He began his administration with John F. Kennedy as a model and nowcompares himself to Theodore Roosevelt, a president who made a greatmark on the White House and the country, though there was no warduring his administration. However, it is a president Clinton almost never mentions whom heresembles most closely – Lyndon B. Johnson. The men and theiradministrations have much in common. Their domestic agendas andfailings, even their backgrounds, are surprisingly similar.
Both men grew up in small Southern towns in relatively deprivedcircumstances, with an appreciation for the suffering of thedisadvantaged. But the Clinton-Johnson connection is most evident in theirpersonalities. Johnson was, and Clinton is, the product of largeappetites for recognition and fame through politics. Like Johnson,Clinton’s vocation has always been using public affairs to make apersonal mark that would echo through history.
Johnson was an especially grandiose character. “I understand youwere born in a log cabin,” German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard toldJohnson. “No, no!” Johnson replied. “You have me confused with AbeLincoln. I was born in a manger.” Clinton is not quite as grandiose. But he is intenselypreoccupied with his likely historical standing. A poll ofhistorians in late 1996 that ranked him as a below-average presidentsent him into a snit. He still obsesses about his place in history,expressing hopes that he will ultimately be seen as at least anear-great leader.
A need for public affection has echoed through the careers ofboth men. Johnson couldn’t stand to be criticized. Every negativecomment was a deep wound because he wanted everyone to love him. Hesaw his War on Poverty and Great Society programs as almost personalgifts to the country, for which he expected unqualified praise. Theinner-city riots of 1965-68 were thus regarded as an expression ofingratitude. Johnson’s rage toward liberals who opposed him over theVietnam War was palpable. “What’s the difference between cannibalsand liberals?” he asked some of them. “Cannibals don’t eat theirfriends.” Like Johnson, critics, especially in the media, enrage Clinton.
Clinton seems to despise the journalists who beat on himunmercifully, as he sees it, over everything from Whitewater toPaula Corbin Jones and the alleged campaign-finance scandal. Hecannot understand why a president so intent on righting historicwrongs and meeting current challenges should constantly have todefend himself against attacks on his character. Never mind thatevery president has been fair game for his critics. To Clinton, likeJohnson, negative assessments, political or otherwise, areexperienced as personal assaults.
Clinton, the acknowledged womanizer, cannot separate himselffrom Johnson as a sort of political primitive. When told aboutKennedy’s conquests, Johnson would shout: “Why, I had more women byaccident than he ever had by design.” Despite a sea change in public mood from Johnson’s times to now,Clinton is in sync with Johnson’s views on racial and other domesticissues.
Both men emerged from racist societies as champions of equalrights. Johnson was never more passionate about political and socialchange than when he fought for the civil-rights and voting-rightsreforms of 1964 and 1965. Or when he urged affirmative action as ameans of overcoming a long national history of discrimination anddeprivation. At a Johnson Library symposium, just weeks before hisdeath, he declared advances toward equal rights for blacks hisgreatest political achievement. Thirty years later, few woulddisagree.
Clinton’s transparent commitment to racial equality is reflectedin his insistence on “one America,” and his creation of thecommission led by historian John Hope Franklin to seek solutions toenduring racial divisions.
Johnson’s groundbreaking laws providing federal aid to primary,secondary and higher education are echoed in Clinton’s interest inbroadening education opportunities at every level. Clinton’s failedattempt at national health-care reform and recent triumph inextending health insurance to millions of children are legacies ofJohnson’s pioneering Medicare and Medicaid laws.
The Clinton-Gore interest in environmental protection is anextension of Johnson’s efforts on behalf of clean air and cleanwater and the conservation of the country’s natural resources. Clinton’s battles to preserve the national endowments for the artsand the humanities underscore his commitment to some of Johnson’smost cherished cultural reforms.
Though the GOP congressional majorities and ananti-tax-and-spend mood reflected in diminished regard for federalauthority and regulation inhibit Clinton’s affinity for socialengineering, there seems little question that another period ofliberal activism such as Johnson enjoyed in the 1960s would havemade Clinton’s presidency a more obvious imitation of Johnson’sGreat Society.
There is an even more direct line of political continuitybetween Johnson and Clinton than the current White House seemsinclined to acknowledge. Johnson’s presidency combined with earlierNew Deal programs and national defense spending to bring the Southand the West into the mainstream of the country’s economic andpolitical life. As such, it opened the way to the South’s renewedinfluence on national political life and, more specifically, toopportunities for Southerners to win the White House. Since Johnsonleft office in 1969, three of the next six presidents – JimmyCarter, George Bush and now Clinton – have been from the South.
The end of segregation and the transformation of the South fromeconomic basket case to a region of substantial opportunity openedthe way to national political participation by Southernerscomparable to the earliest years of our history. No presidentcontributed more to this transformation than Johnson. Clinton’spresence in the Oval Office is a direct legacy.
LBJ and Clinton bear a resemblance on foreign affairs as well. Johnson saw overseas issues as a distraction from his first love -domestic reform. “Foreigners are not like folks I’m used to,” hesaid half jokingly. He wished the outside world, especially Vietnam,which caused him so much grief and ultimately ruined his presidency,would have gone away.
Clinton, likewise, is at sixes and sevens over foreign affairs. Nothing as disastrous as Vietnam has intruded on his administration,but sorting out the problems of Bosnia, the expansion of the NorthAtlantic Treaty Organization to Eastern Europe, Palestinianrelations with Israel, and U.S. dealings with China have been more afrustration than a source of satisfaction to Clinton. Like Johnson,Clinton is primarily a domestic leader, with a surer feel for theneeds and concerns of his fellow citizens than the confusions anddifficulties abroad.
As he heads into the last three years of his term, Clinton mightdo well to imitate Johnson’s affinity for grand designs. UnlikeJohnson, Clinton, in this period of diminished expectations, hasenunciated no large, coherent purpose such as the Great Society. hough he has plenty of ideas and periodically announces governmentinitiatives that will carry us into the 21st century, hispronouncements do not add up to a broad program of change. Instead of focusing on his place in history, Clinton should sortout what he wants to do with his last years in office and, likeJohnson, his unhailed mentor, mount a crusade that strives tofulfill the promise of American life.