A valediction to power: (book review)


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LBJ’s 1968: Power, Politics, and the Presidency in America’s Year of Upheaval by Kyle Longley (Cambridge University Press)

Everyone has a favourite president, but I’m suspicious of anyone who says it’s Lyndon Baines Johnson. Yes, he was the politician’s politician – one of the greatest legislators in US history – but he was also a monster. Kyle Longley recounts an episode when journalists were badgering Johnson to explain America’s war in Vietnam. LBJ unzipped his fly, pulled out his sizeable member and said, ‘This is why!’ They say the personal is political, but that’s taking things too far.

Longley’s new book examines a year in Johnson’s life – his final one as president – in microscopic detail. At first, you wonder why he bothers. The opening chapter deals with the writing of the State of the Union Address for 1968, an overlong speech never quoted today. The toing and froing of Johnson and his advisers makes for dull reading. But if you can stay the course as far as the third chapter, you start to get the point. Johnson’s final year in office was a fruitless struggle to get anything done at all: a cycle of trial and disaster. The State of the Union Address, in which Johnson tried to rededicate the nation to social reform, was delivered on 17 January and went down fairly well. On 30 January, the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive. For the first time, Americans really contemplated defeat in Vietnam. Johnson’s plans fell apart.

On and on it went. Realising that running for re-election in 1968 would likely kill him, and that he might not win anyway, Johnson went on television to announce, ‘I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another year as your president.’ The wording mattered: Longley says that LBJ originally preferred ‘would not accept’ to ‘will not accept’ because he thought the latter was presumptuous, but was persuaded otherwise. The speech transformed Johnson’s image: the public was elated by this rare act of political self-sacrifice. Now that he was liberated from campaigning, maybe Johnson would actually bring peace to Vietnam.

Well, that was on 31 March. On 4 April, Martin Luther King was assassinated. Riots broke out. One step forward, two steps back.

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