Bil Johnson

Yale University
Lecturer at Brown University

Bil has over 25 years of experience as a public school teacher. Before his current role as a teacher at the Urban Assembly School in NYC, Bil was a senior lecturer at Brown University.

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Bad Deciders

Bil Johnson
Bil Johnson

Yale University
Lecturer at Brown University

Bil has over 25 years of experience as a public school teacher. Before his current role as a teacher at the Urban Assembly School in NYC, Bil was a senior lecturer at Brown University.


This is the third of our episodes about the US presidency. And this one, the first one I called who's the boss. And the second one was kind of, these are the times that try man's soul because we had civil war and the depression and things like that. This one, I think I would call bad deciders. Because we have three presidents we're going to look out here, who I think had a chance to be great in light of history, but probably won't be remembered that way.

As you recall, we went through the first four presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Monroe and Jackson, not the first four they were elected, but the first four we looked at. There were four who defined the presidency. Then we looked at Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt and talked about how they refined and kind of elevated the presidency to a new level of leadership.

What we're going to look at now, are the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to see really how they came close or maybe could have been really great presidents, but just made some bad decisions, some bad choices.

In Lyndon Johnson's case, he of course had succeeded when John Kennedy was assassinated on November 22nd, 1963. Lyndon Johnson took office. And he like Nixon and Reagan, in upcoming years, won a landslide victory in 1964. So he comes in really being strongly supported by the American populars.

And remember I've told you, really think about presidencies in terms of domestic policy and foreign policy. And I think you'll see with these presidents, those were important categories. Johnson's domestic policy, he starts what he calls the great society. And part of that is a war on poverty. He very strongly supports civil rights. He really pushes through legislation, the civil rights bill, the voting rights bill. Lyndon Johnson is responsible for us to this day having Medicare and Medicaid. His social programs are very strong. And probably the great society, could have been an incredible event in US history, but there is a problem. And his problem is his foreign policy.

Johnson continues to stay involved in Vietnam throughout his administration. And slowly but surely, it destroys his administration, and almost destroys him really as a man. He just won't hear no about Vietnam. Even while protests are mounting in 1966, '67, '68 when the American people are really starting to turn against the war. Where starting in 1967, Martin Luther King Junior starts to make speeches saying, "All the money we're spending on that war, is money that's being taken away from anti-poverty programs and the war is a drain on the economy, it's a drain on our resources. And Americans are being killed in Vietnam in record numbers." Nonetheless Johnson listens to his advisors who were giving him probably not the best advice and he stays mired in Vietnam. And probably in the long run, historically, will be remembered for Vietnam.

In the spring of 1968 when his name is put in for domination, for re-election in the first primary in New Hampshire.

Eugene McCarthy an upstart senator from Minnesota actually gets over 40% of the votes. McCarthy running on an anti-war protest banner. And Johnson starts to see the writing on the wall. So much so that at the end of March, in the spring of 1968, Lyndon Johnson says, "I will not seek, and if drafted, will not accept the nomination of my party." So we've got a man here who really, on the one hand his domestic policy is really some of the most far sighted and positive policies that we could imagine. And it's all undone on the bad decision on Vietnam, and his refusal to give up on Vietnam.

That leads to 1968. And really, one of the most amazing political stories of all time is Richard Nixon. Richard Nixon of course had run against Jack Kennedy in 1960 and lost in a very close election. Everyone kind of rode him off thinking his political career was over quickly, after he ran for governor in California and he lost that race in '62. So Nixon's future doesn't really look very bright in the Republican party. But slowly but surely, he kind of plugs away. And in 1968, he not only runs for presidency, but he is as you can see here, the winner. He defeats Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate. And it really is one of the most amazing come back stories of all time.

Nixon is kind of the opposite story from Johnson. Where Johnson's domestic policy is really a very positive, and probably would have made great reputation for Johnson, had that been all he did, Nixon's foreign policy is really pretty impressive. In 1968, and then after his re-election in 1972 there are several things which Nixon does in foreign policy. Which, if that's all we remembered him for, he would seem to be a great president.

One thing was, he was the first president to visit China, and he starts to normalize relations, what's called normalization relations with China in 1972. I've mentioned several times in earlier episodes, we probably wouldn't be having Olympics n Beijing in 2008, if it weren't for than visit by Nixon back in 1972.

He also initiates the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks the S-A-L-T, SALT, Strategic Arms Limitation Talks with the USSR. And it's just what it says. It's about limiting nuclear weapons on the planet particularly the United States and Russia have the most nuclear weapons. They're not negotiating, it's a very positive step toward de-escalating the tensions around nuclear weapons. And then finally he institutes a policy called Vietnamization, The Nixon's Doctrine. And that is the slow but steady withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam, so much so that by 1974, the United States is out of Vietnam. Even though Nixon had been a very strong supporter of the war, and really had engaged in some of the heaviest bombing, and did secrete bombing in Cambodia, but nonetheless he does disengage us from Vietnam.

