soliciting and accepting a bribe from an insurance agent through his longtime protege, Baker. Johnson has also been accused of opening USPS mail related to an investigation of his role in the Bobby Baker affair, according to Victor Lasky in It Didn’t Start With Watergate. In the end, of course, Johnson didn’t seek reelection in 1968, preferring to hand off the baton to Hubert Humphrey.

It’s also well accepted that LBJ did wiretapping activities that were not proper. In his book on Richard Nixon, Herbert Parmet writes that LBJ was

hardly a stranger to wiretaps and FBI surveillance. In 1964, he had sent agents to bug dissident black Democrats from Mississippi at his party’s convention in Atlantic City. During that year’s campaign, FBI information on Barry Goldwater flowed to the White House. After a Johnson aide, Walter Jenkins, was forced to resign as the result of a homosexual encounter in a [public] bathroom, the Bureau’s resources were strained to keep up the president’s requests for all it could learn about prospective appointees. The director, J. Edgar Hoover, entertained the president by letting him in on the dalliances of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Altogether , an enormous pile of raw FBI data swamped the White House.

Once alerted about efforts to kill the [Paris] peace talks, Johnson ordered telephone taps at the South vietnamese embassy and on [Anna] Chennault’s line, and surveillance of the Nixon campaign. — Richard Nixon and His America, Pg. 520.

But if Johnson had the goods on Nixon the candidate’s interference in the talks to end the Vietnam war, he couldn’t reveal them, because to do so would have revealed his own very questionable surveillance activities.

In the popular media LBJ is usually seen as a good man, the anti-poverty warrior who signed civil rights legislation and Medicare legislation. He deserves some credit for these things, of course. But it’s important to remember not only the pretty things about Democrats — and Republicans — but also the things that aren’t pretty.

In fact, LBJ was insecure about his career. In a recent film on PBS, this was acknowledged, but it was supposed to be a result purely of the JFK assassination. But that isn’t the case. Johnson was also insecure because his career in the U.S. Senate was very probably the result of a stuffed ballot box in Texas. LBJ seems to have felt guilty about his foibles and failings and the things he did that were wrong, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a bad person, at least some of the time.

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