look and focus on place in history ——————————————————————————–
Bill Clinton is keenly interested in how history will judge him.
He began his administration with John F. Kennedy as a model and now
compares himself to Theodore Roosevelt, a president who made a great
mark on the White House and the country, though there was no war
during his administration.
However, it is a president Clinton almost never mentions whom
resembles most closely – Lyndon B. Johnson. The men and their
administrations have much in common. Their domestic agendas and
failings, even their backgrounds, are surprisingly similar.
Both men grew up in small Southern towns in relatively deprived
circumstances, with an appreciation for the suffering of the
But the Clinton-Johnson connection is most evident in their
personalities. Johnson was, and Clinton is, the product of large
appetites for recognition and fame through politics. Like Johnson,
Clinton’s vocation has always been using public affairs to make a
personal mark that would echo through history.
Johnson was an especially grandiose character. “I understand you
were born in a log cabin,” German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard told
Johnson. “No, no!” Johnson replied. “You have me confused with Abe
Lincoln. I was born in a manger.”
Clinton is not quite as grandiose. But he is intensely
preoccupied with his likely historical standing. A poll of
historians in late 1996 that ranked him as a below-average president
sent him into a snit. He still obsesses about his place in history,
expressing hopes that he will ultimately be seen as at least a
A need for public affection has echoed through the careers of
both men. Johnson couldn’t stand to be criticized. Every negative
comment was a deep wound because he wanted everyone to love him. He
saw his War on Poverty and Great Society programs as almost personal
gifts to the country, for which he expected unqualified praise. The
inner-city riots of 1965-68 were thus regarded as an expression of
ingratitude. Johnson’s rage toward liberals who opposed him over the
Vietnam War was palpable. “What’s the difference between cannibals
and liberals?” he asked some of them. “Cannibals don’t eat their
Like Johnson, critics, especially in the media, enrage Clinton.
Clinton seems to despise the journalists who beat on him
unmercifully, as he sees it, over everything from Whitewater to
Paula Corbin Jones and the alleged campaign-finance scandal. He
cannot understand why a president so intent on righting historic
wrongs and meeting current challenges should constantly have to
defend himself against attacks on his character. Never mind that
every president has been fair game for his critics. To Clinton, like
Johnson, negative assessments, political or otherwise, are
experienced as personal assaults.
Clinton, the acknowledged womanizer, cannot separate himself
from Johnson as a sort of political primitive. When told about
Kennedy’s conquests, Johnson would shout: “Why, I had more women by
accident than he ever had by design.”
Despite a sea change in public mood from Johnson’s times to now,
Clinton is in sync with Johnson’s views on racial and other domestic
Both men emerged from racist societies as champions of equal
rights. Johnson was never more passionate about political and social
change than when he fought for the civil-rights and voting-rights
reforms of 1964 and 1965. Or when he urged affirmative action as a
means of overcoming a long national history of discrimination and
deprivation. At a Johnson Library symposium, just weeks before his
death, he declared advances toward equal rights for blacks his
greatest political achievement. Thirty years later, few would
Clinton’s transparent commitment to racial equality is reflected
in his insistence on “one America,” and his creation of the
commission led by historian John Hope Franklin to seek solutions to
enduring racial divisions.
Johnson’s groundbreaking laws providing federal aid to primary,
secondary and higher education are echoed in Clinton’s interest in
broadening education opportunities at every level. Clinton’s failed
attempt at national health-care reform and recent triumph in
extending health insurance to millions of children are legacies of
Johnson’s pioneering Medicare and Medicaid laws.
The Clinton-Gore interest in environmental protection is an
extension of Johnson’s efforts on behalf of clean air and clean
water and the conservation of the country’s natural resources.
Clinton’s battles to preserve the national endowments for the arts
and the humanities underscore his commitment to some of Johnson’s
most cherished cultural reforms.
Though the GOP congressional majorities and an
anti-tax-and-spend mood reflected in diminished regard for federal
authority and regulation inhibit Clinton’s affinity for social
engineering, there seems little question that another period of
liberal activism such as Johnson enjoyed in the 1960s would have
made Clinton’s presidency a more obvious imitation of Johnson’s
There is an even more direct line of political continuity
between Johnson and Clinton than the current White House seems
inclined to acknowledge. Johnson’s presidency combined with earlier
New Deal programs and national defense spending to bring the South
and the West into the mainstream of the country’s economic and
political life. As such, it opened the way to the South’s renewed
influence on national political life and, more specifically, to
opportunities for Southerners to win the White House. Since Johnson
left office in 1969, three of the next six presidents – Jimmy
Carter, George Bush and now Clinton – have been from the South.
The end of segregation and the transformation of the South from
economic basket case to a region of substantial opportunity opened
the way to national political participation by Southerners
comparable to the earliest years of our history. No president
contributed more to this transformation than Johnson. Clinton’s
presence in the Oval Office is a direct legacy.
LBJ and Clinton bear a resemblance on foreign affairs as well.
Johnson saw overseas issues as a distraction from his first love –
domestic reform. “Foreigners are not like folks I’m used to,” he
said half jokingly. He wished the outside world, especially Vietnam,
which caused him so much grief and ultimately ruined his presidency,
would have gone away.
Clinton, likewise, is at sixes and sevens over foreign affairs.
Nothing as disastrous as Vietnam has intruded on his administration,
but sorting out the problems of Bosnia, the expansion of the North
Atlantic Treaty Organization to Eastern Europe, Palestinian
relations with Israel, and U.S. dealings with China have been more
frustration than a source of satisfaction to Clinton. Like Johnson,
Clinton is primarily a domestic leader, with a surer feel for the
needs and concerns of his fellow citizens than the confusions and
As he heads into the last three years of his term, Clinton might
do well to imitate Johnson’s affinity for grand designs. Unlike
Johnson, Clinton, in this period of diminished expectations, has
enunciated no large, coherent purpose such as the Great Society.
Though he has plenty of ideas and periodically announces government
initiatives that will carry us into the 21st century, his
pronouncements do not add up to a broad program of change.
Instead of focusing on his place in history, Clinton should sort
out what he wants to do with his last years in office and, like
Johnson, his unhailed mentor, mount a crusade that strives to
fulfill the promise of American life.