So his foreign policy if we would just look at that looks pretty good, however bad decisions. Nixon will probably always be remembered for a scandal called the Watergate. Some operatives of the Republican party, unbeknownst to Nixon, broke into the democratic headquarters at the Watergate hotel in Washington DC looking for information that maybe somehow could be used against the Democrats, in the 1972 election. This was unbeknownst to Nixon. These people were operating on their own, but the problems arise in the aftermath of the Watergate break-in. I'll talk about that in a moment. Because the irony really here is that, Nixon was probably going to win this election no matter what.

He ends up running against George McGovern, a fairly weak candidate for the Democrats, very progressive and certainly well intentioned. But it does seem and we discover later, that there are a number of shady dealings that the Republican national committee engages in. The committee to re-elect the president, which picks up the acronym CREEP, C-R-E-E-P; Committee to Re-Elect the President. I think the Democrats gave that name to it. I don't think the Republicans would have chosen that.

But operatives from the CREEP, break in to the Watergate hotel. They also break into Daniel Ellsberg psychiatrist office. Ellsberg had information about decisions being made in the Pentagon. in relation to Vietnam war. It was called the Pentagon Papers case. And so we find that also some operatives of the Republican party have broken into Ellsberg psychiatrist office. We find all this out because what slowly unravels, and what Nixon does get involved in, is a very elaborate cover up of these illegal dealings. And so much so that in fact, we actually find that Nixon, when the hearings are held in starting the summer of 1973, we find out that Nixon has been taping his conversations in the oval office. And those tapes become public. And what we start to hear on those tapes are staggering in terms of stunning the American people.

We hear the president say that, "If we need a million dollars to bribe the Watergate burglars to be quiet, we can get that." Nixon says a million dollars, we can get that. So the president is involved in a criminal conspiracy. It's really more than people can believe, and certainly it's something that Nixon will never leave down. And it really is his undoing.

So despite the China visit, the SALT talks, the Vietnamization, what Nixon will always be remembered for is the Watergate break-in, which of course leads to the only time in American history that a president resigned. And Nixon does resign in August 9th, 1974. Gerald Ford of course was his vice president. Ford has the interesting title of being the only president of the United States who wasn't elected as vice-president and wasn't elected as president, but he became president.

Ford was appointed after Nixon's first vice-president. Spiro Agnew was actually arrested and convicted of tax fraud and tax evasion. Ford replaced him as an appointment. And a lot of people think that, part of the deal to get Ford the vice presidency, was that he promised that he would pardon Nixon, which he does by September 1974. He pardons him for any crimes that he 'may have committed'. The House of Representatives had already started impeachment proceedings. Nixon resigned so they don't have to impeach him. As a private citizen, he could have been tried on criminal charges, conspiracy charges with the break-in and bribery and things like that. So needless to say, some very bad decisions by Richard Nixon, a presidency that might have been seen in a different light historically, down the tubes.

The last president I want to talk about, is another one who wins a landslide election in his second term, and that's Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan is elected in 1980. He runs against Jimmy Carter. That election is best known because there were 52 Americans being held hostage in Iran, during this period of time. Carter made one escape attempt. He tried to free the hostages, but it failed. There were mechanical failures with helicopters in the desert.

And probably this was an election that really was in some ways manipulated by the Iranians. By keeping these hostages, it certainly worked in Reagan's favour. And in fact the hostages are released the day that Reagan is sworn in, on January 20th, 1981. The 52 hostages are released, and there is no indication there was any deal between Reagan and the the Iranians. But it does seem like our election, and our electoral process was influenced by a foreign power.

Nonetheless, people in the Unites States do seem ready for Reagan. His charismatic figure, he's a former actor. He's very foxy and charming and his phrase is about a new dawn in America. And he's very positive. He's almost like the head cheerleader for the country. He almost immediately, early in his term in 1981, there is an assassination attempt. And he actually is shot in the chest and there is a bullet taken out of his lung. He makes an amazing recovery. It really is pretty stunning. And so this is seen as very symbolically by the American people. So he kind of bounces back and says it's going to be a great time here in America during his presidency.

That said, when we look at the Reagan administration record, what really happened. Most of what we see, is pretty negative stuff and a lot of bad decisions. On the positive side, I would say he appoints Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to the supreme court. Certainly that's significant, that's important. There is a disaster in the space program that challenger space shuttle explodes two minutes into its launch. Reagan makes a brilliant speech in the aftermath of that, that really brings the country together in 1986.

But surrounding that, what we see and I would almost bet. If you ask people, if you go out in the streets right now and ask people, older people about Ronald Reagan, you'll hear a lot of positive stuff. In the 2008 campaign from the Republican party, you'll hear a lot of references to Ronald Reagan. Incredibly popular president, but when we look at the facts, when we act like historians. When we get to be those history detectives that I keep urging you to be, what you see are number of real problems with the Reagan administration.

