His accomplishments will unfortunately be overshadowed by his fatal mistakes in Vietnam.
Lyndon Baines Johnson’s accomplishments as President include the selfless way in which he moved to effect a swift transition after the national trauma of the assassination. He went out of his way to keep the Kennedy team, although by all indications he would have been better off if he had put in his own crew. They might not have been better or brighter, but he could have worked with them more efficiently and with less personal stress.
His other major accomplishment was his ardent advocacy of civil rights, which he had really come to feel. He had the votes to pass those laws: even so, his strong personal advocacy was important. It got the program off the ground and gave it a kind of national sanction. The more credit is due him because he had not always thought that way.
Not much more can be said on the positive side. The Harris poll revealed that on a score of counts he was not rated highly as a President, and the chances are that history will mirror the contemporary estimate. He lacked the qualities–mysterious and difficult to define–which make for Presidential leadership. He was not the phenomenal cloakroom manipulator he was reputed to be, but he was better in that environment than in the White House.
Johnson felt that his personal “style” handicapped him; Max Frankel says he was larger than life–“almost a caricature of the Texas caricature he could never shake.” This seems to us a misconception. The American people will endure, even admire, a wide spectrum of styles, manners and mannerisms. It was not anything so superficial that did Johnson in. He lacked credibility, and that lack the American people will not forgive–nor should they, whether the President be Johnson or Nixon.
His fatal mistake was in Vietnam. The contrast with Goldwater was clear in 1964, and the voters accepted Johnson’s word that he opposed an escalation of the war. Giving him the benefit of the doubt on the question of whether he was already planning escalation, assuming that his hand was forced by men and events after the election, one still cannot explain away the Gulf of Tonkin maneuver. Once he realized the trap of Vietnam, he did halt some of the bombing and set the Paris talks in motion. That decision, and the related decision to step down, remains to his credit. But it was too late to repair the damage.
Johnson has been compared with Lincoln. Even allowing for the wave of laudation that follows the death of a President, that is nonsense. Lincoln sought advice from all quarters, listened intently and with infinite patience, thought deeply, agonized, and finally did what he felt he had to do–no less than what his conscience told him he must do as President of the United States. It was these inner qualities that after more than a century still haunt his countrymen, and why it is impossible for most Americans to read his Second Inaugural Address to this day without the deepest emotion.