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Tangles of Pathologies

Think 1968 was the year that changed America? That's three years too late, according to James T. Patterson.

By From the April 2013 issue

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The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America
By James T. Patterson
(Basic Books, 210 pages, $28.99)

IF YOU'VE FOLLOWED the dreary progress of Lyndon Johnson as Robert Caro drags him from volume to volume, you’re probably heartily sick of hearing his story. You know what a terrible hash he made of the presidency handed to him by a man whose tenure was cut short before he could complete making the hash on his own. And finish it he did, big-time, although not in the way intended.

James T. Patterson, Ford Foundation professor of history emeritus at Brown University and winner of the Bancroft Prize, a livelier and more elegant writer than Caro, sets out in crisp, clean prose to tell us again how LBJ pulled it off—how he and his advisers, holdovers from the previous administration, who, as Patterson diplomatically puts it, “did not always serve Johnson well,” took the brushfire war he inherited from his predecessor, fanned it into an inferno, then dumped it, blazing, into his successor’s lap, complete with violent demonstrations on our nation’s campuses and riots in its cities.

Along the way, mixing guns with butter into an explosive and indigestible economic stew, LBJ managed to blow the economy out of the water and, despite having driven a great undifferentiated mass of civil rights legislation through Congress, was rewarded with race riots and setbacks in race relations from which the country has never recovered.

Professor Patterson, who once numbered Bob Tyrrell among his students at Indiana University, is an old-school liberal, comfortable in his assumptions, but in Tyrrell’s experience, unfailingly polite when offered views opposed to the doctrines of the then-prevailing liberal hegemony—views we can be sure that Tyrrell offered.

 In The Eve of Destruction, Patterson doesn’t grind ideological axes. But as a liberal academic, he does have what might seem to non-liberals certain blind spots. He apparently sees the great Johnson landslide of 1964 as a manifestation of the country’s overwhelming preference for liberal programs and policies. But in fact, Goldwater, as the personification of growing conservative sentiment, was showing well in polls when matched against John Kennedy, the personification of liberalism. However, with the assassination, the heart went out of the campaign, and a contest that had been shaping up as a close one became no contest at all. Barry Goldwater ended by running against a ghost, and LBJ, never the personification of anything other than power and pork-barrel politics, was the recipient of the votes of a nation in mourning.

As for Vietnam, in discussing its antecedents, Professor Patterson rightly places much of the responsibility for blundering into it squarely with the “best and brightest” of the Kennedy advisers, who also failed to provide LBJ with any workable plan or strategy for bringing the war to a close beyond mindless escalation. But while Patterson looks back to repeat President Eisenhower’s warning about the “military-industrial complex,” as good liberals tend to do, he doesn’t mention Ike’s equally stern warning against getting involved in Vietnam at all—and in fact, in 1954, with troops ready to deploy, Ike vetoed the idea of sending American troops to Indochina.

Nor does Patterson mention that during those LBJ years, Richard Nixon, with the approval of Eisenhower, was working on a strategic plan for ending our involvement in the war while leaving South Vietnam a sovereign nation—a plan which he later successfully put into effect, representing a major accomplishment in his efforts to clean up the mess bequeathed to him by LBJ.

But this isn’t about the book that Professor Patterson didn’t write. He quite obviously deeply regrets the turn our country and politics took in the 1960s, and identifies the pivotal moment in that turn as 1965:

Many writers seize on 1968, annus horribilus, as the decisive year—after all, it featured the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and the election of Richard Nixon…But I believe that the major events of 1968, awesome though they were, mainly exacerbated shifts of mood—and of politics, culture, and foreign policies—that first became significant during 1965.

Nineteen sixty-five is Professor Patterson’s “hinge year” for the 1960s, the turning point at which songs like “Eve of Destruction” (from which his book takes its title) began to shade out the traditional top sellers, when the Rolling Stones trumped the Four Aces. And by framing his story largely within the events of one year, with discussion of their causes and results, his book tells us as much as we need to know about LBJ as any multi-volumed analysis.

Professor Patterson rings in 1965 with LBJ delivering the annual Christmas tree lighting speech (one of those assignments dreaded by the White House writing staff) on December 18, 1964:

These are the most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem…. Today—as never before—man has in his possession the capacities to end war and preserve peace, to eradicate poverty and share abundance, to overcome the diseases that have afflicted the human race and permit all mankind to enjoy their promise in life on this earth.

By playing loudly on these sentiments and invoking the memory of the fallen president, Johnson was able to pressure Congress into passing “an avalanche of….proposals for a ‘Great Society,’” among them Medicare and Medicaid, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and the Voting Rights Act (at this writing, under review by the Supreme Court), to join the far-reaching Civil Rights Act passed the year before. (Somewhere in there was also a War on Poverty and a War on Hunger; the latter we have apparently won, with the current administration now waging a War on Obesity.)

UNFORTUNATELY, THERE WAS ALSO the war in Vietnam, which in 1965 rapidly went south, as did, literally, the whole racial situation, with Martin Luther King, Jr. and his marchers under attack in Selma, Alabama, and blacks rioting senselessly and destructively in southern California, leaving Watts in L.A. a bombed-out war zone.

