LBJ and FDR: Pairing Presidents VIII

Though separated by circumstance, time, and temperament, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson are the two greatest reformers in American history. At a time in which Congress couldn't pass gas, it's pretty easy to feel a degree of nostalgia for each—their myriad faults notwithstanding.

How they are similar:

Does being a great reformer start by being known by your initials? Roosevelt was known to most as FDR, and Johnson was almost always just LBJ. It probably has more to do with the fact that each man reformed the nation in deed instead of rhetoric. Both took office during incredibly difficult circumstances: FDR during the Great Depression and LBJ after the assassination of President Kennedy. Each had the savvy to seize unique opportunities to experiment and push progressive agendas.

FDR's New Deal was such a watershed that its effects are still felt more than 80 years later. The modern welfare system began with the Federal Emergency Relief Act and was completed by the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, the former which, of course, gave us Social Security pensions for the elderly as well, and the latter of which cemented such things as the eight-hour work day, overtime pay, and the minimum wage. What else? Insured bank deposits under FDIC, Stock Market regulation under the Securities and Exchange Commission, the largest public works project in American history under the Tennessee Valley Authority, farm subsidies under the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the building of trails and other wilderness infrastructure under the Civilian Conservation Corps, federal housing projects and loans, the creation of thousands of federal jobs, and the Glass-Steagall Act, whose 1999 repeal is a major cause of the last two recessions! How about the National Labor Relations Act, which is still the greatest set of worker protections passed in American history (and sad commentary that this is the case). And these are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg—FDR's first Hundred Days alone saw a greater output of reform bills than all of his predecessors put together—a dizzying array of legislation still referred to as alphabet soup because of all the new federal agencies established. And let's not forget one of FDR's greatest gifts: the unleashing of (for reasons to be discussed below) his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt. She is, by a wide margin, the most influential First Lady in history and was far more progressive than FDR on civil rights, labor policy, and concern for the marginalized. She was so far ahead of the curve on women's rights she can be considered a proto-Second Wave feminist.

What could possibly match the New Deal? Maybe LBJ's Great Society. When conservatives today speak of Big Government, they really mean Great Society. Want a legacy? Here you go: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act, appointing Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court, tripling spending on education (Head Start, funding for elementary and secondary education, the Higher Education Act, with its grants and endowments for low-income students such as yours truly); tripling spending on health care, creating of the Housing and Urban Development agency, creating Demonstration Cities that set up enterprise zones in disadvantaged areas and the Model Cities attempt at countering urban blight, passing the Economic Opportunities Act, and setting in motion both the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts, the latter of which greatly resembled special initiatives set up by FDR under the WPA (Federal Artists/Writers/Theater/Music programs). LBJ even passed comprehensive gun control legislation. LBJ's environmentalism included the Clean Water Act, the Wilderness Act, and nine other major bills. His 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act eliminated preferential quotas for Europeans, which led to (legal) increases in Latino and Asian immigration. (It also eliminated unlimited immigration for Western hemisphere immigrants.)

LBJ declared a war on poverty and there is no bigger lie in contemporary American politics than the assertion that the war on poverty was a failure. This is bullshit of the lowest barnyard vintage. Between 1960 and 1968, poverty decreased from 22.2% to 12.6; for African Americans it dropped from 55% to 27%. This is one of the few periods in which the gap between rich and poor actually shrank. For the record, today's rate is 14.5% overall and 26.2% for African Americans. LBJ would not be happy with this.

Both FDR and LBJ unleashed the IRS against the rich. Both were modified Keynesians in economic terms and believers in positive government ideals; that is, government must take the lead in problems too big for the private sector. FDR famously dunned high incomes to support his programs, a rate that rose to 91% during World War Two. When Barack Obama used the IRS to go after conservative anti-government groups, he had to surrender; LBJ made no bones about his intent and refused to back down! He cut taxes, but mostly in the lower-income brackets.

Both presidents battled critics on the right and left. The business community called FDR a communist, communists called him a capitalist tool, and the masses elected him four times. LBJ was viewed as too timid by civil rights activists, was despised by campus radicals, was called a race traitor  by Dixiecrats, and was public enemy # 1 for conservatives who condemned his programs as government intrusion and wasteful attempts at social engineering.

Conservatives were right that some FDR and LBJ programs were boondoggles. Each experimented in response to social crises—the changing social mores and the rise of liberation ideology in LBJ's case–and each put into effect so many programs that some were bound to fail. Some WPA projects were wasteful "make work" nonsense; a few New Deal programs were deemed unconstitutional, like his ill-advised court-packing plan and the NIRA. LBJ's Model Cities program led to foolish choices such as building high-rise apartment complexes for the poor that turned into dens of crime, despair, and entrenched poverty.

