LBJ Was Great. LBJ Was Horrible. Deal With It.


David Greenberg and Michael Kazin are arguing about whether LBJ was a great president. Here is Greenberg’s wrap-up:

Maybe our differences really come down to this: For Michael, the enormity of the Vietnam debacle is so great that LBJ must remain forever confined to a historical doghouse. In contrast, I would submit that we have to hold both Johnson’s great deeds and his terrible deeds in our minds at the same time. This uneasy position, I think, does more to invite or even demand continued attention to LBJ’s presidency from historians. And it implies a moral verdict on the man that is, in my view, ultimately more unsettling than a tout court denial of any esteem for him whatsoever.

Yes. A thousand times yes. There’s no need to rate LBJ or any other president on a scale from 1 to 10. He was a great president in some areas and a terrible one in others. That’s it. You can’t put those two things in a blender and come to a single, homogenized conclusion, no matter how badly you want to.

This isn’t like Mussolini making the trains run on time, or Hitler building the autobahn, trivial achievements that simply don’t bear on either man’s place in history. LBJ’s domestic achievements were gigantic. His foreign policy failures were equally gigantic. That’s it. That’s what happened, and that’s who he is. We just have to live with it.

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