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Just For One Day, Maybe

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This response to Michael Kazin’s strange argument about LBJ (“why didn’t political leaders use the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act to attack LBJ over Vietnam? Obviously because they think Vietnam was a peachy idea!”) is apt:

Should LBJ be remembered as a “liberal hero”? If in labeling someone hero, we’re presumed to be ignoring or airbrushing his faults—then of course not. Does anyone really have heroes anymore, at least in this sense? My generation, born at the tail end of the 1960s, has never been able to regard any leader as a hero the way earlier generations did. Our sensibilities and our politics have changed too much since the 1960s. No one can overlook anymore (for example) Washington’s and Jefferson’s slaveholding, Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies, Lincoln’s and Wilson’s wartime civil liberties records, or FDR’s internment of Japanese Americans. We know these men to be deeply flawed, in some cases to the point where celebrating them produces in us considerable unease. But, ultimately, we still recognize them as remarkable presidents whose finest feats transformed the nation for the good.

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So if in calling someone a hero it’s also possible to simultaneously acknowledge his failings, even terrible failings, then Lyndon Johnson deserves a place in the pantheon.

But maybe we don’t need to label Johnson a hero. Maybe it’s enough to say he did some heroic things, and that, as the state of American politics today suggests, is rare enough.

The conclusion is correct. The whole idea that we should expect presidents to be heroes is deeply weird and ahistorical. The disastrous second volume of Caro’s LBJ biography is a good illustration of what can happen when you get too far down that particular rabbit hole.

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