The Eccles Centre Postgraduate Fellowship has proven to be vitally important to the direction of my studies into the media strategy of President Lyndon B Johnson, writes Ben Quail. The materials in the British Library on Vietnam in particular – one of the first widely televised wars – show the influence of media and public perception on Presidential reputation and credibility.
In April 2015 I was fortunate enough to receive the BAAS postgraduate fellow award, and was able to spend two weeks using the resources of the Eccles Centre at the British Library. The fortnight I spent there has proven to be vitally important to the direction of my studies into the Presidency of Lyndon B Johnson. I am currently looking at the media strategy of President Johnson and how his relationship with the media affected his popularity during the course of his elected presidency.
Johnson’s relationship with the media was fraught – he did not trust the journalists working around him and they, in turn, distrusted him. These difficult conditions helped lead to a credibility gap opening up over the course of the mid-1960s over the direction of the war in Vietnam, and jeopardised Johnson’s plans to enact a Great Society programme which would fight poverty, push for civil rights and improve medical care for millions of Americans. Ultimately, the PhD thesis looks to further the discussion over how public perception affects leadership decisions by viewing the specific case study of the Johnson presidency, and argues that Johnson’s inability to pursue a pro-active press strategy contributed to the credibility gap and damaged his reputation with the American public.
The time I spent in the British Library has been vital to my continued understanding of Johnson and the media. The resources that were made available included large amounts of secondary material and explanations of how presidents and their administrations use poll data to manipulate public opinion. The book LBJ and the Polls by Bruce Altschuler was a particularly strong example of this kind of material, as it included several case studies which were relevant to my studies, including discussions of how Johnson’s staffers courted pollsters such as Louis Harris and George Gallup in order to obtain more favourable reports.
Works such as, “Presidential Polls and the News Media,” by Paul J. Lavrakas and “The Superpollsters” by David W Moore were of great help to my theoretical understanding of the subject of opinion polls, while works such as “Power and Personality” by Harold Lasswell and “The Arrogance of Power” by J William Fulbright were useful in gaining an understanding of both presidential issues and the specific issues that Johnson had to deal with in Vietnam.
Several first hand reports from government officials to the President were informative and showed how the president and his staff handled the media during crisis situations. None of this information was readily available to me prior to my visit to the library.
As well as this, I was able to read biographies and memoirs from important figures in the administration such as General William Westmoreland, commander of US forces in Vietnam, and senior Johnson aide Jack Valenti, as well as figures who were central to foreign policy decision making such as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and his undersecretary George Ball. These accounts of decision making at the highest level show the influence of media and public perception, particularly when focusing on Vietnam – one of the first widely televised wars – and have been integral to my continued study of the topic.
Finally, the material available from the Library helped me to better understand the period of time in which Johnson’s presidency took place. The 1960s were a volatile and difficult period in American history, with the assassinations of major political figures Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King and a series of riots taking place in cities such as Detroit and Newark, New Jersey. On top of the Vietnam war and Johnson’s Great Society program, it has been greatly important to understand the issues that pulled at the president and his administration during his time in the White House, and how these affected both media coverage and the relationship that the media had with the White House.
Ultimately all of this material has helped me to understand the discussion behind the press relations and strategy of the Johnson administration, as well as to understand how Johnsonian decision making worked. I have been able to integrate the material into several papers that I have given at postgraduate level including at the Scottish American Studies Association, Historians of the Twentieth Century United States and at several university postgraduate conferences. I hope to submit articles around the subject in the near future.
The help of BAAS and the Eccles Centre award has been fundamental in my continuing understanding of the 1960s, Lyndon B Johnson and the political history of the United States. I am extremely grateful for the opportunities that have been afforded to me as a result of this award, and I would not be able to complete my PhD without the materials I have been able to work with as a result of it.
Ben Quail is a PhD student at the University of Strathclyde