Sept. 29, 2014 by Darius
Today, I attended talk by US political reporter Jonathan Darman about his new book Landslide: LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of a New America.
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson won one of the most lopsided elections in history, absolutely crushing Republican candidate Barry Goldwater and carrying all but six states. In 1966, though, just 1000 days later, the Democratic Party suffered severe losses in midterm elections, losses that saw the effective end of LBJ’s sweeping legislative program. It was also in 1966 that Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California and became the national standard bearer for the conservative movement.
Though the two men ended up completely different, both in terms of personal style and politics, LBJ and Reagan came from similar origins. They were born only three years apart, both lived in small towns, and both had similar family situations. Franklin Roosevelt was a hero to both when they were young. Critically, both LBJ and Reagan, from an early age, had a need to be in the public eye, playing the hero and adored.
In 1963, though, both LBJ and Reagan faced middle age and dim prospects for the future. LBJ was languishing in the vice presidency, cut off from President Kennedy’s inner circle of advisors and facing whispers that he might be replaced on the ticket in 1964. Reagan’s career as an actor was largely behind him, and after losing his job as host of TV’s General Electric Theater, he could only get work in Hollywood in roles he hated.
Fortunes changed for LBJ first. After Kennedy’s assassination, LBJ became president and quickly harnessed himself to JFK’s legacy, creating a groundswell of popular and political support. Soon, though, LBJ found he wanted to come out of JFK’s shadow. Largely to that end, LBJ embarked on his incredibly ambitious Great Society program. Until the middle of 1965, he succeeded, passing civil rights bills, creating Medicare and Medicaid, providing federal funding for education, and others. But LBJ also began making promises that government would be able to solve all the most important problems in a fairly short time.
Then reality intervened. In 1965, the war in far-off Vietnam moved to center stage with the arrival of US combat troops, a deployment that would swell to 200,000 troops before the year was done. According to Darman, LBJ felt he needed to prosecute the war in Vietnam aggressively because he needed to balance his very progressive domestic policy with a foreign policy that was tough on Communism. In 1966, LBJ weighed the greatest political risk from the Vietnam War as coming from the segment of America that felt he wasn’t fighting hard enough, not the antiwar left. Several American cities exploded with rioting, especially in the Watts area of Los Angeles in August 1965. People began to doubt whether government could indeed solve the major problems American society faced. Millions of Americans became receptive to alternative messages.
One of these messages was Ronald Reagan’s: that government is not the solution but the problem. Reagan started the 1966 California governor’s race in such a weak position that the Democratic incumbent actually supported Reagan in the Republican primary, thinking Reagan would be the easier candidate to beat. Ultimately, though, Reagan beat the Democratic incumbent by nearly a million votes. Reagan declared the election to be a repudiation of LBJ’s Great Society and, when he was elected president in 1980, immediately set about rolling back as much of the Great Society as he could.
Darman’s book seems to be an interesting juxtaposition of two different men with two fundamentally different views of the capabilities of government – views that continue to echo in public debate today – seen in the political crucible of 1964-66.