Landslide is a delightful read. It’s filled with insights and observations that will interest the most knowledgeable political junkie. Journalist Jonathan Darman writes with a flair that will hold anyone’s attention.
A Brilliant Concept
The book’s concept is to follow the unlikely, parallel lives of Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan in the historic thousand days following the assassination of President John Kennedy in 1963. Darman brilliantly recreates the path, moving through the Democratic landslide of 1964, to the repudiating Republican sweep in the 1966 midterms.
Most of the story that Darman relates is familiar. His insight is in laying out the Johnson and Reagan paths in parallel. The results are riveting.
Lyndon Johnson History, Character Succinctly Presented
Darman’s recitation of the career and character of Johnson is well-crafted and compelling. This book may hold particular allure for those who want to get a fair sense of what LBJ was about—but who may resist immersion in Robert Caro’s authoritative, multi-volume project.
The portrait of Johnson rings true. He was the ultimate political animal. He was able to adapt to any environment through a combination of cunning and savvy. LBJ would evaluate the power dynamics, soon attaching himself to powerful mentors. Never an inspiring leader, he was a most practical operator. Johnson would use his instincts to suss out the strengths and weaknesses of others. He would move seamlessly from oleaginous flattery to out-and-out bullying, to get to his goals.
Johnson’s practical approach served him—and the nation—well in the early days of his presidency. He knew how to move the system amid crisis. He seized the moment to drive through the long-stalled agenda of Kennedy on civil rights, Truman on health care.
Problems arose when he no longer had the guide of others’ visions. In the case of Vietnam, Johnson’s understanding of the relevant history and geopolitics was limited. So, too, his lack of intellectual curiosity left him ill-equipped to comprehend the motivations of others of different cultures.
Domestically, without guard rails to hold him in check, Johnson succumbed to his worst instincts. The master of tactics was unable to meet the demands of the ultimate strategic office, the presidency. In this he fell far short of his idol, Franklin Roosevelt. As James MacGregor Burns wrote, invoking Machiavelli, Roosevelt was a great leader because he was both a lion and a fox.
Johnson’s leadership marks him a memorable fox. Entranced by the example of FDR, LBJ was nonetheless unable to take up his mantle as a lion.
A Good Take on Reagan
Darman’s analysis of Reagan is memorable. In my view, the author has succeeded where so many others have faltered: he makes strides in credibly comprehending Reagan’s methodically opaque character.
Reagan’s unconventional career prompted many to underestimate him. Many on the left dismissed him as naïve, “an amiable dunce” as Clark Clifford said. He was simply at the right place at the right time. He stumbled into power.
Many on the right underestimated Reagan in their own way, or, at the least misperceived him. Among the enduring myths of contemporary Republicans is that Reagan entered politics reluctantly. In common with some of his adversaries, many of his supporters interpreted the absence of a conventional path to power as a sign that Reagan was not well-prepared for high office. Where some on the left saw that as an explanation for policies they could not abide, some on the right drew the conclusion that political leadership can be mastered by anyone… or, at the least, by well-meaning amateurs.
Reagan himself encouraged such misconceptions. Darman aptly cuts through them.
Reagan as Actor, Politician
One aspect of Reagan that is often overlooked is the importance of his being a professional actor. Though this is in plain sight, it’s often not thought through with the seriousness it merits.
A strength of the book is that Darman takes Reagan’s vocation seriously. Nonetheless, having found a key to Reagan’s character, a fair question is whether Darman gives short shrift to another aspect: his lifelong fascination with leadership.
Darman appears to accept a familiar if skeptical narrative of Reagan: that of a fading movie and television actor who transitioned toward electoral politics as a career alternative. The implication is that he remained, fundamentally, an actor. He was moving toward a new stage, with new audiences. In this reading, his motivations as a candidate overlapped with his motivations as an actor.
That may be true, yet incomplete. From youth, Reagan was a lifelong student of and participant in politics and leadership. As a rising Hollywood celebrity, he campaigned for many candidates. He was recruited as a prospective candidate in own right as early as 1946.
In contrast to Johnson—and contrary to the expectations of many—Reagan was well-read. He studied and debated and reflected on political issues to such an extent as to be altogether annoying to some around him (apparently including, over time, his first wife Jane Wyman). During his years as a professional speaker, most notably for General Electric Company, he honed his political thinking and communication approaches. Throughout this period, he wrote his own speeches. Later, he would pen op-eds and radio programs on topical issues. By the time he entered electoral politics, actor Reagan had a world view far more developed than most career politicians.
Reagan was a visionary, a romantic. He was, as a fledgling office holder, less attuned to the practical aspects of acquiring and exercising political power that were second-nature to LBJ.
If Johnson followed in FDR’s footsteps as a fox, Reagan emulated FDR as a lion.
As different as they and their political projects appear, Johnson and Reagan each sought to advance the FDR legacy as he comprehended it.
Without succumbing to armchair psychology, it’s difficult to avoid the observation that Roosevelt emerged as a sort of father figure for both of them.
Johnson’s Great Society was intended to advance the New Deal. It would include areas where Roosevelt’s successors had repeatedly tried and fallen short, such as Medicare for seniors.
As an actor, Reagan was skilled at observing and learning from others. His words and deeds confirm that his model for the role of president was FDR.
As Reagan recalled during the centennial of Roosevelt’s birth, in 1982, he voted for FDR for president four times. He could still summon the vision of having seen FDR passing in a motorcade in Des Moines during the 1936 campaign.
Reagan’s policy views evolved beyond those of his early home in the Democratic Party. He often said that he did not leave the Democratic Party—rather his party had left him. President Reagan stated that he sought to repeal much of the Great Society program, which he regarded as a failure. Nonetheless, he added, he did not seek to reverse the New Deal, much of which he regarded as a success.
In this sense, Reagan and Johnson might be seen as representing, each in his own way, the evolving legacy of Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership.
Darman’s Lost Age of Consensus
Landslide ends on a somewhat wistful, sentimental note. Darman longs for what he imagines to be a lost age of consensus, before America came apart.
Another view would be that the durable Roosevelt vision and coalition was breaking apart, no longer able to contain its contradictions.
The consensus of post-war American politics kept the “Solid South” in the Democratic column, as it had been since the Civil War. As a practical matter, this ensured that the civil rights of black Americans would remain hostage to the power of Southern politicians who advanced through the seniority system. Thus it was that Senator Lyndon Johnson, for example, helped throttle such legislation in the 1950s, in opposition to politicians of other regions, as well as the Eisenhower administration.
These two politicians had started their journeys in similar circumstances. As with the nation, they evolved in divergent directions. In an irony of fate, the Johnson and Reagan administrations can be seen as bringing the Roosevelt era to a close. The parallel careers of the two principals stand as evidence, were any needed, of the manifold aspects and durability of FDR’s historic, consequential leadership.
Jonathan Darman | Landslide