Were American politics better 50 years ago?

A lot of Americans express unhappiness about their choices in the 2016 Presidential election.

Were things better in the good old days? I’m listening to Means of Ascent by Robert Caro. The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer describes Johnson as having promised American voters not to involve this nation in a real war in Vietnam, e.g., saying “We are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves” prior to the 1964 election. Johnson also promised not to bomb North Vietnam. As soon as he was reelected, he sent in hundreds of thousands of “American boys” and also started the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign.

Today we complain about things that politicians might say to get votes. In 1948 Lyndon Johnson simply manipulated the vote count through fraud (1990 NY Times article summarizing this part of the book).

From the Means of Ascent:

“I have been unable to save much money in my life. I have been in politics, and in politics an honest man does not get rich.” —Sam Rayburn [one of the most powerful American politicians of the 20th century] (whose savings at his death totaled $ 15,000)

Some voters are upset that the Clintons have become one of the wealthiest families on the planet as a consequence of political “service” to the American people. Yet Johnson earned money for his family through exploiting his role as a Representative to get a valuable broadcast license and spectrum monopoly (Slate). After that, people who wanted to buy influence or favors from Johnson would simply buy advertising on the radio or TV stations that were technically owned by his wife. The dollar amounts were small compared to what the Clintons have obtained, but the connection between the money and the political position was similar.

Where today’s politicians have to ladle out hundreds of billions of dollars in benefits to a broad class of beneficiaries in order to get votes and campaign funds, Caro describes Johnson as corruptly steering government contracts to Brown and Root, whose executives in turn made sure that the company and its subcontractors funded the campaigns of Johnson and his cronies. This kind of straight-up corruption was actually a lot less damaging to the economy compared to our current system of paying for today’s votes with tomorrow’s trillions. From this one could argue that things worked better in the good old days, but not that the good old days featured less corruption.

Upset that politicians today are “lying”? While a Congressman in World War II, Johnson went into somewhere between 0 and 13 minutes of air combat as an observer in a U.S. B-26 bomber (see this story for how it might have been 0; Caro says 13). He did this for undisguised political advantage. He spun this into a tale of being in combat for at least three months on multiple missions. Think that politics drives U.S. military decisions? Johnson was awarded the Silver Star for being baggage on one flight; Caro says that the pilots and gunners on the flight were not awarded any medals.

The biographer loves his subject, but not enough to pretend that American politics in the middle of the 20th Century was clean, honest, or pretty.


  1. Joe Shipman

    July 9, 2016 @ 1:04 pm


    Johnson was monstrous by the standards of politicians. One of the reasons the country became so morally unmoored in the 60s was that the occupants of the White House back then were corrupt and incapable of setting a moral tone.

    Ordinary politicians are much more venal and corrupt today than 75 or 100 years ago; politics always attracted dubious characters, but the typical elected official had a sense of virtue and civic obligation which would have led to feelings shame or guilt if they had behaved according to the more modern standard. There is no shame any more because the moral culture has fragmented, no guilt any more because voters no longer care if their leaders are truly religious, and no virtue any more because it is no longer positively correlated with political success, either in the form of rising due to the esteem of colleagues or in the form of impressing the voters as being of high character, commitment, and competence. The poltical culture rewards other things now.

  2. Fazal Majid

    July 9, 2016 @ 2:30 pm


    Johnson also pushed for civil rights in a way no president had before him, even though he knew the Democratic Party would lose southern white votes in the process (something the Kennedys were unwilling to risk).

    The best thing about 2016 is that political assassinations are no longer a feature of our election cycle.

  3. SuperMike

    July 9, 2016 @ 3:55 pm


    This is one of the classic arguments for smaller government: reduce the size and scope of government, and the opportunities for corruption will remain relatively small.
    I like to tease my Clinton-loving friends that Hillary is the Richard Nixon of our time, so to be fair, I read up on him. When I read about the “checkers” speech, the main thing that stood up in my mind is that anyone would be worked up about such small-time stuff. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Checkers_speech

    I think we have a frog in boiling pot problem when it comes to corruption.

  4. jack crossfire

    July 9, 2016 @ 4:36 pm


    Vietnam was a slow motion collapse starting with Eisenhower. The old corruption was monetary & formal. In the new corruption, sudden deaths in conspicuously organized terrorist attacks & conspicuously timed police shootings are the preferred mechanism. The government is merely representing the will of the people. After 60 years of sputtering, Americans have come to accept that part of the requirement in obtaining total equality is a government powerful enough to kill whoever it wants, as proven by many previous experiments in socialism.

  5. philg

    July 9, 2016 @ 4:52 pm


    Fazal: Based on the Eisenhower and Johnson biographies I don’t think it is clear that Johnson should be celebrated as the civil rights hero. Eisenhower presided over the integration of most of our society. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brown_v._Board_of_Education was in 1954, for example. Johnson played a role in the process, to be sure, and Caro gives him credit for that, but https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African-American_Civil_Rights_Movement_(1954%E2%80%9368) dates the fundamentals to years prior to Johnson’s presidency. Johnson’s Vietnam War was far more destructive to American society than whatever benefit we derived from his role in accelerating the civil rights movement that was started in 1948 with the desegregation of the military (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desegregation ).

  6. bobbybobbob

    July 9, 2016 @ 7:21 pm


    lbj killed jfk when the noose started tightening.

  7. Billg

    July 9, 2016 @ 9:15 pm


    Johnson was as nasty as they come, and had a long trail of corruption and suspicious murders in his past. For instance, Mac Wallace was convicted of murdering Johnson’s sister’s boyfriend after he allegedly tried to blackmail Johnson. At that time in Texas the penalty for murder was the death penalty, but Wallace was sentenced to time served and walked of court a free man. He then worked as a thug for various Johnson associates. Another example is Henry Marshell, who was about to blow the whistle on Johnson’s corruption when he was shot dead (Johnson associate Billie Sol Estes told a grand jury that Wallace was the shooter). It goes on and on with Johnson, even without dipping into his involved with JFK conspiracies.

  8. Billg

    July 9, 2016 @ 9:24 pm


    Johnson’s record as a civil rights hero is questionable too. A biographer quoted him as saying it was all about shifting black votes towards democrats rather than any quest for civil justice:

    “These Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days and that’s a problem for us since they’ve got something now they never had before, the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now we’ve got to do something about this, we’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference… I’ll have them niggers voting Democratic for the next two hundred years”.

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