Sunday, 03 April 2022 22:41

CNN’s Apologia for LBJ, Part One

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Many historians tend to give President Lyndon B. Johnson credit for policies that President John F. Kennedy actually originated and then assign blame to JFK for policies that LBJ actually originated. Jim DiEugenio sets the record straight in part 1 of his series on CNN’s Joseph Califano-inspired mini-series LBJ: Triumph and Tragedy.

Joseph Califano graduated from Harvard Law School in 1955. After serving in the Navy, he worked in private practice as an attorney in New York City until 1961. He then went to the Pentagon and rose to General Counsel of the Army. In 1964, he represented the USA during international hearings involving riots in Panama. After that, he became a liaison between the Defense Secretary and President Johnson. From that position, he monitored the Selma protest. In July of 1965, he became Johnson’s chief domestic advisor. He stayed in that job until LBJ left office.

While in private practice, he was appointed by Jimmy Carter as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. In 1980, he returned to private practice, rising to senior partner at Dewey Ballantine in Washington DC. He has penned many newspaper columns and magazine articles and served on corporate boards. He has also written 14 books. In 1991, he wrote one about his service with LBJ. It was titled The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years.

CNN has now made a four-part series that adapts the title of Califano’s book, LBJ: Triumph and Tragedy. As we shall see, it is very much in keeping with the thematic structure of Califano’s book. It debuted over President’s Day and I was informed by a frequenter of KennedysAndKing about it. I watched all four segments, which was difficult. Like other members of Johnson’s administration, for example the late Jack Valenti and news executive Tom Johnson—who is interviewed here—Califano expended some effort trying to salvage what was, by any honest accounting, a disastrous presidency. The problem was all the more difficult because Johnson ascended to the White House after John Kennedy’s presidency, one which was marked with much hope and optimism. But the net effect of Johnson’s policies was so polarizing that he split asunder the Democratic coalition. This led to the election of Richard Nixon in 1968. Many historians consider that year to be one of the most crucial, most tumultuous years in post war history. It marked a transformation in the power politics of America. We were now completing a transition from a country led by the Kennedys, King, and Malcolm X to one led by Nixon, Henry Kissinger, John Mitchell, and Gerald Ford. Those pernicious reverberations are being felt to this day.

What is surprising about this program is that, in its Califano style, tone, and assembly, it does what it can to camouflage just how that milestone happened. What it leaves out—and what it uses sleight of hand to transfigure—are things that cannot be ignored or dodged in any responsible critique.


Anyone can read the updated introduction to Califano’s book at Amazon. Just from that, one can see that the author is intent on rehabilitating President Johnson in the public square. He writes that “Perhaps Johnson’s path will one day serve as a road map for current and future leaders.” (p. 6, all references to the eBook version) Califano specifically says that Vietnam has clouded the things Johnson did domestically. (p. 7) He adds that Johnson should be ranked with the finest progressive presidents, like the Roosevelts. (ibid) He then starts listing some of the things Johnson achieved.

The problem I have with his list is that Califano implies sole credit should go to Johnson for everything on it, but that is not the whole story. President Kennedy began the program for federal aid to education. (Irving Bernstein, Promises Kept, Chapter 7) It was Kennedy who first tried to pass a Medicare program and he was bringing it back at the time of his death. (ibid, p. 258) The Civil Rights Act was originated by President Kennedy and, as Clay Risen shows, the three main personages involved in passing it were Bobby Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, and Thomas Kuchel. (The New Republic, “The Shrinking of Lyndon Johnson,” 2/9/2014) For Califano to insinuate that it was Lyndon Johnson who originated affirmative action is, again, not accurate. John Kennedy signed the first affirmative action order on March 6, 1961. It’s true that Johnson’s staff worked on it, but that is because Kennedy appointed Johnson to supervise much of this program. And Robert Kennedy was critical of Johnson’s supervision. (Bernstein, p. 60)

