Political Hay

Hillary and the Ghost of LBJ

How Hillary Clinton, of all people, has emerged as a successor of Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Hubert Humphrey.

By 11.26.07

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Lyndon Baines Johnson.

He was a well-documented force of nature. The champion of the Democrats' century-delayed acceptance of Civil Rights, he was the FDR-disciple who created Medicare and the vast government expanse known as the Great Society.

But LBJ was also something else. He was at the heart of the fatal divide over the internationalist, strong-national defense policies of Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Johnson's predecessor, the man he served as vice president, John F. Kennedy. It was LBJ who became both architect and victim of the disaster in Vietnam that drove a stake through the modern Democrat party as created by FDR. It was LBJ who, to his surprise, suddenly found himself doing battle against the re-surfaced pacifist sentiments of the old Henry Wallace-wing of his party. Wallace, FDR's secretary of agriculture and controversial liberal vice president, had been dumped from FDR's 1944 ticket in favor of Truman. In 1948, with Truman describing Wallace as a "damn pacifist," the ex-VP took Truman on in a battle not just for the presidency but for the heart and soul of the party. Truman won, and Wallace's leftist followers were assumed to have faded into history.

They didn't.

LBJ's hard-line Vietnam policies were met by the increasingly vocal reappearance of the hard-left, led by a Wallace supporter, South Dakota Senator George McGovern. There were massive protests in the streets and on college campuses, the self-immolation of a protester on the grounds of the Pentagon, and the blossoming of a virulent anti-war movement that produced primary challenges to LBJ from Senators Eugene McCarthy and the McGovern-supported Robert Kennedy. The one-time force of nature who had captivated Washington with his first appearance as a chief of staff to a Depression-era Texas congressman, the man who bestrode the nation as one of the most powerful presidents in 20th-century America, was in remarkably short order rendered a haunted, hollow-eyed figure of tragedy. The once-dominant party of his youth blew apart in a furious battle for the party's soul, finally savaging itself in an orgy of violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Giving up his bid for re-election, his Vietnam policy under massive assault by his one-time party allies and his handpicked nominee defeated by Richard Nixon, LBJ retreated to the solitude of his Texas ranch. There he vanished from public view, let his hair grow, resumed smoking the cigarettes that had almost killed him in a 1950s heart attack and added heavy drinking to the mix. Within four years he was dead.

But as a particularly haunting political ghost, LBJ refused to depart the scene.

His Vietnam defeat by the McGovernites set the stage for an absolute refusal by the American people to trust Democrats with the White House in wartime unless they were persuaded they were not installing pacifists in the Oval Office. In 1976 Jimmy Carter campaigned as a naval academy graduate and submariner, disparaging then-president Gerald Ford for leaving the impression with voters in a debate that Poland was somehow not under the thumb of the Soviet Union. By 1980, however, Carter's McGovernite tendencies had emerged in a decidedly un-LBJ foreign policy. With hostages stuck in Iran, the Soviets invading Afghanistan, a Communist takeover in Nicaragua, the military showing dangerous signs of underfunding and Carter proclaiming Americans had an "inordinate fear" of Communism, voters not only gave a landslide to Ronald Reagan, they continued right on in 1988 by overwhelmingly electing George H.W. Bush.

Only with the Cold War at an end did they turn to Bill Clinton, and come within a famous handful of Florida chads in giving Al Gore the presidency. But the post-Cold War celebrations ended on 9/11, and once again LBJ's ghost hovers over the Democrats -- and specifically over front-runner Hillary Clinton.

CAMPAIGNING AT BREAK-NECK SPEED in Henry Wallace's home state of Iowa, where anti-war sentiment runs high, Clinton is being pressed relentlessly by Barack Obama and John Edwards. Both of her challengers are campaigning in effect as the foreign policy heirs not of LBJ but of Henry Wallace and George McGovern. Cast as the LBJ in the group, with the LBJ-style domestic policy proposal on health care to underline the point, the result is she is losing ground. The polls show steady erosion in support as she plays the role of a modern LBJ on foreign policy, refusing to say she made a mistake in voting for the invasion of Iraq and voting yes to label Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. Indeed, the ABC/Washington Post poll has Obama now edging in front of her 30%-26% with Edwards just behind at 22%. According to a post-Thanksgiving story in the Wall Street Journal, her staff calls this approach Clinton's "responsibility gene," the result of her time as her husband's partner in the Clinton presidency. In a sly salute even President Bush has gotten into the act, noting that that she understands the "pressures" of the presidency. She is quoted as saying that adopting what one could easily call the Wallace-McGovern-Obama-Edwards approach will set her up to be "ripped apart" by Republicans if she emerges as the nominee, potentially crippling her if she actually wins the White House.

Clinton is right. Yet it is precisely because she is right that LBJ's ghost has begun to haunt.

As Johnson dramatically found out, all the hoopla surrounding his landslide defeat of Barry Goldwater, all of the overwhelmingly favorable press about his political skills and Texas savvy, all of the power he used to surge his Great Society programs to legislative victories -- all of it vanished as he stuck to what he perceived were the FDR-Truman-JFK legacies in American foreign policy. Bill Clinton, governing after the end of the Cold War, never had to face LBJ's ghost. A President Hillary Clinton, taking office as the War on Terror rages around the globe, will not be so lucky.

As a nominee, any of the Republicans with a chance at facing her will press her hard on the war. Giuliani, Romney, McCain, Thompson and the newly rising Huckabee are all Reaganite hardliners well to her right who, in spite of grumblings from one or another quarter, will be supported by a united party. If Clinton is victorious, the pressure will only increase -- this time with the left chiming in. Forty years after 1968, she could find herself sitting in the Oval Office, alone with her "responsibility gene" and LBJ's ghost. Facing a relentless war by Islamic fascists, she will be caught in the same vise as LBJ: pressed repeatedly by the GOP to fight back and win, hounded by the Wallace-McGovern-Obama-Edwards left to cut and run. And as they did with LBJ, the left will mean business.