How they were different:

FDR was a man of his time, whereas LBJ was a man out of time. FDR wasn't the first president to use radio, but he recognized the potential of mass media better than any POTUS in US history–only the telegenic Ronald Reagan rivals him. LBJ was just 55 when he became president, but in a day in which the phrase "don't trust anyone over 30" gained purchase, he might as well have been 105. The contrast to the suave, youthful, martyred JFK was striking and LBJ's rough-edged West Texas ways didn't translate well. He was a back room persuader, not a camera-smooth communicator. Nor was he a stellar advocate of his own deeds. He felt hurt when he wasn't beloved by the black community, but didn't make the connection between distrust and his mishandling of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964, or his public anger at urban riots—even though LBJ privately understood them. My late 1966, LBJ had a well-publicized "credibility gap" that was out of accord with his actual record.

FDR was unfaithful to Eleanor and though LBJ was later said to have had mistresses, no hint of this occurred when he was president. More substantively, Eleanor traded silence for autonomy and power. If there is a silver lining in infidelity, it is that FDR agreed to give free rein to one of the greatest female minds of the 20th century. (Lest we forget, Eleanor also wrote most of the UN Charter on Human Rights and Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.)  

It's hard to overlook that FDR won his war—World War II–and LBJ bungled his: Vietnam. FDR loved foreign affairs and LBJ famously remarkied that the problem with foreign leaders was, "You can't make deals with the sons of bitches." FDR saw WWII coming long before Congressional isolationists. He took heat for his back-door support for China after the 1937 Japanese invasion, for his Fortress America ideas, for Lend-Lease aimed (mostly) at Britain, and for his critique of groups such as America First, but his opponents looked awfully stupid after Pearl Harbor. It's hard to imagine a better wartime leader than FDR, though he was probably too ill to have run for reelection in 1944. (He died April 12, 1945—just before VE Day.) Had he lived, his distrust of Charles DeGaulle might have averted the disaster in Vietnam that brought down LBJ.

Johnson neither liked nor understood foreign affairs. His show down with the USSR over the 1967 Israel-Egypt war was either his Cuban Missile Crisis triumph, or a dangerous game of brinksmanship—probably the latter. But there is no polite way of saying that his every move in Vietnam was a disaster—from the manufactured Gulf of Tonkin Incident onward, missteps catalogued in the Pentagon Papers. Johnson called Vietnam "that bitch of a war" and remarked that the war he hated prevented him from fighting the one he loved—the war on poverty. It led him to give up dreams of the second elected term for which he would have been eligible under the 22nd Amendment. This paved the way for the disastrous 1968 Democratic Convention, Robert Kennedy's assassination, the election of Richard Nixon, and Watergate. Vietnam practically defines hubris when applied to LBJ.

One the plus side, LBJ was sympathetic to people of color and the lengths to which he went to assure the passage of the Civil Rights Act were both heroic and a textbook case in how to use the power of the presidency. FDR probably wasn't a racist, but he wasn't willing to spend political capital to protect minority rights. He worried about losing the Solid South and never spoke out with Eleanor's forcefulness. Much to her chagrin, he did not push Dixiecrats to support a bill that would have made lynching a federal crime, which would have taken enforcement powers away from Southern lawmakers and juries. Moreover, FDR's authorization of Japanese internment during WWII (and some German and Italian as well) is one of the most shameful incidents in American history.

FDR died beloved and mourned; LBJ was reviled.


No credible source ranks FDR any lower than 4th and he's usually 2nd, just below Lincoln. With no disrespect meant to Honest Abe, I'd rank FDR at the top of the heap. Lincoln was a masterful wartime commander, but FDR was more inspiring—plus he had the Great Depression to manage. No president has had so much on his plate. It is easy to find fault, but it's hard to imagine who could have done better. Forget Reagan; the missing figure on Mount Rushmore is Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

LBJ is currently ranked 13th, a rating that would be higher were it not for Vietnam. Look for it to go up, as the Vietnam generation passes. It's damned hard to overlook Vietnam, but given the totality of LBJ's record suggests he should be ranked in the top ten. Vietnam must be viewed within the context of the Cold War and I have come to see "Johnson's War" as one he inherited from John Kennedy's brain trust. I'll take Andy Jackson's # 8 and give it to LBJ. 

Rob Weir

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