Saturday, 31 March 2018

HEY HEY LBJ, WHAT DID YOU DO 50 YEARS AGO TODAY?

It was a Sunday, the 31st of March fifty years ago, 1968. I was in my last year of high school, already halfway out the door to college. The Vietnam war was a concern, but knowing I'd been offered scholarships, and would spend the next four years deferred from the draft, it was not an immediate worry. On that quiet spring evening President Lyndon B. Johnson was about to address the nation on television. I was watching it alone, but I began to shout to my family once the import of his now-famous words sank in. “...accordingly, I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

'We' had toppled a president! Eugene McCarthy's strong second place finish in the New Hampshire primary, backed by Vietnam protesters dubbed 'the Children's Crusade', had shown LBJ he would have to endure a battle to get what should have been, as a sitting president, an automatic nomination. Though he spoke of unity and his concentrating on a solution for the Vietnam War, those words rang hollow. I was celebrating. LBJ was a favourite of my grandfather, who was a long-time Democratic party hack. Ten years earlier he had come back from a 'Jefferson-Jackson' fund-raiser at which then-Senator Johnson spoke, and given me an LBJ-autographed programme. 'This man will be president some day,' he told me. He fulfilled my grandad's prophecy, but now change was coming. Johnson would be gone. A war would be over.

Of course, that did not happen. Change came, but in none of the ways I'd anticipated. Johnson's crowning achievements in his brief presidency were the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Even as he stood down to 'unite' America, just four days later Martin Luther King was assassinated, and riots harkened a new era in the fight for racial equality. Robert Kennedy would enter the campaign, like McCarthy on an anti-war platform, but also as a potential civil rights healer. At the time I saw RFK as the cynical opportunist he had always been. Over time, I've come to re-assess my opinion of him, believing his conversion was real, spurred by the move to wider social activism by MLK. What we lost was no less than an opportunity for a racially unified anti-war and social justice movement. After RFK's assassination, Johnson's vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, won the Democratic nomination after a Chicago's bloody convention, then he lost narrowly to Richard Nixon in November 1968. 

The convention brought changes in the Democratic party that enabled George McGovern to win the party's nomination in 1972. By then I was 21, and he was the first of many losing candidates for whom I would cast my vote, and he's still the one I believed in most whole-heartedly. Despite the Vietnam War, now four years deeper in to tragedy, despite the Watergate scandal still years from being taken seriously by the mainstream media, Nixon trounced McGovern.

Immediately after Johnson's speech I wrote an anti-war poem, which was published in our very conservative local paper, the New Haven Register; my first published poem. I went away to college, marched against the war, went on strike in 1970 following the invasion of Cambodia and the killings at Kent State and Jackson State. I protested against the war and for Black Panther leader Bobby Seale in New Haven, when Yale President Kingman Brewster proclaimed the impossibility of a black man receiving a fair trial in America. I became a conscientious objector, and the draft missed me. I moved to Montreal anyway. Watergate came and went, as did, eventually, the war, and finally Nixon himself. All triggered by Johnson's withdrawal from the Presidential campaign.

Today, with America mired in perpetual war for perpetual peace, needing a Black Lives Matter movement to combat an epidemic of killings, and with a president as shifty as Nixon but with none of his wisdom or integrity, I went back and through the miracle of the internet watched Johnson's full speech for the first time in fifty years. He seemed a more sympathetic figure now, trapped in the quagmire of Vietnam after sacrificing his Democratic party in his quest to achieve racial justice. A few years ago, when I wrote a review of the film Selma, I questioned whether it was fair to make Johnson the villain of the piece, especially when so many less ambiguous villains were available, starting with J. Edgar Hoover. Johnson's relationship with King was an uneasy one, but as another movie,All The Way showed, he had to burn bridges of his own to get the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act passed. He played a big-stakes political game, knowing what was at risk if he won, and did what he thought was right anyway.

LBJ may not actually have said 'there goes the South' in 1964 as he signed the Civil Rights Act into law, but that is exactly what happened: by 1968 the drift of the racist, fundamentalist, conservative Dixiecrats to Nixon's Republican party had begun. By 1980, when Ronald Reagan took the White House from Jimmy Carter, the transformation was complete: allied with the far-right oil men, military contractors, and western tycoons, the southerners could squeeze the traditional Yankee moderates within the Republicans: compromise with the hated 'liberals' soon became impossible.

Watching anew, I realised LBJ's speech was primarily about the divisions he saw growing in America. He began by speaking of divisive partisanship. Later he said “I will not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing”. I paid no attention to those words at the time, but five decades later, they sound more prophetic than “there goes the South”. Johnson had been a consummate arm-twister in his time as Senate majority leader, a master of bending those on both sides to achieve some sort of compromise. Today, Mitch McConnell is as ruthless as any Menshevik; the threat of Tea-Party purists backed by Koch and Mercer money being enough to keep all but the bravest or most foolhardy Republicans in partisan line. America enters new, undeclared, open-ended wars, with a bi-partisan monotony of rubber-stamped support behind them. Bernie Sanders' 2016 version of the “Children's Crusade”, like McCarthy's in 1968, merely confirmed the weaknesses of the Democrat's chosen candidate, who nevertheless nearly won.

We know now that Nixon was conspiring with the likes of Henry Kissinger to sabotage the Paris Peace Talks to end the Vietnam War, on which Johnson was staking his withdrawal from partisan politics. We know Johnson knew about it, and thought it treasonous, but was afraid to take action of Nixon for fear he would be accused just what he had sworn he would not do: play party politics with the war. The conflict in Vietnam would persist until 1975, when the ignominious abandonment of Saigon put paid to the whole false notion of 'peace with honour'.

By then, Lyndon Johnson was more than two years dead. It is hard not to conclude the failure of his sacrifice to achieve either peace or justice left him empty. What he would have made of America's electing a black president, then following by electing one who's facing accusations of presidential treason with Russia is beyond speculation. But thinking back to 1968, and watching Johnson's speech, so remarkably un-televisual, so devoid of spin in today's terms, is to see it in a different light. It rings true, with a sense of battered honesty about it. We don't get many politicians acting at all honourably these days. Thus history adds nuance my young self could not, makes him a more sympathetic figure. I still have that autographed programme. I find it means more to me today. It holds up better than my poem.

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