WASHINGTON, Jan. 18, 1969 (UPI) - Lyndon Baines Johnson leaves the White House with a towering record of public service and accomplishments. But millions of his fellow countrymen, instead of being grateful and admiring, are glad to see him go.
Why this public disdain, which at times has reached new depths of vilification? The simple answers are a war which Johnson inherited, then escalated, plus the fact that he succeeded the assassinated John F. Kennedy.
There are other answers, too - answers as complicated as Johnson himself. His presidency coincided with the outburst of long pent-up feelings of protest in young people throughout the world and with the determination of American blacks to break out of the ghetto and seize a larger share of the life enjoyed by whites.
In spite of any and all answers, Johnson heads back to his Texas ranch home with a distinct, characteristic feeling that if there were to be any stars in his crown, to borrow from an old hymn, they would have to be put there by future historians.
He does not feel he had received a fair shake or proper credit from most recorders of contemporary history, particularly editorial writers, cartoonists, columnists and commentators.
Most men in public life would derive enormous satisfaction simply from having toiled and clawed up jagged political and professional mountains, as Johnson did, from the lowly role of a country school teacher in Texas to the presidency and undisputed world leadership that went with it.
The outgoing president, however, is leaving the nation's capital in a mixed mood of pride, nostalgia and downright bitterness. For all his years in public service, he does not appear to have developed the ability to separate unreasoned scorn and ridicule from justified or well-intended criticism.
There was some reason for Johnson's sensitivity. While he invited some of his lumps, others were hard to fathom.
In no president's time had there been enacted as much civil rights, health and housing legislation as during the Johnson Administration, not to mention numerous anti-poverty programs, medical care for the aged, increased Social Security benefits, attacks on air and water pollution and a variety of laws to protect the consumer.
Many liberals in his party refused to rate these legislative accomplishments as Johnsonian on the grounds that he did not originate them - that most of his so-called legislative "accomplishments" had been in various stages of progress for years and he merely happened to be president when the time was ripe for their enactment.
Despite all the civil rights legislation pushed through by a heavily Democratic congress while Johnson was chief executive, no president has attracted such hostility from blacks. The enormous step-up in funds and programs to aid education did little or nothing to prevent his being the focal point of student anger. Vietnam and the draft outweighed legislation of any kind in the minds of a highly demonstrative and vocal part of young America.
As Johnson leaves the White House he could, if he wanted, derive some relief from bitterness by recalling that he could not have assumed the presidency under much worse circumstances: the murder of President Kennedy, an increasingly popular, attractive and inspirational young leader.
With Kennedy's tragic death came the crashing end to an era for so many who attached considerably higher value on style, easy-going elegance and intellectual uplift than to bills passed, foreign leaders entertained, treaties signed or billions spent.
Johnson literally found himself facing an impossible situation as millions of Americans and other millions overseas were emotionally unable to accept an immediate substitute for President Kennedy.
In 1964, Johnson won the presidency in his own right. He carried 44 states and rolled up the largest popular vote margin in history as he vanquished conservative Republican Barry M. Goldwater of Arizona, whose home-state voters returned him to the U.S. Senate this year.
The history-making proportions of Johnson's election victory seemed only to aggravate the situation for many Kennedy worshipers. "Four more years of Texas," some of them complained.
"What the hell am I supposed to do," Johnson exploded to a friend. "Get myself born all over again, go to Harvard and play touch football on Cape Cod?"
Johnson's drop in popularity after the 1964 victory was of roller-coaster proportions. Acting on the best advice he could get and would accept, he began to pour added military power into Vietnam in 1965 until it eventually went over the half-million mark in manpower. There were draft riots, race riots, student riots. Los Angeles, Detroit, Newark and Washington saw Negro residential and business areas - the slums - badly burned and looted.
Numerous and continuing peace probes initiated by Johnson and Secretary of State Dean Rusk seemed to leave Hanoi unmoved. Last March 31, saying he wanted to avoid further divisiveness at home and help the chances of peace, Johnson pulled out - he would neither seek nor accept renomination.
History may be a long time in deciding, but there is good reason to believe Johnson might have helped himself, the country and the cause of peace had he made his announcement some months earlier. He had, after all, reached a rather basic understanding with his wife Lady Bird and with himself that the 1964 Campaign for the presidency would be his last - that he would run for and serve only one elective term in the White House.
This is not self-serving hindsight on his part. Several of his close associates knew about it even as he was inaugurated in 1965. Moreover, his one-term decision was reported speculatively more than a year before his announcement and, after March 31, his agreement with Lady Bird was revived and reported in detail.
Many Americans found this hard to believe, however, because it was so untypical of Johnson. This made a certain amount of sense. The White House has seldom seen, perhaps never, such an untypical man.