Great Expectations

How LBJ and Reagan Wrecked Our Faith in Government

In the mid-’60s polar opposites Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan promised America more than they could possibly deliver. The result was decades of cynicism about government.

10.21.14 9:45 AM ET

If you have been following the rolling fiftieth anniversaries of the last two years—the March on Washington and the Kennedy assassination in 1963, Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights Act of 1964—you know that the fiftieth anniversary of the 1964 presidential election is the next item on your ’60s punchcard.

Lyndon Johnson, who had been president for one year and was nearing the pinnacle of his popularity, crushed Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater by 16 million votes, at that time the largest margin ever in a presidential election. At a rally in Pittsburgh a week before the election, Johnson laid out an ambitious, transformative vision for the United States.

“So here is the Great Society,” Johnson said. “It’s the time—and it’s going to be soonwhen nobody in this country is poor.” Elimination of poverty. “It’s going to be the time… when we have a job for everyone who is willing to work.” Full employment. “It’s the time when every false distinction—of what your race is, or your creed is, or your sex, or how you spell your name, or where your folks came from, or how you pray—it’s going to be a time when none of that makes any difference.” The end of all discrimination.

Johnson promised all the education one could absorb. He promised social security with meaning and purpose and pleasure. He promised every slum would be cleaned up. Johnson didn’t just promise a chicken in every pot. He promised a utopian America where society’s biggest, most vexing, most entrenched problems would disappear. That chicken was going to be freakin’ amazing.

Later on the same day that Johnson delivered his Pittsburgh speech, a 53-year-old TV actor and one-time B-list film star named Ronald Reagan gave a closing argument for Goldwater, a paid endorsement entitled A Time for Choosing. The televised speech was an oogedy-boogedy list of horrors wrought by government—too much federal debt, the dollar just isn’t worth what it was in 1939, wasteful spending on welfare programs, etc.—and loaded up with statistics that Reagan read from index cards. Millions of people watched it live. Goldwater still got demolished in the election, sure, but A Time for Choosing raised Reagan’s profile considerably and made him a conservative star.

Two years later, Johnson would be a deeply unpopular president, and the Democrats would lose 47 seats (though not the majority) in the House of Representatives. Reagan would be elected governor of California and become a serious contender to challenge Johnson for the presidency in 1968 (though neither would wind up running in that election).

Jonathan Darman’s Landslide: LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of a New America, a new history of the seismic leftward and then rightward shift in national politics during the three years after the Kennedy assassination, is a dual narrative of Johnson and Reagan during those years.

Darman argues that Johnson and Reagan preached competing visions of a utopian America—for Johnson a government-led social reformation, for Reagan an idyllic society guided by the invisible hand of free enterprise—and neither delivered, fostering a cynical view of the United States government that persists 50 years later.

“Each of the myths discredited government,” Darman writes. “Reagan’s did it overtly, maintaining that government was the source of America’s problems. Johnson’s did it by example, making promises for government that it could not possibly fulfill. As a result, a generation of Americans has come of age with little faith in government’s ability to do much of anything.”

Darman, a 33-year-old former political reporter for Newsweek, has a deft grasp of Reagan and Johnson’s biographies and of the last half-century of American political history. Setting the book as a dual story seems a conventional enough literary device, but it both rescues the story from the fatalism (for Johnson) and pluck (for Reagan) of biography and refreshes both of their stories by contrasting the simultaneous reversals of their respective political fortunes. Darman’s delivery of a few scenes in the style of a screenplay didn’t especially work for me, but I’m glad he did it; the history genre could use a little innovation, and I hope Darman and other historians will continue looking for ways to invigorate it.

(One area ripe for innovation is sourcing. Johnson’s speech and Reagan’s televised address are both available online, but Darman cited offline sources in his notes. That’s certainly consistent with most other historians, but I would like to see more follow Rick Perlstein’s example and go all in on hyperlinks as Perlstein did with The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, which used his book’s website as a documentary repository to encourage further engagement with the material.)

Landslide’s dual stories are asymmetrical in almost every respect. Johnson is president of the United States during the most turbulent period of social change in American history and the most dramatic phase of his life. Reagan is a political neophyte in a fairly conventional campaign for governor of California. Johnson’s narrative is part of the history of the ’60s. Reagan’s presidency was more than a decade away.

Johnson is alive on the page, a complicated, emotional presence at some points confident beyond hubris and at others embarrassingly insecure; Reagan is affectless, unmodulated, and opaque. The distinction is due somewhat to the contrast of the manic Johnson and even-keeled Reagan, but it’s more attributable to Johnson’s vast historical record—Oval Office audio recordings, national media coverage, Lady Bird Johnson’s revealing diary entries, etc.—versus the relatively scant record for Reagan during these same years.

The conventional wisdom has long been that Johnson’s presidency was undone by a combination of Vietnam, civil unrest, and liberal overreach, and that Republicans like Reagan provided a smaller-government, more self-reliant, more optimistic alternative. Landslide makes clear that escalation in Vietnam was the major reason for Johnson’s flagging popularity and that the 1966 elections were a referendum on Johnson and the Democrats’ management of the Vietnam War much more so than a choice between Democrats’ and Republicans’ competing visions for the country. Reagan ran a storied campaign for governor of California in 1966, sure, but he benefitted enormously from a national wave of anti-Johnson sentiment.

‘Landslide: LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of a New America’ by Jonathan Darman. 480 p. Random House. $22.23.

“Reagan is a difficult biographical subject,” Darman acknowledged when I interviewed him recently. “Even the people closest to him talk about what a self-contained person he was, that he didn’t share a lot of what was going on inside him. So you have that combined with the perennial optimism of Reagan combined with the actor’s need to not show any effort. It’s hard to go back and find some of the human moments that you would with another subject because he doesn’t show them as easily.”

Although Lou Cannon’s books are a serviceable, journalistic account of Reagan’s life and Darman accurately pinpoints the period of Reagan’s transition, there is not yet a definitive single-volume or series of biographies to connect Reagan the actor with Reagan the politician and really get at what drove him from the ’60s forward. Maybe H.W. Brands’s Reagan: The Life, due in June 2015 will get behind the veneer. For now, though, the Gipper remains elusive.