Lyndon Johnson’s greatest presidential legacy was by far the Great Society, a series of New Deal-inspired initiatives expanding social and cultural services in America — public broadcasting, national endowment for the arts, and Medicare and Medicaid were all part of his circa 1964-1965 program. Some of his efforts were successful; others fell short, such as Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” which many, including Martin Luther King Jr., described as a “war on the poor,” especially people of color, for all its inadequacies, inequalities, and impotencies.
But the pros and cons of LBJ’s Great Society aren’t the point here. The point is that despite his apparent interest in the little guy, Johnson hated Benjamin Braddock, the protagonist of The Graduate. I understand Braddock — fresh from Williams College, from a wealthy, white family — doesn’t qualify so much as “the little guy,” but the widespread alienation he represents/ed put him squarely on the “us” side of the archetypal “people versus the establishment” equation. That said, one might think Johnson would feel a bit of empathy for lost, confused Braddock. Wrong.
“How in the hell can that creepy guy be a hero to you?” he told staffer-turned-biographer Doris Kearns (pre-Goodwin).
“All I needed was to see ten minutes of that guy, floating like a big lump in a pool, moving like an elephant in that woman’s bed, riding up and down the California coast polluting the atmosphere, to know that I wouldn’t trust him for one minute with anything that really mattered to me. And if that’s an example of what loves seems like to your generation, then we’re all in big trouble. All they did was scream and yell at each other before getting to the altar. Then after it was over, they sat on the bus like dumb mutes with absolutely nothing to say to one another.”
Perhaps Johnson’s distaste for Benjamin Braddock and the ennui he embodies stems from Johnson’s hurt feelings over American youth’s utter disdain for him. Vibrant John Kennedy’s successor, stodgier-seeming Johnson was far more pro-Vietnam than the slain Camelotian, a stance that garnered him plenty of intergenerational ire. And it’s clear this animus bothered Johnson something awful. “I don’t understand those young people,” he said. “Don’t they realize I’m really one of them? I always hated cops when I was a kid, and just like them I dropped out of school and took off for California. I’m not some conformist middle-class personality. I could never be bureaucratized.”
Luckily for Johnson’s ghost, his legacy has been undergoing a redesign lately, as people shift their attention from his failings vis a vis Vietnam and focus on his more progressive moves. Coincidentally enough, Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote about that very subject a few weeks ago at The Atlantic.