What Reagan + LBJ Shared
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
As we approach the presidential election season, it’s worth considering the historic pendulum swings in politics.
It wouldn’t seem that Lyndon B. Johnson, a paragon of progressive legislation, and Ronald Reagan, a small-government hero, would have much in common. Yet Jonathan Darman, a former political reporter for Newsweek, argues they do. They were near contemporaries — and bookends of a sweeping narrative in Landslide: LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of a New America, Darman’s new book.
Transcript has been edited for clarity.
These two figures are not often paired together. Why Reagan and Johnson?
This book is about 1,000 days in the 1960s. It starts with the first day of Johnson’s administration, after [President John F.] Kennedy is assassinated, and ends shortly after Reagan is elected governor of California, and it’s really about the journey of the country from the apex of the progressive, liberal hour in the 1960s to the rise of the conservative movement in the latter part of the 20th century, with Reagan as its leader. Through these two men, you can see how politics changes in this period and how politics changes through the media.
It’s not something that most people logically think about; we associate Johnson and Reagan with such different periods of time, and they really are such opposites in so many ways. If you’re liberal and looking for a moment in our recent history where you have progressive policies that match with political opportunity and transformative action in the country, that’s the Johnson presidency in the 1960s. If you’re a conservative and looking for the comparable moment, that’s the Reagan presidency in the ’80s. Even though we do associate them with totally different moments, the surprising thing is that Johnson and Reagan are actually contemporaries, born less than three years apart and shaped by the same events.
Part of this is the changing media and the way that Reagan uses it well, whereas Johnson struggles with it.
Reagan’s career was based on issues of public taste and “How do I stay on the right side of public taste?” But Johnson never needed to think about the national mood. He thought of politics as people being led by the people they elected. One stereotype of Johnson is as a crass Texas cowboy. He is very much a Texan, but he is also a creature of Washington. He came to Washington in his early 20s and worked there for 35 years.
One of my favorite Johnson stories is when he was the Senate majority leader, he was such a creature of the city, and so ruled the city, that at one point he is trying to bring in votes for a bill that was quite close. They called back all the senators into town, and Johnson wanted to time the vote exactly so that his guys would get there in time. So he literally took over air traffic control at National Airport and brought in the different planes in order so that he can make sure his guys landed in time. He understood ruling politics as ruling that city and ruling the people in it. That’s not the background someone like Ronald Reagan has at all.
National Airport, by the way, now named …
Now named Reagan National Airport! It’s a great irony and another example of how Reagan ultimately wins in the end. You think about the 1960s, when people had moved out of these cities with big political machines that controlled how people voted, and to the suburbs. There, you had a more homogeneous national culture. So you think about how do you use mass media to reach a suburban culture in places like Orange County, California or suburban Philadelphia or wherever?
Ronald Reagan was used to thinking in those terms. And it’s not just because he was an actor, but because of the kind of actor he was: a B-actor, not a marquee star. That meant he was a product of the studio system, a literal product. He would be in these movies, and he described it as: They didn’t want them good; they wanted them Thursday. They would just churn these things out. They were trying to figure out, what’s something that works? Then they replicate it because it’s what people want, and then they replicate it and replicate it and replicate it until people’s tastes change, and then they stop and move on.
Reagan’s image of himself was basically — he wouldn’t have put it this way — that he was just like everyone else, only better. In his early days in Hollywood, he said, “Call me Mr. Norm.” He actually believed that, that he was the voice of the people in a certain sense. So it wasn’t hard for him to think about, “How do I connect with the voters of California?” even though he’s had this very unique life experience. He did this in a way that I think a lot of politicians fake, but Reagan didn’t really have to fake, and that’s one of the things that made him quite talented and quite successful.