Contrary to conventional—and Califano’s—wisdom, the War on Poverty was the brainchild of Kennedy and his chief economic advisor Walter Heller. (Thurston Clarke, JFK’s Last Hundred Days, pp. 242–43) Heller suggested an “attack on poverty” and Kennedy told him he was going to make this an election issue. At his final meeting with his cabinet, JFK mentioned the word “poverty” six times. After his assassination, his widow took the notes of that meeting to Robert Kennedy. RFK framed them and put them up on his wall, but even that only reveals part of the story. (Edward Schmitt, President of the Other America, pp. 92, 96) Bobby Kennedy had appointed a lifelong friend, David Hackett, to come up with ideas and plans to ameliorate the problems of poverty and juvenile delinquency in blighted areas. President Kennedy had given Hackett millions of dollars to run experiments with his ideas. (Allen Matusow, The Unraveling of America, pp. 111–12)

One last point in this regard. It was Bobby Kennedy who first suggested Head Start and Upward Bound, perhaps the two most successful programs of the War on Poverty. (Schmitt, p. 114) This is just a sample of the problems I have with Califano’s book, but the issue of accreditation is integral to this review, since it is clear that the mini-series pretty much takes the same approach to Johnson as Califano did. (When I tried to find out who wrote the script, I could not get a clear answer. The closest I got was that the team at the production company—Bat Bridge Entertainment—did it. March 24th email from Anne Wheeler of the LBJ Foundation.)

The fact that JFK started affirmative action and began to move an omnibus civil rights bill and also was working on poverty contradicts another tenet of the show, made by Professor Kevin Gaines, namely that Kennedy was reluctant to support civil rights and that it was LBJ who took up that cause. As I have demonstrated at length, this is balderdash. (Click here for details)

Let me add a key point not addressed by the film or by Califano. As noted above, no one did more work on the ways to cure poverty and delinquency than David Hackett did. He had been toiling on the problem and perfecting ideas to ameliorate it for over two years. (Schmitt, p. 92) Yet when Johnson took over the program, Hackett was retired. In all my reading on the subject, which includes many books, I have never been able to find a good answer as to why.

But that is not the worst part of the transfer of the program. The worst part was that Johnson chose Sargent Shriver, JFK’s brother-in-law, as the new manager. The problem with this choice was simple: Shriver already had a job. He was managing the Peace Corps. It was a job he liked and was good at. Bobby Kennedy protested, but Johnson ignored him. (Matusow, p. 123) The third mistake LBJ made was that he turned the Hackett/Kennedy outline into a sort of New Deal program. He announced it during his State of the Union address in early 1964. In other words, what JFK was going to campaign on that fall and give Hackett time to perfect, LBJ was announcing before he even ran for election. In fact, before he had even been nominated! This may have been one reason Walter Heller resigned. He saw the writing on the wall.

Once it was passed, Johnson did not speak much or spend any amount of time on the program’s oversight or administration. (Bruce Schulman, Lyndon B. Johnson and American Liberalism, p. 95) Therefore, since there was no quality control, Hackett’s program fell victim to those on the left and the right. As to the latter, people like Richard Daley wanted to take the money for themselves and give it to the city or school boards. (Matusow, p. 125, Schmitt, pp. 115–16) People on the left, like Livingston Wingate of Harlem, decided to use the money to put on plays. And much of that—mounting into the millions—disappeared without a trace. (Matusow p. 260)

As many have pointed out, The Great Society programs benefited middle class people, for example the PBS network and arts programs. Many of them benefited everyone: like environmental laws. The problem was that much more money and effort went into those kinds of programs than did the War on Poverty.

There is another important factor about The Great Society and the ultimate failure of the War on Poverty that the film does not address. That would be the 1966 mid-term elections. In 1964, running on his slogans of “let us continue” what Kennedy had done, “we seek no wider war” in Asia and “I will not send American boys to do what Asian boys should be doing,” LBJ won a smashing victory both for himself and in Congress. It was the biggest such win since Franklin Roosevelt’s 1936 re-election. Johnson actually had a veto proof majority in the Senate and a more than 2–1 advantage in the House.