Before the riots, Patterson writes, “Watts seemed an unlikely place for a massive urban disturbance. Newsweek wrote, ‘To a Harlem Negro oppressed by moldering tenements, Watts might look like the promised land with its wide boulevards, grassy back yards, and single- and two-story houses.’” But after the riots, “the Los Angeles Times described Watts as a ‘holocaust of rubble and ruins not unlike the aftermath in London when the Nazis struck, or Berlin after Allied forces finished their demolition.’”

In Watts, MLK was already passé, a figure from the past like George Washington Carver. Patterson recounts that Dr. King visited when the violence had subsided, “only to be greeted in part with derision.” He quotes several Watts residents: “Sending King down here ain’t nuthin’, man. But goddammit they better do something down here, brother, or next time it won’t be a riot. It’ll be a war.” And: ‘Aw, they’re just sending another n----- [redaction supplied by reviewer] down here to tell us what we need.” A third black man lampooned King, holding the “I had a dream” refrain up to ridicule.

And it was Watts that drove home a hard truth: King’s dream of a society run by benign liberals in which race made no difference was simply not in the cards. Patterson titles his Watts chapter “Violence in the Streets: Watts and the Undermining of Liberalism.” And he might well have written “the beginning of the end of liberalism as we knew it.” Largely as a result of Watts and the other violent “Burn, Baby, Burn” race riots of the last half of the 1960s, we live in a society today as race-conscious, especially among liberals, as has ever been the case in our history. Race is a constant topic in the news, the talk shows, the entertainment media, business, politics, education. We have new euphemisms now, allowing us to disguise various racial quota systems, with words like “diversity,” a synonym for one minority group (never explicitly indicating which) used in employment or university admissions offices as a signal for preferential treatment.

It was essentially the utopian liberal racist theorizing underlying so much of LBJ’s Great Society legislation that led to the crack-brained practice of busing, resulting in the destruction of our nation’s great urban public schools systems, which have never recovered. If you visit any public school in certain Chicago neighborhoods today, for instance, you’d be well advised to wear a bulletproof vest. Nearly every evening, TV stations in Chicago lead with shots of black mothers crying, ritualistically mourning the death of another black boy or girl, sometimes killed by accident or sometimes gunned down by rival gang members.

Recently, at a press conference at the Chicago Military Academy at Bronzeville, retired Army Lt. General Russel Honoré, who oversaw the Hurricane Katrina military relief efforts, suggested that Chicago’s epidemic of street violence be handled like any other natural disaster: bring in the National Guard, and “let’s control the streets so children and elderly people can be in a safe community….Do you want law enforcement or do you want people shooting day and night and destroying the lives of innocent people?”

Needless to say, with Rahm Emanuel in charge, with his higher political ambitions at stake, and with a wave of nostalgia for the Daleys (both of them) sweeping the city, Honoré’s remarks were totally ignored. In Emanuel’s Chicago, with the strictest gun laws in the nation, the only solution offered is to crack down on guns, as if they, personified, were agents of death, apparently pulling their own triggers. And as for the general problems in the affected communities, they’re addressed by the mayor and his uneasy imported police chief in the same sort of root-cause liberal babblespeak with which Patterson tells us LBJ’s attorney general, Ramsey Clark, addressed the causes of the Watts riots.

AT THE TIME, Patterson writes, there was another analysis of factors leading up to Watts: The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The Moynihan Report, as it was called, was initially well-received by LBJ and some black leaders. But others, Patterson writes, “were angry that he had written frankly and unflatteringly about a ‘tangle of pathology’ ensnaring black families in the ghettoes.”

Outside of the high incidence of black unemployment, most of the elements in the pathological tangle were matters of personal behaviors and family responsibility, among them high childbearing out of wedlock, a phenomenon that continues to grow, as well “fatherless families, dropping out of school, juvenile delinquency, crime, and drug abuse,” all of which have steadily increased since 1965 and the Moynihan Report, and none of which can be remedied by a raft of Great Society programs, no matter how well intentioned.

Patterson regrets that LBJ failed but credits him for good intentions. He promised too much and was wounded when the people he thought he was helping appeared ungrateful and demanded more, which he found he couldn’t deliver. He mindlessly escalated the war in Vietnam, with no plan for success or strategic withdrawal, and which finally ended with riots on campuses across the country, complementing the riots in the cities. These spectacularly culminated in 1968 in Chicago, where Hubert Humphrey, the personification of old-school liberalism, suffered a mortal political blow. Along with his candidacy, liberalism as we’d come to know it died in the streets of Chicago, in no small part due to the mismanagement, often pathological, of LBJ.

Again, not to criticize Patterson for the book he didn’t write, but Richard Nixon’s success in restoring a measure of peace to a nation racked by blazing pathologies might merit some discussion, if only in the epilogue. But Richard Nixon is mentioned just four times, briefly, although he would take over in three years. It may be it’s in the liberal academic DNA not to mention Nixon at all, unless in standard Prince-of-Darkness terms; if so, it’s to Patterson’s credit that his remarks are neutral.

But no matter. As Patterson concludes, for the rest of the 1960s, “the triumphalism that had energized LBJ while lighting the National Christmas Tree in December 1964 would have seemed absurd. After 1965, for better and for worse, many aspects of life in the United States would never be the same again.” 

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About the Author

John R. Coyne Jr. a former White House speech-writer, is co-author with Linda Bridges of Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement (Wiley).