Echoes of Lyndon B. Johnson


The annual state of the union message normally, and in fact traditionally, is the most over hyped, over reported, over analyzed and least memorable of any address delivered by a president.

It is a pundit’s dream that is full of sound and fury and of little or no significance, foisted off as important by a host of overpaid television commentators trying to prove the worth of their multimillion-dollar salaries.

The latest from President Bush was no exception, leaving Americans who braved it with the empty feeling that absolutely nothing is going to get done the next two years despite all the lofty rhetoric and long-winded television decoding followed by column after column of analytic nonsense in the following day’s newspapers.

The bottom line of this year’s version is simple: The only thing that really matters is Iraq and none of the president’s domestic proposals are going anywhere in an atmosphere where there are 20 candidates for his job in both parties. Why should these wannabes allow him to steal their thunder?

Besides there isn’t one member of the new Democratic-controlled Congress who can’t read the polls reflecting staggering presidential unpopularity in both foreign and domestic policy. He registers only 35 percent approval. Fewer and fewer of those in his own party think he is on the correct course. A number of Republicans showed it during the address by sitting on their hands.

So if Bush and his minions actually thought they could repair his image and salvage his presidency and his current plan to increase the troop commitment with this appearance on the bully pulpit they are more naive than imagined. That might have been accomplished if he had called off the so-called “surge” of new troops, acknowledged what everyone knows already — that America is caught in the middle of an escalating civil war — and announced that U.S. troops would begin immediately to turn the fighting over to the Iraqi government in preparation for withdrawal in six months.

But it is utterly unrealistic to expect this president to take those steps anymore than it would have been for Lyndon Johnson to end the Vietnam War or, for that matter, Harry Truman to end the Korean conflict.

Listening to the president defend his increased forces plan as necessary for victory, I could think of nothing so much as Johnson’s light at the end of the tunnel with just a few more troops appeals in the midst of Vietnam. I recall being among a handful of reporters called unexpectedly into the Oval Office to be lectured by Johnson about speculation the troop level in Vietnam would be increased to half a million. A furious Johnson questioned the legitimacy of our sources even though one of them was the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, a member of his own party. And Johnson accused us of irresponsibility. Then, only a short time later, he officially verified what we had reported.

The parallels between the two Texans, Bush and Johnson, are obvious. In the end, Johnson was unable to end the conflict that destroyed his presidency and forced him into early retirement any more than Bush seems to be able to save himself from the immediate historic judgment that he made an enormous blunder in invading Iraq and compounded that error with poor conduct of the war.

In his response to Bush, the newly elected Democratic Sen. James Webb of Virginia praised Republican Dwight Eisenhower for ending the Korean War. There was none of the politeness or courtesy his congressional colleagues had shown Bush earlier, solidifying his reputation for incivility. Webb practically accused the president of malfeasance. Interestingly, his words also seemed to condemn without saying so one of his own party’s icons, Truman, whose actions saved the Korean Peninsula from total communist domination.

There is merit in the domestic hopes outlined somberly by Bush. Providing health care to those without it, solving the growing immigration problems, increasing the vigilance in homeland security, dealing with climate change, all are goals worthy of strong bipartisan attention. But it may be too late for this president to expect any success with what should have been his agenda before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, completely warped his perspective. Sadly, his credibility with most Americans and thus with their representatives in Congress has disappeared in the smoke of Iraq.

The president is correct: The state of the union here is good. But, like Johnson, he just isn’t going to get the credit he might otherwise.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)