But the fact that Johnson reneged on all of those promises made a large difference in 1966. The GOP won 47 seats in the House and 3 in the Senate. As a result, Johnson lost his veto proof advantage in the upper house and a filibuster along party lines was possible. Make no mistake about this. The Republican Party was literally on the ropes after 1964. Some Republicans feared extinction; that they would go the way of the Whigs and disappear from the scene. Not only did Johnson let them off the ropes—as we shall see—what he did in 1967–68 let them fully revivify themselves.


This four-part TV series discusses Johnson’s reaction to the Watts riots in 1965. RFK predicted that riots would break out in the North unless something was done. (Schmitt, p. 86) Kennedy actually said this to a Senate committee in February of 1963, and in the strongest terms. In his view, America was:

…racing the clock against disaster…We must give the members of this new lost generation some real hope in order to prevent a shattering explosion of social problems in the years to come. (ibid)

Bobby Kennedy understood that the problems in the North were different than those in the South. He and Hackett were trying to find solutions to problems that could not be cured with an accommodations bill or a voting rights act. Sure enough, two years later, when Martin Luther King visited Watts after the riots, that was the message he gave to Johnson. (See the film King in the Wilderness) Through the work of Hackett, the AG understood the problems were different in the North and they could be even more incendiary. After the nighttime riot at the University of Mississippi in 1962, he warned Arthur Schlesinger about this possibility. He said, if you think this is bad, wait until you see what awaits us in the North. (Ellen B. Meacham, Delta Epiphany, Chapter 3)

As Hackett told Bobby Kennedy, the problem of poverty in the North could not be cured by constructing a New Deal program and throwing money at it. Therefore, President Kennedy had given Hackett more time and funding to conduct his experiments in the field to see what would work. But Lyndon Johnson came of political age in the New Deal, his idol was Franklin Roosevelt. He ran the National Youth Administration in Texas. Therefore, that was the kind of program and politics he felt comfortable with. In fact, he told Heller that John Kennedy was a bit too conservative for his taste. (Schmitt, p. 96) When Heller informed the new president about Hackett’s demonstration projects, Johnson almost eliminated the entire program. That was simply not the way Johnson was going to proceed. In his eyes, you had to have a big, bold program in order to pass it through congress. (Schulman, p. 71; Matusow, p. 123) And so Johnson announced the project on national television just six weeks after his first meeting with Heller:

This administration, today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America…It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.

To say that this was a bit over the top on a rather untested program is being mild, but it was pure Lyndon Johnson from his New Deal days back in Texas.


As Harris Wofford has pointed out, within months of declaring “unconditional war on poverty,” the presidential backing for it was weakening. (Harris Wofford, Of Kennedys and Kings, p. 319) By 1965, LBJ barely mentioned the War on Poverty. And now he did not call it “my war”; it went by the name “poverty program”. Johnson himself was silent during the congressional debates on the program. And in its second year, it was Shriver who was sent up to the Hill to argue for the funding package—with virtually no White House back up. By fiscal year 1966–67, the budget for Johnson’s War on Poverty had been almost cut in half, both by him and the congress.

As many have noted, the outburst in Watts happened a week after Johnson had signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The President was shocked. He would not even take calls from commanders in the National Guard to fly troops in to restore order. (Wofford, p. 321) As he later told author Doris Kearns:

It simply wasn’t fair for a few irresponsible agitators to spoil it for me and for all the rest of the Negroes, who are basically peace-loving and nice…spoiling all the progress I’ve made in these last few years. (Wofford, p. 321)

What is wrong with this documentary is that it takes Watts—like Johnson did—as an isolated incident. In fact, Watts was just the beginning. Although it was a huge riot with 977 buildings damaged, it would later be surpassed by Newark and Detroit. In fact, unnoted in the film, for three straight summers—1966, ’67, ‘68—America went up in flames. There was a grand total of over 300 riots. In 1967 alone, there were eight American cities occupied by the National Guard. (Matusow, p. 362) In Detroit, at the request of the governor, Johnson had to send in the army to quell the insurrection. Detroit ended up with 43 dead, 7000 arrested, 1,300 buildings burned, and 2,700 businesses looted. (Matusow, p. 363)

