If John F. Kerry were taking the presidential oath of office next week, Washington would be awash with comparisons to the last true son of Massachusetts to serve in the Oval Office, John F. Kennedy. Everything from the two men's roots and religion to their naval service and foreign-policy stances would be ripe for commentary and analysis.
But as President George W. Bush prepares for his second inauguration, his similarities to the fellow Texan sworn in 40 years ago, Lyndon B. Johnson, are less obvious than those linking the JFKs.
When Johnson was a boy, his family struggled financially after his father lost several thousand dollars speculating in cotton. Born in 1908, Johnson didn't grow up impoverished according to the Texas standards of his day. Yet he identified with society's underdogs, a feeling that many scholars think fed both his personal insecurity and his relentless drive to succeed in politics.
When Johnson reached the White House, he demonstrated that he clearly recalled the poverty and discrimination he'd seen in Texas. In his famous 1965 "We Shall Overcome" speech to a joint session of Congress -- the address that paved the way for passage of the Voting Rights Act -- Johnson recalled teaching at a Mexican-American school in Cotulla, Texas. "Somehow, you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child," Johnson said. "I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have a chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and help people like them all over this country. But now I do have that chance, and -- I'll let you in on a little secret -- I mean to use it."
Bush spent more time in Texas as a young adult than Johnson did. By age 23, Johnson had left Texas for the nation's capital to become private secretary to Rep. Richard Kleberg, whose father owned the famed King Ranch. Except for a return to Texas for a couple of years in the mid-1930s, when he married Claudia Alta (Lady Bird) Taylor of Karnack, Texas, and served as state director of President Franklin Roosevelt's National Youth Administration, Johnson became a creature of Washington. He resumed his political career on Capitol Hill in 1937 after winning a special election to serve out the unexpired term of Rep. James Buchanan, then never went back to Texas full-time until after he left the White House in 1969.
While Johnson's upbringing in Texas and early political career during the New Deal era influenced his vision of a Great Society buttressed by the federal government, it's less clear how much President Bush's nascent "ownership society" -- intended to increase homeownership, business creation, and Americans' control over their own retirement and health care funds -- was shaped by his Texas experiences.
"I think that's stretching things," said Princeton University presidential scholar Fred Greenstein, when asked whether the presidents' home state played a formative role in their Texas-sized agendas. Greenstein added that it is premature to try to measure what he calls Bush's "campaign" slogan against the reams of domestic legislation enacted during LBJ's presidency.
Less than six months after he assumed the presidency following Kennedy's assassination, Johnson began talking about a "Great Society" in his speeches. He fully developed the theme in his speech at the University of Michigan's commencement on May 22, 1964. Johnson challenged the graduates: "In your time, we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society."
A Nexis search of news sources and transcripts indicates that Bush's first mention of an "ownership society" came in a February 28, 2002, speech to an annual Labor Department conference on retirement savings. Touting his proposal for allowing workers to invest some of their Social Security payroll taxes in private accounts, the president said he wanted to make America "an ownership society -- a society where a life of work becomes a retirement of independence."
Bush used the term a few other times in 2002, and he fleshed out the concept throughout 2003. During the president's 2004 re-election campaign, the ownership society emerged as the organizing principle for his second-term domestic agenda.
On a few occasions, Bush has used the alternative term "opportunity society" to describe his overall domestic vision, notably, in remarks to the League of United Latin American Citizens' annual convention last year and in his 2003 address to the National Urban League.
Embracing the idea of an ownership society might come naturally to a Texan who worked on the business side of the Oil Patch and was a Major League Baseball team's managing partner, as Bush was.
And while Bush might not be aiming to repeal the Great Society -- indeed, in endorsing prescription drug benefits, he supported the largest expansion of Medicare since Johnson created the health care program for the elderly -- Bush's goal is a direct philosophical attack on his fellow Texan's approach.
"LBJ was the last president who could talk, with almost no qualification, about national oneness, national community, and the federal government as the instrument of national oneness," observed William Schambra, the director of the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank. In contrast, Bush's proposal for an ownership society, Schambra said, "is a way of breaking up government bureaucracies and centralized organizations and [of] sending that power back to families."
Are there ways that Bush and Johnson are alike? In running the White House, both prized loyalty, but Johnson could be downright abusive to his staff. "George W. will show some irritation with aides, but Johnson was intrusive in their personal lives in a way that Bush would never be," said Texas A&M University political scientist George Edwards III.
Above all, Bush prizes order in the West Wing, something that was rare in LBJ's administration. Bush likes to set overall objectives and have subordinates carry out his orders. Johnson was the quintessential arm-twister, constantly on the phone with lawmakers and personally handling legislative details -- much the way he had done as Senate majority leader.
"Johnson's experience is of a master politician" who was always asking, " 'How do I get 50 votes plus one to win?' " said University of Vermont political scientist John Burke, who is researching presidential second terms. "I don't think the political calculus is the same with Bush. It's more of an ideological calculus: He has a broad sense of where he wants to go, like [Ronald] Reagan."
Indeed, on April 7, 1965, Johnson seemed to be drawing on his legendary legislative skills when he delivered a nationally televised address on the Vietnam War at Johns Hopkins University and proposed spending $1 billion on developing the Mekong River "on a scale to dwarf even our own TVA," as a way of buying peace with Hanoi. That particular Johnson vision was probably inspired by his own work in bringing electric power to his rural congressional district in the late 1930s.
"It's as though he saw Vietnam as, 'I can make Ho Chi Minh a deal that no politician can refuse,'" remarked Vermont's Burke.
And while it's hard to imagine Bush's ringing up National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in the middle of the night for the latest news about military operations in the "Sunni Triangle," the way Johnson called the Situation Room to get results of the latest bombing runs over Hai-phong Harbor, the troubled occupation of Iraq could drain the energy from Bush's dream of an ownership society just as the Vietnam conflict help halt the advance of Johnson's Great Society.
Bush will surely need to maintain his popularity if he's going to pass his ambitious second-term domestic agenda. If opinion leaders and voters begin to turn strongly against his Iraq policy, "that then creates the dynamic where the president's political capital is substantially harmed," Burke said. "We're not at that point with George W. Bush, but the open question is, 'Will we get to that point?' "
And Bush now faces a dilemma in Iraq similar to the one Johnson confronted in Vietnam 40 years ago.
The day after his Johns Hopkins speech, Johnson phoned former President Eisenhower for advice on dealing with the growing conflict that had already cost the lives of some 400 American troops. The retired general told LBJ: "We never can keep a government up there just with bayonets. It's got to be with the consent and desires of the people. That is the problem." And then, as historian Michael Beschloss, editor of two volumes on the Johnson White House tapes, writes, "one of the Vietnam War's most chilling refrains makes an early appearance," as Eisenhower warns Johnson: "If we're going to save a nation, we've got to go after their minds and hearts as well as we do at their stomach."