One thing is called the Iran contra scandal. What we find out is that, we are selling arms to the Iranians secretly. And with that money we're funding the contras. The contras are a revolutionary group that's trying to overthrow the government of Nicaragua. So number one, we're selling secrete arms, and number two, we're trying to support a group of revolutionaries in a foreign country. This is not what you should be doing diplomatically. You're manipulating other countries' internal affairs, their government and selling arms to countries that we say might be a rogue nation, Iran.

Oliver North, who now is a big radio personality, it's amazing how some of these people land on their feet. Oliver North was the marine officer who was behind the Iran contra dealings, just a really questionable scandal to say the least.

During the Reagan's administration thousands of people are purged off the social security roles. People were picking up such disability payments, a number of people on technicalities. This is one of the ways Reagan thinks we need to get big government out of peoples lives. In the process, what we see is a lot of people loose their security benefits.

There is the war on drugs during the Reagan administration. And ironically, by the end of the administration, there were more drugs in this country than they were at the beginning. Clearly that didn't work very well.

Early in his administration, and I talked about this in a previous episode about labor, the air traffic controllers in Washington go on strike, and Reagan just will knot just meet their needs. And in fact fires them all and breaks that union up. What we see in the Reagan administration of course, it is a very conservative state rights oriented administration. He says the real enemy of the American people is the government itself. It's too big, it's too unwieldy and it needs to go basically.

Ironically, when Ronald Reagan leaves office, there is a 700 billion dollar debt. And that's really the worst thing that happens. In trying to fight the cold war against the USSR, we drive the USSR into bankruptcy because we keep spending more and more on our defence budget, which scares the hell out of the Russians. And in response, they of course spend more money. They have a lot less than we have. Essentially they go bankrupt and we win the cold war, and certainly that's one interpretation, you need to investigate more of that yourself.

But there is no doubt, the bottom line is, at the end of the Reagan administration, 700 billion dollars in debt. So again, we see a number of decisions, that are really kind of bad decisions. So despite the good feeling that Ronald Reagan brings to the office, and brings to the country for a lot of people, there is a whole bunch of other people who are not doing very well. The economy really flounders, there is stock market crush in '87 and a 700 billion dollar debt at the end of things. So, despite his winning a landslide election in 1984, we see these presidents who win these landslides elections and have a chance to maybe be great presidents, make some bad decisions.

So here is a great example of good deciding versus bad deciding, because that's really what we're focusing on in this episode. When faced with large scale unemployment during the great depression, FDR invested enormous amounts of money in public works projects. Projects like this, like the Oakland Bay bridge. It employed thousands of people and it stimulated the economy. Not just in a short term, but for a long period of time. Faced with a similar problem in the late 1980s, Ronald Reagan chose to spend government money on the star wars defense program. This employed a small sector of a very technical group of people in the country, and didn't have any short term or long term benefits.

What you need to do as a historian, is really take a look at things like that. What kinds of decisions do presidents make; short term, long term? What effect did it have on the larger society? That's the kind of thinking you have to do in answering the DBQ or the free response essay. But also, it's the kind of thinking you do in evaluating how good a job our is leader doing, how good a job our president doing today. Is the $600 rebate a good enough stimulus or do we need a big public works project like this? That's the kind of thinking you need to do as a history detective. And as always, I'm going to tell you, have some fun with history.

To wrap up this episode, what we saw were three presidents who really had potential to be great presidents; Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, each in his own way. Each won a landslide election at one point in their term as president, or terms as presidents. But they made some bad decisions, that probably will in the long run and in the long term, as far as historical judgements go, will not put them in that category that the earlier presidents we looked at are in.

As we wrap this up, here is what I want you to think about.

During this presidential year of 2008, keep your ears open and pay attention to what's going on and see if you hear references to Lyndon Johnson, or Richard Nixon, or Ronald Reagan. My guess is you're going to hear the most about Reagan. But you might hear the others referenced for various reasons. And listen up for maybe some of the earlier presidents we talked about. Are they references too on FDR or Teddy Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson, or even Abraham Lincoln? Is someone Lincolnesque, that's still a term that's used quite a bit.

So listen to what you hear being said about the candidates, and not just necessarily in this election, in any election from here on in. You should really become attentive and an engaged active citizen, and involved in this election. I'm going to put on the bonus material a site. The Museum of the Moving Image has done a wonderful website, where you can go all the way back to 1952 and see the ads for presidents. In 1952, Eisenhower and Stevenson, the candidates started running ads on television. So if you want to see Nixon and Johnson and Reagan, and how they portray themselves to the American electorate, but if you also want to see Jack Kennedy or Nixon in 1960, you can see those guys too.

But I'd recommend that you go and look at those and also compare it to they way candidates market themselves and are advertised today. So this is really a good chance for you to very actively, kind of put on your historians hat and really become that history detective that I keep encouraging you to do. And judge for yourself what you think. Do some research about these presidents, maybe you'll disagree with what I've said in this episode, that's fine. But you've got to have evidence to back it up. That's always the case; document based question, free response essay on the AP exam, evidence. You got to have evidence. That's the part that really allows us to have fun with history.

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