Last month I found myself in a friend’s kitchen, perched on a wooden stool while pointing a cracked iPhone screen at my laptop’s voice recorder. I was interviewing a pair of climate activists in their 20s, who were hunger striking to protest ongoing political inaction in the face of climate change. A series of unexpected technical glitches forced me to improvise the interview set-up — and then one of the protesters said something that nearly made me drop my phone in astonishment.
“I think the last couple of days of hunger striking make me think about what a different president would have done, right?” Kidus Girma told Salon. “I’m thinking of LBJ and the Great Society and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
Girma went on to mention Franklin D. Roosevelt, but it was the reference to Lyndon B. Johnson that startled me. By the end of his presidency, Johnson was almost universally reviled by the liberal baby boomers who had grown up during his administration. Blamed for escalating the Vietnam War to a disastrous scale and then cracking down on antiwar protests, Johnson faced such forceful opposition from young people that he dropped out of the 1968 presidential campaign after the New Hampshire primary, faced with the prospect of losing his own party’s nomination.
Because boomers later inherited the earth — or at least defined the narrative of the 1960s — the collective hostility toward LBJ has lingered. He has been largely overshadowed in the public’s consciousness by the president before him, John F. Kennedy, who dismissed Johnson as a nonentity. In the ensuing decades, many Americans tended to see Kennedy as a symbol of youth, charisma and eloquence, while Johnson represented a brutal and cynical style of politics.
That appears to be changing. LBJ has been name-dropped constantly in recent years. Girma was the third young activist in recent months to describe Johnson to me in terms one might use for a presidential beau idéal, something no self-respecting ’60s radical would have done when he was in office. It is jarring to hear that very argument from the same types of activists who would have hounded him out of power during the 1968 election.
It is not, however, unexplainable. Given LBJ’s policy stances — which were ahead not only of his time, but our own — this youthful admiration makes a great deal of sense. It also helps that LBJ was famous for what friends and foes alike dubbed the “Johnson treatment,” which involved using his intimidating physical presence, eerie knack for knowing an opponent’s darkest secrets and mastery of parliamentary procedure to strong-arm anyone who stood in his way. These two qualities made him not only an accomplished president, but a fascinatingly nuanced personality. His seeming contradictions — and with them the essence of his contemporary appeal — may be partially explained by a brief episode from LBJ’s early life: His one-year stint as a teacher in a segregated public school.
The year was 1928. The Jazz Age was still roaring, but the Great Depression was right around the corner. Then again, in places like the Texas town of Cotulla — a rural community about 90 miles southwest of San Antonio, where the 20-year-old Lyndon Johnson had been assigned to teach math and history to 5th, 6th and 7th graders — life was always the Great Depression. This was especially so for the 29 students trusted to Johnson’s care, all of whom were of Mexican descent and many of whom had migrant parents. Their lives, anyone could plainly see, was deeply marred by poverty and discrimination.
Powerful people in Texas simply didn’t care about educating “Mexicans”; as Robert Caro writes in the first volume of his Johnson biography, “the five other teachers were Cotulla housewives, and they treated the job with the contempt they felt it deserved, putting in the minimum time necessary, arriving just as classes started and leaving as soon as they ended.”
At first the young Johnson wasn’t much different. He had taken the job to help pay for his studies at Southwest Texas State Teachers College (now Texas State University), and his racial attitudes weren’t much different from those of other white Texans (nor would he ever entirely rid himself of a noxious racist streak). Nothing in the ambitious young man’s character suggested he would treat this teaching gig as anything special. Johnson was rapidly promoted to school principal, but that was almost certainly the result of sexism; he was the only male teacher at the school.
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Instead Johnson poured himself into the job, something his students quickly noticed. As principal, he ordered every teacher to supervise the students during recess, convinced the school board to spend money on sports equipment, and then began to schedule games against other schools. He was hard on underperforming students, even using corporal punishment on the boys —which was neither illegal nor unusual — but many of his students understood that came from a place of high expectations. As he learned that some of them were struggling in school because they were forced to work as day laborers, he became ever more determined to help them surmount those obstacles.
“He put us to work,” one student, Manuel Sanchez, later told Caro. “But he was the kind of teacher you wanted to work for. You felt an obligation to him and to yourself to do your work.” Johnson himself put in long hours on his own time, staying after class with students who had fallen behind or teaching English to the school janitor. Johnson spoke no Spanish and had little interest in Mexican culture — which was pretty much the norm for white people in Texas back then — and clearly believed it was important to “Americanize” his young charges in order to give them their best shot at life. That looks a lot different from the 21st century than it did at the time. As another former student, Juanita Ortiz, told Caro, “I remember his telling us seventh graders that anybody could be anything he wanted to be if he worked hard at it. As young as he was, he was trying to teach us all he knew. He really cared.”
