Russell and Duenes

President’s Day: Lyndon B. Johnson

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“It’s like grandma’s nightshirt; it covers everything!” Such was President Lyndon Johnson’s reaction to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which now gave him a free hand in Vietnam to take “all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” Yet even with such sweeping presidential powers, historian Paul Johnson notes, “LBJ proved as indecisive over Vietnam as Kennedy was,” and a pattern of duplicity emerged whereby Johnson would tell the American public that the U.S. did not want a wider war while at the same time continuing to increase U.S. troop commitments.

Certainly Johnson felt he had a noose around his neck. He could continue to send more boys to die, which on one level he was loathe to do, or he could disengage and withdraw, which, to him, was worse. Why worse? No doubt there were many layers to Johnson’s motivations, but I have to believe that a good deal of it had to do with Johnson’s desire to be liked and approved of; his desire to preserve his own reputation. For Johnson sought loyalty and he sought it fiercely. He longed for respect. He wanted everyone to know that he had helped bring about the “Great Society” and that he was not soft on communism. He was “not going to lose Vietnam…not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went.” Should Robert Kennedy have become president, he did not want to be remembered as the mistake between the Kennedys.

But what did he get for it? The knowledge that tens of thousands of our boys were being killed and untold horrors and death were being inflicted on the Vietnamese people? His Great Society programs being financially overrun and subsumed under the deluge of the war? Massive defections among his close advisors and cabinet members leading to political isolation and destruction, and the haunting, disapproving voices outside ringing with the refrain, “Hey, Hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today!” At what price, self-preservation? Can the sinful demand for approval and reputation really provoke such terrible consequences?

These questions got me thinking about another political figure who also wanted to preserve his own reputation and standing. A man who was worried about his favorability as a Roman governor, who had political power to execute men or to set them free, who knew that an innocent man was arrested and brought before him due to petty jealousy, who heard the voices of mob rule “insistently demanding” the innocent man’s blood, and who ultimately allowed their shouts of “Crucify! Crucify!” to prevail as he handed over the eternal and sinless Son of God to be slaughtered. And what did he get for it? Forever memorialized in the church’s creed: Jesus Christ was “crucified under Pontius Pilate.”

Self-preservation and desire for approval; such subtle, common, acceptable things, and yet such untold misery they bring upon our own lives and those in the world around us. We do well to remember that these find root in all of our presidents, including our current one, because they find root in us all. Broken marriages, unreconciled brothers and sisters, estranged relatives, lost jobs, trashed reputations, escalated wars, racial divisions, and separation from God. These are the fruits of that tree. Yet our Lord Jesus Christ, when his reputation was being impugned, “did not retaliate…issued no threats, but instead kept entrusting Himself to [His Father] who judges justly. Jesus stands ready to help, strengthen, and preserve those who turn to him in faith, no matter what the circumstances, for “as the Scripture says, ‘Anyone who trusts in Him will never be put to shame.’” That’s good news today.



Written by Michael Duenes

February 15, 2009 at 11:32 pm

Posted in Duenes, History

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