Getting liberal legislation passed into law was LBJ's benchmark of effective leadership. He knew how to do it. The most successful at this of any president ever, he followed every detail of legislation and demanded that his aides not simply think they had the support of a representative in Congress but know they had it! "You've got to know you've got him, and there's only one way you know'...Johnson looked into his open hand and closed his fingers into a fist. 'And that's when you've got his pecker right here.' The president opened his desk drawer, acted as if he were dropping something, emphatically slammed the drawer shut, and smiled" (p. 88). Meanwhile, Congress complained it was "bullied, badgered, and brainwashed" (p. 91) by President Johnson's strong-arm Texan tactics.
Schulman (1995) argues that Johnson's liberalism changed national social policy "profoundly" and "permanently altered the nation's political landscape" (p. 121). The Great Society might have come into fruition, and fulfilled all the liberal dreams of economic security and equality, if it hadn't been for the war in Vietnam. The war ate up the money for social programs and hogged all of the president's attention. A cartoon (p. 128) shows a beleaguered Johnson, in a suit that is too big and not looking Texan at all, caught between a huge, whorish looking woman (the Vietnam war) and a thin, orphan-like waif of a woman (labeled U.S. urban needs).
Because of the war and racial strife (riots, etc.) belief in liberalism and established institutions as the way to make society better began to fade among the voters as well as faith in him as president. "He knew that the war was dividing the nation, dominating his schedule, compromising his great plans, and killing his presidency.... His hopes for a liberal reconstruction of America, for a Great Society, for a record of achievement exceeding all other presidents, [rotted] in the jungles of Southeast Asia" (p. 123). Lady Bird Johnson perhaps explained the problem best when she commented that foreign relations problems "do not represent Lyndon's kind of Presidency" (p. 125). His kind of presidency focused on domestic issues and social programs.
He was caught, however, in the mindset of the cold war. Schulman (1995) argues that Johnson held on to outdated cold war ideas as "an uncritical adherent of liberal anticommunism" (p. 126) believing that the U.S. had a duty to defend countries around the world from communist encroachment. Moreover, LBJ's communication style and talent for getting his way in Congress was ill-suited to foreign relations. He was "out of his element" and lacked the intimate knowledge of his opponents that he always had had in Congress. Instead of reliance on his political instincts, he had to rely on "experts" in foreign policy. He couldn't get together with foreign leaders face-to-face and work his persuasive magic on them. He sometimes bungled and misjudged his adversaries. In a sense, his Texas style of communication became a liability to him because he couldn't adjust. Caught in the middle between hawks and doves, he tried to create a consensus (as he always had in the past) but there was no consensus on the war.
Criticized on both sides, Johnson needed to win over the press and the people; and this, above all, LBJ was ill-prepared to achieve. Television had become the nation's primary news medium and LBJ, never a brilliant public speaker, looked terrible on the tube -- his wordy, folksy style looked forced, phony (p. 145).
Worse, the public started to see him as a liar. Califano said his "fixation with keeping options open on any new policy venture until he had every political stone turned and set in place was, in good part, why he was such an effective legislator. [but] the misleading body language played badly with the press corps and the public..." (p. 146).
Schulman argues that LBJ could not withdraw from Vietnam because "it would have meant a major defeat for the free world, disgracing Johnson's presidency..." Perhaps, then, the war represents the psychological space where Johnson's liberal politics met and mingled with Johnson the Texan -- the big man who faces insurmountable odds and never gives up. When the two converged, his leadership became ineffective and his…