LBJ, Reagan, and the American Dream: competing visions of liberty.

Author:Medhurst, Martin J.
Position:Lyndon B. Johnson - Essay

For more than forty years, scholars of presidential rhetoric have investigated the ways in which narratives about the American Dream have been used in presidential discourse. Walter R. Fisher identified two dominant strains of the dream narrative--the materialistic and the moralistic--and identified the former with President Richard Nixon's campaign rhetoric and the latter with the rhetoric of his opponent George McGovern (Fisher 1973). Kurt Ritter went even further, claiming that the two strains could be identified with the major political parties. "It is hardly difficult to separate the basic Republican version from the basic Democratic version of the American Dream," he wrote. "To the extent that Americans can be persuaded that their past is a history of the individual struggling alone against the frontier without government interference, then the American Dream takes on a Republican cast. Those Americans who regard their national past as the history of yearning masses who came to our shores seeking a better life, however, will tend to embrace the Democrats' version of the American Dream" (Ritter 1980, 166).

This dualistic approach is replicated in more recent research, with Denise Bostdorff and Steven Goldzwig claiming that the American Dream is conflicted by arguments over ends and means. The dream is also constrained by the largesse of its promise, they contend, "which includes individual and communal happiness" (Bostdorff and Goldzwig 2005, 664). John Jones and Robert Rowland (forthcoming), examining Ronald Reagan's rhetoric, note that "throughout most of this nation's history, the American Dream was strongly associated with progressive causes.... Reagan's key move to overcome this problem was to redefine the American Dream, to emphasize individual rather than collective action." Writing about Barack Obama, Rowland and Jones argue that "the political fault line in dream narratives, the key difference between stories enacting the American Dream from a conservative and those enacting it from a liberal perspective, is the degree of emphasis on personal versus societal values" (2007, 432).

I do not contest the usefulness of this body of work, but I do want to offer a different perspective. Instead of grounding our understanding of American Dream narratives in materialistic versus moralistic, or ends versus means, or individual versus society, or Republican versus Democratic, I propose that the more central distinction is that between competing understandings of the term liberty. After all, virtually all commentators trace the origins of the American Dream, among other sources, to the Declaration of Independence's inalienable rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Liberty, it would seem, should be central to our understanding of how the American Dream functions rhetorically to invite particular policy positions and political programs. To test this hypothesis, I read and charted everything that Lyndon B. Johnson (or LBJ) and Ronald Reagan said about liberty and the American Dream during their presidential terms. What I found was that the real difference between the dream narratives was differing understandings of liberty--positive liberty in the case of Johnson and negative liberty in the case of Reagan. I chose these two presidents because they are widely understood as representing diametrically opposed poles of presidential discourse in America. Because they lie at the poles of mainstream discourse, their rhetoric provides particularly clear examples of my thesis.

It would be hard to find two men whose views of liberty and the American Dream were more different than those of Lyndon Baines Johnson and Ronald Reagan. Born only three years apart in the early twentieth century, Johnson and Reagan dominated the second half of that century, with LBJ serving in public office for nineteen of those years and Reagan serving for sixteen. Their presidential terms spanned the revolutions of the 1960s and the restorations of the 1980s, respectively. They were, by nearly any measure, giants of the presidential office, presidents who left the office vastly different than they found it upon their entrance. While they were, as all presidents are, creatures of their moment in history, they were also men with long-standing political philosophies and beliefs that shaped their approach to the office, their policies, their goals, and their rhetoric. By examining how each of these presidents discussed liberty, the American Dream, and the relationship between the two, I hope to illuminate the bases of their competing visions and their continuing legacies today.

To accomplish this, I will examine first LBJ, then Reagan. In each case, I will focus on what they believed about the American Dream, what they saw as the goals or purposes inherent in the dream, what problems or obstacles threatened the dream, and what actions on their part or on the part of the government could rescue the dream. I will then turn to the notion of liberty and examine what each president believed about liberty, the sources from which they saw liberty as springing, the problems or challenges of liberty in their day, the responsibilities inherent in liberty, and what they saw as the victories or triumphs of liberty under their watch. By comparing and contrasting each president's views along these nine vectors, we will emerge with a much better understanding of their respective positions and a clearer sense of why their views, at a very basic level, were incompatible.

LBJ and the American Dream

LBJ entered politics in 1935 as the Texas field representative for the National Youth Administration, one of the many New Deal programs initiated by Franklin D. Roosevelt (or FDR) to fight the Great Depression. Two years later, he ran for and won a seat in the U.S. Congress, eventually serving twelve years in the House of Representatives (1937-1949) and twelve years in the U.S. Senate (1949-1961). From the very outset, LBJ considered FDR to be his political hero and role model, a fact that is important to our investigation because, as Doris Kearns has noted, LBJ "wanted to out-Roosevelt Roosevelt" as president (Kearns 1976, 390). It was FDR who had insisted on passage of the first great social program--social security--in 1935, and who had followed that with government action to make home ownership more attractive and education more accessible. By signing the G.I. Bill of Rights into law on June 22, 1944, FDR became the first president to lay out "a modern vision of the American dream," thus solidifying what some scholars have labeled the "post-war social contract" (American RadioWorks 2015).

Among its many benefits, the G.I. Bill offered virtually an entire generation free tuition at any school an applicant could get into, from Harvard to Ohio State. Congress threw in money for books, and a living stipend that increased if the student had children. Just as tantalizing, the G.I. Bill offered veterans government-backed home loans that required nothing down, and mortgage payments that made buying a home cheaper than renting. (American RadioWorks 2015)

It is important to keep in mind that LBJ came to political maturity in an era where the expansion of government benefits to individuals was the hallmark of success, both political and economic. That expansion had slowed under the eight-year reign of Republican Dwight Eisenhower, but it had not ceased. When LBJ became president on November 22, 1963, in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, he may not have been a New Frontiersman, but he was still an old New Dealer, one who knew exactly where the levers of power were and how to operate them.

Clearly LBJ's views on the American Dream had been shaped by his devotion to New Deal principles. The very term American Dream had been popularized in the 1931 book The Epic of America, where James Truslow Adams defined it as "a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position" (1931, 404). But it was precisely those circumstances of birth and position that LBJ could not abide. He wanted to go further than his mentor. He reminded Americans that "thirty-five years ago, with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democratic Party made a promise to every American. We pledged ourselves to revitalize the old American dream of individual opportunity. We declared that the task of government was to provide each American with the chance to achieve his full capacities" (Johnson 1967a).

LBJ believed that the American Dream was based on the concept of equality of opportunity for all. But he was deeply disturbed that not all had equal opportunities and that even people who did enjoy opportunities were often blocked from the realization of their dreams by structural objects such as lack of education, sickness, poverty, and racism. In his view, the destiny of the whole nation was caught up in the issues of equality for all and the opportunity for all to pursue their dreams. "I believe that our destiny as a nation depends," he said, "upon how well we fulfill the pledges to ourselves: the pledge of freedom, of equality, of a more decent life for all" (Johnson 1966). LBJ's American Dream was of a Great Society, a society that had never before existed in the history of mankind but that was clearly within man's reach, if only he could imagine it. And that was precisely the task that LBJ set for himself--to help his fellow countrymen imagine a new society--a Great Society--in which racism, poverty, hunger, disease, joblessness, and ignorance were banished and where men and women could flourish as equals under the law.

For LBJ, the pursuit of the American Dream was a never-ending task--a task to be taken up anew by each succeeding generation. FDR's generation had set the foundation. Now...

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