Darkness At The End Of The Tunnel: 1968 And The Destruction Of LBJ’S Presidency.

by Michael Liss

President Lyndon B. Johnson addresses the nation, March 31, 1968. Photograph by Yoichi Okamoto. LBJ Presidential Library.

Some Presidencies just come apart: The men occupying the office are objectively unable to manage the chaos around them. Herbert Hoover’s might be thought of as in this category. James Buchanan’s as well. Perhaps Jimmy Carter’s. Others, like Richard Nixon’s, die of self-harm, unmourned. Still others end in “fatigue”—their party, or the public, essentially tires of them. Harry Truman’s flirtation with running for a second full term fell victim to Estes Kefauver, Adlai Stevenson, and a mostly uninterested Democratic Establishment. George Herbert Walker Bush found “Message: I care” not quite as compelling as he had hoped. Sometimes the public, or just the Party, wants a change.

What separates the survivors, the people who seek and succeed both at the job itself and the politics of getting reelected? It’s certainly not being free of the seven deadly sins. Nor is it being above politics. It’s a core philosophical anomaly of our system that our Chief Executive is charged with acting on behalf of all citizens while being the political leader of half. That takes, along with the talent, intelligence, and temperament to get the job done, a certain moral agility, a selective application of standards of right and wrong, sometimes even to the extent of muting the dictates of conscience. Presidents are in the business of making choices, often ones where there are shades of grey rather than clear bright lines, and, to make these choices, they have to call upon their own resources, both light and dark.

If you could somehow take samples of DNA from every President, good, bad and indifferent, and run them through a centrifuge, you might, might come up with a sample that resembles Lyndon Baines Johnson. A complex, contradictory man with a complex and contradictory record. Read more »

The Demands of Citizenship: JFK at Vanderbilt

But this Nation was not founded solely on the principle of citizens’ rights. Equally important, though too often not discussed, is the citizen’s responsibility. For our privileges can be no greater than our obligations. —John F. Kennedy, May 18, 1963, Nashville

Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

May, 1963. JFK is in a centrifuge, buffeted by a series of challenges from abroad and at home that would have taxed anyone. Underneath the glamour and optimism of Camelot was a roiling mess of seemingly intractable problems, including the global threat of an aggressive, expansive Communism, and domestic unrest related to the irrefutable moral logic of the Civil Rights Movement set against implacable, and often violent, resistance.

All of this, the triumphs and the troubles, are, for the first time, playing out in black and white (and occasionally in living color) on television screens across America. We have clearly moved into a “see it now” age: in just the decade of the 1950s, the percentage of households with sets went from about 9% to about 87%. Soft censorship (reporter circumspection and editorial oversight) still existed, but the vast majority of people were getting their news visually, and sometimes that news contained graphic and unforgettable images.

Kennedy clearly understood the power of the new medium. He wrote a short essay for TV Guide in November 1959, in which he discussed his concerns about television’s potential for demagoguery, but also said it gave an opportunity to the viewing public to judge for itself a candidate’s sincerity—or lack of it. If that was a prediction, it was a pretty good one: Ten months later, in what was a decisive moment in the 1960 election, he was debating Richard Nixon, and winning, in part, on style points. Read more »

The Birth, Decline, and Re-Emergence of the Solid South: A Short History

by Akim Reinhardt

Slave saleSince the Civil War, the American South has mostly been a one-party region. However, by the turn of the 21st century, its political affiliation had actually swung from the Democrats to the Republicans. Here’s how it happened.

It is not an oversimplification to say that slavery was the single most important issue leading to the Civil War. For not only was slavery the most important on its own merits, but none of the other relevant issues, such as expansion into the western territories or states’ rights, would have mattered much at all if not for their indelible connection to slavery.

Initially, Northerners rallied around the issue of Free Soil: opposition to slavery on economic grounds. Small farmers and new industrial workers did not want to compete with large slave plantations and unpaid slave labor. This was the philosophy that bound together the new Republican Party.

No friends of African Americans, most Free Soilers were openly racist, as were the vast majority of white Americans at the time. Abolitionists, who were fired by religion and opposed human bondage on moral grounds, were actually a small minority of the population However, as the bloody war raged on, Northerners began to seek moral assurance in their cause. For more and more people, the mere political goal of saving the union did not seem to justify the unholy slaughter of men by the tens of thousand. Though preserving the union was always Abraham Lincoln’s primary goal, he astutely played to this concern by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and establishing abolition as the war’s moral compass. It worked. The North persisted, won the war, abolished slavery, and forced the South to return.

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