Johnson left the C.A. Welhausen Elementary School in 1929 and was never employed there again, but his brief teaching career probably changed him more than his students. He frequently talked about his year at the Cotulla school, whether in conversation with liberal activists, when lobbying intransigent legislators to support his civil rights bills or in private conversations with friends and family. LBJ had a Machiavellian nature, so he probably saw this as a way to convince listeners of his good intentions. That doesn’t mean the feelings he expressed were insincere.
Perhaps the most telling occasion occurred in 1965. A year earlier, LBJ had won the most one-sided popular landslide in the history of presidential elections, crushing Republican Barry Goldwater with a never-surpassed 61.1 percent of the popular vote. He had also caused a permanent political realignment while passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex or religion. The landmark bill began to drive conservatives, especially white Southerners, out of the Democratic Party. Instead of scaling back his ambitions, LBJ saw that the 1964 legislation had not gone far enough. The next step was to ban racial discrimination in voting, which came with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In a special address to Congress explaining his rationale, Johnson called on the story of his teaching career in Cotulla.
My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican- American school. Few of them could speak English, and I couldn’t speak Spanish.
My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast and hungry. And they knew even in their youth the pain of prejudice. They never seemed to know why people disliked them, but they knew it was so because I saw it in their eyes.
I often walked home late in the afternoon, after the classes were finished, wishing there was more that I could do. But all I knew was to teach them the little that I knew, hoping that it might help them against the hardships that lay ahead.
And somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child.
I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students, and to help people like them all over this country.
But now I do have that chance. And I’ll let you in on a secret: I mean to use it.
Later that year, when returning to his alma mater to sign the Higher Education Act of 1965, Johnson brought up Cotulla again:
I shall never forget the faces of the boys and the girls in that little Welhausen Mexican School, and I remember even yet the pain of realizing and knowing then that college was closed to practically every one of those children because they were too poor.
And I think it was then that I made up my mind that this nation could never rest while the door to knowledge remained closed to any American.
It’s unlikely that many young people in the 2020s know the story of LBJ’s teaching career at Cotulla, but I suspect this is the animating spirit of what so many find appealing about him. As Caro would write in later volumes, Johnson’s career was driven by two great desires — a craving for power, and an impulse to help those who were suffering. When the imperatives clashed, Johnson always chose power, and acted no better than any other shrewd but amoral politician. When those two strains of his character aligned, however, he accomplished truly amazing things.
This saga is made more fascinating, not less, by the fact that Johnson was by all accounts an unpleasant human being. Journalist Bill Moyers, who served as LBJ’s press secretary for two years, admired the man’s politics but has described him as temperamental, mean-spirited, demanding and explosive. For every tale of LBJ’s kindness toward ordinary citizens, there are others about people who worked for him and insisted he was the worst kind of boss — abusive, unrealistic, quick to blame others but never willing to accept responsibility for his own mistakes.
Johnson might not have been able to have a political career in this century. He was notorious for being sexually inappropriate with women, and even his vulgar humor when in male company would raise eyebrows today. As Caro writes, LBJ shamelessly cheated on his wife and publicly scolded her for being less attractive, he claimed, than other women. He delighted in acts of cruelty to those who were powerless to tell him off, and enjoyed exerting a sort of royal privilege over aides and advisers, famously compelling them to talk to him while he was sitting on the toilet.
No doubt more important than any of that, boomer liberals weren’t wrong in blaming Johnson for the imperialist debacle in Vietnam. Thanks to secret recordings of his presidential conversations, we now get a sense of a man who was unable to shake the conventional wisdom that if he “lost” in Vietnam, he would be emasculated — the worst kind of political defeat. Arguably Johnson destroyed his presidency, and did incalculable damage to both America and the world, out of fear that he’d be humiliated by the Viet Cong.
Yet despite these ample shortcomings, LBJ looms large because when it comes to domestic policy, he was far ahead of any subsequent Democratic president. Indeed, he was pretty close to positions we would call “progressive” today. That goes beyond his landmark civil rights bills to community-based antipoverty programs, investment in high-unemployment areas and free or heavily subsidized education and job training. He pushed through the bills that created Medicare and Medicaid, and on environmental issues was the first president to move beyond an ethic of “conservation” toward regulations designed to protect air and water quality and endangered species, as well as control industrial pollution.
Johnson’s list of progressive accomplishments is so extensive there’s no point trying to catalog them all: education, funding of the arts, senior services, women’s rights, immigration reform, consumer protection, transportation infrastructure, farm aid, subsidized housing and much more. He repeatedly succeeded in enacting major legislation, in stark contrast with later Democratic presidents (including the one now in office). Despite his personality flaws — or maybe to an extent because of them — he knew how to productively channel his strengths and energies in humane directions.
At a time when Democrats appear more invested in bipartisan comity and “going high” than causing the change their base voters want, LBJ’s “take no prisoners” attitude seems like a much-needed tonic. If contemporary liberals and progressives decide to learn from Johnson’s distinctive blend of idealism and pragmatism, they’ll have to begin with the brief period when he was a teacher — a chapter in his life that brought out the best in him.