The moment she does not move fast enough to "end the war" the left will hit the streets. Led by the MoveOn.org and Daily Kos types there will be marches on Washington with one of two purposes: ending the war or, failing that, bringing her down as was done to LBJ. The novelty of being the first woman in the Oval Office will vanish. The old '60s chants, modernized, will revive, amplified by the power of the Internet. "Hey, Hey HRC, how many kids did you kill today?" will be only the beginning. As American casualties mount to any number above those left behind by George Bush, "Bush's War" will morph into "Hillary's War." As with LBJ's domestic agenda, the Clinton domestic program will get caught up in the furies that are even now starkly visible in her own party. And sitting well outside the White House, once again a conservative leader and a refreshed conservative opposition will be set up for future victories.

MUCH OF THE INEVITABLE NOISE surrounding a presidential campaign has obscured a central fact, a fact that was less than obvious that November day in 1948 when Harry Truman defeated not just Republican Tom Dewey but Progressive Party nominee Henry Wallace. The Democratic Party, contrary to the appearances of 1948, has never resolved its internal fight over the role of America in the world. Its Cold War-era election victories for the White House came only when the nominee -- Truman, JFK, LBJ or Carter- was perceived as a sturdy hardliner. The moment that perception vanished, whether it was 1968 or post-1976 with Carter actually in office, the pendulum swung to the GOP with a certainty that makes the law of gravity look undependable. Post-LBJ, still in the middle of the Cold War, the reason there was no President McGovern, a re-elected Carter or a President Mondale or President Dukakis is that the American people heard some version of a cut-and run, defeatist naivete in every word, gesture and image of the Democrat nominee of the moment. Post-9/11 in 2004, with war once again the preeminent issue of the day, John Kerry's military background was overwhelmed both by the vivid taped-replays of his history as Vietnam war-protestor and the famous Swift Boat veterans claiming Kerry's military experience was not all he claimed it to be.

Hillary Clinton's dilemma is a real one, and it stretches out far beyond the caucuses in Henry Wallace's Iowa. Refusing to appease the anti-war left risks defeat in Iowa, and a very rough road to the nomination. It is in a very ominous sense a replay of the dilemma presented by a quite alive LBJ to the nomination of his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey. LBJ, who had completely dominated the 1964 Convention, could not even make a cameo appearance in Chicago for a passing-of-the-torch to Humphrey, so unpopular had he become. What was designed as the Humphrey coronation shattered in the nightmare of a poisonous televised platform fight over Vietnam in addition to the literal riots between taunting protesters and angry cops swarming through the streets of Chicago. In 2008 the idea that the nomination of the first woman as a serious candidate for the presidency will dominate media narratives could quickly be subsumed as activists turn the Denver Convention into the mother of all-platform fights, a vivid encore of the 1968 LBJ v. anti-war activist battle royal. And with some activists already calling for anti-war activists to flood Denver using 1968 Chicago as a role model, Hillary could easily begin to resemble not only LBJ but Humphrey, like Johnson a once revered liberal champion pilloried by the left as a war criminal.

Much complained about every four years is the tendency of the media to play elections for the presidency as a horse race. There is reason for this. Exciting, colorful, horse races never fail to capture an audience. They have a winner and a batch of losers. But horse races always end. What the horse racing model of media coverage never does is illuminate the long-term success or failure of the underlying ideas at stake in the ever fluid, always forward-moving history of the American experience. But those ideas do win -- and they do lose. One of the most continually defeated ideas that has appeared in American politics is that of weakness and appeasement in foreign policy. Whether it was the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, the two World Wars, the Cold War or Korea and Vietnam then or Iraq now, the American people do not take well to the idea of defeat. The ultimate if frequently ignored irony of 1968 is that the great "successes" of the anti-war movement of the 1960s had precisely the opposite effect intended. They not only elected Nixon, but between the votes provided Nixon and third party candidate (and pro-war candidate) Alabama Governor George Wallace, the anti-anti-war "silent majority" trounced the left 56.9% to 42.7%. The turmoil caused by the anti-LBJ zealots sealed the success of the American conservative movement for decades to come.

THE HAUNTING DILEMMA of LBJ's ghost pervades the party he once dominated -- and then lost. It is sighted in all those Iowa polls showing surges for Obama and Edwards at Clinton's expense. It is sighted in a Connecticut Democratic senatorial primary defeat for Senator Joe Lieberman, the election of the anti-war Howard Dean as Democratic Party chairman, the insistence of Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid that the war is "lost." Certainly it prowls LBJ's one-time haunts on Capitol Hill with the constant attempts by Democrats in Congress to defund the war or withdraw the troops or set deadlines for withdrawals from Iraq. Every success of MoveOn.org or the Daily Kos summons forth LBJ's ghost and its howling memories of anti-war activists like the late Allard Lowenstein or Abbie Hoffman or Jane Fonda's ex-husband, leftist Tom Hayden.

The 2008 election will, as hard as it may seem at the moment, eventually be over. Less than a year from now, the horse race will be at an end. Someone will win, and someone will lose.

But the struggle for the soul of America's oldest political party will continue. The fight that erupted over Lyndon Johnson's view of the world will be refought all over again. And whether she wins or loses, Hillary Clinton is already well on her way to sharing LBJ's distinctly unhappy political fate.

Whether she knows it or not, whether she understands it or not, Hillary Clinton is being haunted by LBJ's ghost.

And so is her party.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.