Bush & Johnson: In the Mirror of War

· Edgewise, Paleoblogs, Running for President

Many have made comparisons between the Iraq war and the Vietnam war but I have been thinking lately about the characters and careers of the two men who waged those American–made wars: GWB and LBJ.
Both were Texans, one a senator, the other governor, before entering the White House. They came from opposite sides of the cultural tracks, Johnson from poor farmers in one of the poorest regions of the country, Bush from a long line of wealthy aristocrats. They both had fathers in the public eye. Lyndon’s father had been a state legislator who fought for his poor, farm country constituents but was soon out of office, and out of work. His father’s failures embarrassed Lyndon. Bush’s father, a combat veteran and president, overshadowed the younger George during his undistinguished college and business career. Neither Johnson nor Bush saw military service in the wars of their youth. Johnson managed to avoid service in World War II and Bush likewise sought alternative service that would put him out of harm’s way. And both men were ruthless campaigners, Johnson famously stuffing ballot boxes in his first Senate win–Bush holding an entire nation at bay while lawyers fought over disputed ballot counts, ultimately winning by Supreme Court fiat.
Johnson never wanted to be involved in a war in Southeast Asia and he inherited the Vietnam conflict as he had inherited the presidency after the assassination of John Kennedy. But he could not say no to the generals, and presided over the escalation of the war. Bush came into office with unfinished business in the Middle East and perhaps a war agenda from the beginning but the unexpected attack of September 11 in the first year of his presidency gave overwhelming impetus to war plans–with Iraq the chosen target. Johnson saw the Vietnam war as a threat to his domestic agenda, and the price of that war lead to cycles of inflation and economic crises. Bush made the “war on terror” his domestic agenda, and the justification for ballooning national debt and transgressions of civil liberties.
The Vietnam war lasted ten years. By 1975 the “enemy” had taken the city of Saigon, and North and South Vietnam were reunited under a communist government just two years after President Nixon’s “peace with honor” ceasefire and troop withdrawal. Collatoral damage included millions of Vietnamese citizens, three political assassinations (Kennedy, King, and Kennedy) and a one-term presidency for Johnson.
Bush’s “war on Terror” may not be concluded in ten years. But it is inevitable that the struggle in Iraq will go on, whether American troops are there or not. Bush got his second term, unlike Johnson who left politics and died soon after, defeated by his war. Bush has unilaterally declared victory in the war in Iraq but we wait for the real outcome. Johnson’s presidency left one enduring legacy – the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Bush’s legacy will most likely be a Supreme Court lineup that will reexamine the rights of women, minorities, and prisoners in order to limit, not expand them.
From a ruthless competitor risen from the dust of the Texas plains to the heights of power, Lyndon Johnson ultimately will be known by acts that depended on empathy with the poorest, the most disenfranchised. To do it, he tore apart the traditional alliance with the racist Christian South that had gotten him elected and had made the Democratic party so powerful. George W. Bush’s Republican party today is the spitting image of that alliance. His campaign slogan touted the “compassionate conservative” but there is little compassion in the presidential acts of GWB.
Lyndon Johnson was a poor country hick who clawed his way to the top but in the end didn’t forget where he came from, and did something big for those who had little. George W. Bush didn’t forget where he came from either, and inspite of his playing at the role of country boy on his Texas estate, he will make sure that those who fostered his rise to power will be well rewarded.
Vietnam was Johnson’s accidental war and it was his undoing. Bush made Iraq his war and it is his strength. Americans no more like this war than they did the Vietnam war in 1967 but we aren’t as mad about it. We are less mad than scared, and we can thank Bush’s war for that.