New York Times February 28, 2015
Lyndon B. Johnson was often derided for being egocentric, but when it came time to sign his landmark bill creating Medicare, 50 years ago this July, he graciously insisted on sharing the credit with the 81-year-old Harry Truman. At almost the last moment, Johnson decided to change the location from Washington to Truman’s presidential library in Independence, Mo.
During the ceremony, Johnson noted that in 1945, the newly installed President Truman had called for national health insurance, planting “the seeds of compassion and duty which have today flowered into care for the sick, and serenity for the fearful.” Johnson then presented his host with the nation’s first Medicare card. Deeply moved, Truman later wrote in a letter to Johnson that the ceremony was “the highlight of my post-White House days.”
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in King v. Burwell, a case that, if resolved against the Obama administration, could endanger some of the fundamentals of President Obama’s health care program.
Just as Mr. Obama’s Affordable Care Act was based on elements of Johnson’s Medicare, some of the most important domestic achievements by presidents throughout history have been based on the pathbreaking efforts of a predecessor. Acknowledging his debts to Truman in health care, education and civil rights, Johnson privately told him that his presidential record was unequaled, adding, “It makes all of us look like pygmies.”
Johnson, who replaced John F. Kennedy, intensely identified with Truman, who succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt. Both men were relative outlanders who entered the White House after the sudden death of an elegant, Northeastern Harvard man and then suffered from scathing comparisons drawn between the living and the dead.
“I always felt sorry for Harry Truman and the way he got the presidency,” Johnson once said in private. “But at least his man wasn’t murdered.” The two leaders were sufficiently close that Truman would reprimand Johnson to his face. In May 1968, when Johnson arrived at Truman’s house in Independence for a visit, he said, “Sorry I’m late.”
“You ought to be,” Truman replied. “It’s your own damn fault. If you’d have left on time, you’d have gotten here on time!”
As he exulted over his 1964 landslide, Johnson graciously told Truman: “As long as I’m in that office, you’re in it. And there’s not a privilege of it, or a power of it, or a purpose of it, that you can’t share. And your bedroom is up there waiting for you, and your plane is standing by your side.” He assured Truman, “We all love you,” and said he would “do anything in the world that would make you happy.”
Vilified over the failing war effort in Vietnam as the 1960s wore on, he told Truman, who had been castigated over Korea, “I’ve been reading history and saw how much hell you had, and you handled it pretty good, and I just thought maybe I could learn something from you.” When Johnson went to Independence in May 1968, Truman assured him he was “right on Vietnam,” and the president later said, “I feel stronger when I leave him.”
As president, Johnson could not have been courting Truman for quick political payoff. In the mid-1960s, Truman was by no means the popular figure — embodying plain speaking, decisiveness, honesty, common sense and a modest lifestyle — that he became after his death. When the Gallup Poll at the end of 1964 listed the world’s “most admired” men, Truman did not make the top 10.
In his generosity toward Truman, Johnson was showing his outrage at what he considered to be the shortsightedness of many historians. He gloomily predicted to friends that he, like Truman, would suffer from the regional prejudice of the many scholars who were reared or educated in the Northeast.
Johnson was also trying to establish high benchmarks for his own benefit. His White House aide Larry Temple recalled that by promising Truman presidential planes and other perquisites, Johnson was trying to establish “a precedent for getting the same thing for himself” when he retired. Johnson also offered Truman special medical assistance from the military, which he later cited to his successor, Richard M. Nixon, as grounds for receiving similar treatment.
That was one reason that Johnson allowed Truman to bask in his aura as he signed Medicare. Remembering that ceremony in Independence, Johnson hoped that, one day, some future president might do the same kind of thing for him.