Johnson had been warned about this probability by labor leader Walter Reuther. He made fun of both the warning and the man. (Califano, p. 88) By ignoring or discounting all of this, the documentary can bypass a serious result that ensued: the creation of white backlash. In 1964, only 34% of the citizenry thought African Americans were trying to move too fast; two years later, 85% had that view. (Wofford, p. 322) The coalition that Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King wanted to mold, one made up of people of color, poor whites, students, college educated suburban liberals, and the labor movement was being torn up. By 1966, King had split from Johnson, a fact that, again, this film underplays. (Randall Woods, LBJ: Architect of American Ambition, p. 699) Students despised LBJ for his escalation of the Vietnam War and this latter phenomenon coupled the rightwing backlash with a leftwing militancy, for example Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, and the Weathermen group of the SDS.


This leftwing militant movement provoked Johnson to do something that the film does not even mention. The president first asked the CIA to set up Operation MH/CHAOS; then for the FBI to reactivate COINTELPRO operations. (Schulman, p. 146) Not only did this constitute a set of extralegal spying operations, it was also used for subversive projects utilizing agent provocateurs for purposes of destabilization of certain groups, for example the Black Panthers. By 1967, Johnson decided discretion was the better part of valor. That fall, he made an appearance in Kansas City for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. (Matusow, p. 215)

That strophe by Johnson indicated what was ahead for America. So did another odd move. After Newark and Detroit, LBJ had appointed what he termed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. It was chaired by Illinois governor Otto Kerner and was labeled the Kerner Commission. On February 29, 1968, they handed in their report, which today is regarded as one of the most honest and insightful government reports written in that era. Johnson did not show up for the photo op to receive it. (Joseph Palermo, In His Own Right, p. 161)

As stated, the Democratic coalition was splitting apart. This allowed men like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to borrow from Alabama Governor George Wallace and grab his “Law and Order” slogan. The year 1968 was the maelstrom from which the Democratic party never fully recovered. Realizing he had little or no chance of winning the nomination, Johnson withdrew from the race on the last day of March. First King and then RFK were assassinated. This meant having no anti-war candidate at the presidential nominating convention in Chicago. Weirdly, Johnson wanted the convention to symbolically offer him the nomination in order to justify his presidency. Mayor Richard Daley actually told Johnson he could have the nomination if he wanted it. (Califano, p. 372) This is at the convention where LBJ had a peace plank for Vietnam defeated. (Califano, p. 376)

More of Johnson and more of the war was not what the SDS and other protest groups wanted to hear. They had come to Chicago by the busload to try and find a peace candidate and they planned on protesting if none emerged. This led to Daley staging a vicious police blood bath for the cameras and the convention. Chicago turned into an ugly debacle, sometimes spilling over into the convention hall. No other convention before or since has ever come close to duplicating its ferocity. (The linked short film gives the reader a precis of what that brutal and chaotic scene was like.)

The fact that this took place on TV, plus what LBJ had done to defeat a peace plank, this severely crippled nominee Hubert Humphrey’s campaign. Only when later in the campaign he decided to move toward a dovish position did he start to make up ground, but it was too big of a gap. Chicago gave the presidency to Richard Nixon. It’s hard to vote for a party who cannot even peacefully organize their own convention and where one of the main speakers, Senator Abe Ribicoff, equates the mayor of the host city to the gestapo. As the reader can see, in 1966 and ’68, Johnson had not just let the GOP off the mat, he had placed them on a path to power. None of this is depicted in CNN’s film.

But the film does show LBJ in retirement and being honored for the Great Society and Voting Rights Act. In accepting the honor, he says something like: I just regret I did not do more. My question to the film-makers is this: How the heck could he have done more? Between the demonstrations by students against the war and the annual incinerations of scores of cities, just where was the political capital for Johnson to do more? He had lost King. He had lost RFK. He almost lost to Gene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary in 1968. According to Jules Witcover in his book 85 Days, Johnson was being told that in Wisconsin, the next state to hold a primary that year, he was about to be trounced. In fact, his campaign was actually folding there.

But as unsatisfactory as the film is on the domestic front, in this reviewer’s opinion, it is even worse on Johnson’s foreign policy. We will address this issue in Part 2.

see Part 2

Last modified on Saturday, 16 April 2022 16:48
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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