President Johnson's War
IT would be difficult to imagine two men of equivalent accomplishments and abilities more different in manner, style and temperament than John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, the one understated, dynamic and poised -even glamorous-the other blunt in expression, at times to the point of crudeness, and ponderous in manner. A powerful and complex personality, Johnson seemed to some to be consumed by a drive to measure up to his predecessor's image. Highly intelligent, he was acutely conscious of his modest origins in rural Texas and smarted when commentators and columnists drew the inevitable adverse comparisons between his homespun
manner and the polish and style of Kennedy's Harvard-educated inner circle. When early attempts to present a polished presidential image met with ridicule, Johnson reacted defensively, retreating into his country-boy persona to a degree which seemed affected even to many who shared his background and accent. Nor could Johnson's considerable abilities be separated from his image; his success in selling his policies and programs to the American people depended on that image, both directly in his ability to project himself in person, particularly on television, and indirectly in his success in dealing with the press. It was in this last area that the contrast with his predecessor cost him most dearly. John Kennedy belonged to the same world as the journalists who covered him; urbane and relaxed, he could joke easily with the press corps, deflecting criticism in a way that that was impossible for his successor. Presidential press conferences were hardly a love feast, but neither were they hostile inquisitions. It was a hard act to follow.
Like John Kennedy before him, Lyndon Johnson inherited a range of problems from his predecessor. Vietnam was far from least among these, but Johnson's main interests lay elsewhere, with the array of social welfare and economic development programs which he was to package as The Great Society. Few historians or analysts today question the importance of legislation sponsored by Johnson in helping to overcome the effects of racial discrimination and economic underdevelopment. But whatever success he enjoyed in the domestic arena was tarnished by failure in foreign policy. As John Kennedy's name came to be associated with avision of graceful politics, enlightened policies and good government, called Camelot after King Arthur's mythical capital, so Lyndon Johnson's name is inevitably linked to Vietnam. But to draw the contrast so starkly is not only inaccurate but unfair, forJohnson inherited not only John Kennedy's policies, but also his key subordinates.
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