In a front-page story below the fold in yesterday’s New York Times (though today I doubt people care whether or not a story is on the front page, much less what “below the fold” means), Adam Nagourney writes about the complicated legacy of Lyndon Johnson, a president at once scorned for his decisions on Vietnam (what was then politely called “the credibilty gap”) and revered for his ability to pass historic domestic legislation (towering, for example, over Georgia senator Richard Russell, as they clashed over civil rights). The occasion of the article is that the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum is announcing a 50th Anniversary Civil Rights Summit to be held in April that will feature presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton (with invitations extended to George W. Bush and Barack Obama). As Larry Temple told Nagourney, “The next five years will be the 50th anniversary of everything [LBJ] did.”
Of course, the split personality of the Johnson administration—one of the most consequential yet polarizing of the 20th century—has long been a subject of debate. In 2000, I wrote in an August cover story for Texas Monthly:
Johnson passed the country’s most sweeping civil rights and anti-poverty programs while presiding over the greatest foreign policy debacle in American history. The war in Southeast Asia damaged his presidency so greatly that, less than four years after his triumphant election, he announced that he wouldn’t run again. Johnson’s place in history hinged on one word: Vietnam.
Twenty-seven years after his death, however, Lyndon Johnson has new life. Much of the resurgence has to do with Harry Middleton, the director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, whose release of embargoed presidential tapes touched off a wave of revisionist history. The surviving members of his administration believe that the country has only recently begun to recognize fully his leadership on civil rights, health care, education, the environment, and a number of other programs. “From most people, I used to get—even up until a year or two ago—a rueful appreciation of Johnson, saying how many great things he did for the country and that it was just too bad about Vietnam,” says Harry McPherson, a special assistant and counsel in the Johnson White House. “Now I don’t get the latter. I just hear, ‘Your boss was a great president who had vision.’” Joseph Califano, a top domestic affairs aide to LBJ, agrees: “Very bluntly put, the Vietnam War is over, but the Great Society programs go on.”
No doubt the audio tapes were a primary driver in how people began to view LBJ. It’s impossible to listen to those and believe that, contrary to what critics long argued, that Johnson wanted to expand the war in Vietnam. The tapes also showed in unprecedented detail the daily triumphs and failures of being a modern president, sometimes within the span of a few conversations. But it’s the humanizing of LBJ that has helped improve his standing: the earthy yet effective politician who kept his Texas roots fully in display, whether it was drinking beer out of a paper cup while driving around the ranch or telling a head of state, when asked if he was born in a log cabin, “No, you’ve got me confused with Abraham Lincoln. I was born in a manger.”
Yet for all of the backlash and protests against the Vietnam war that overwhelmed his presidency, it was the riots in the country’s major cities that also crippled his administration. Johnson knew that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would put the South in play for the Republicans. What was harder to take what that within five days of the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, riots erupted in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, spreading to other cities like Detroit and Newark. In a poll taken in 1964, only 15 percent of Americans believed that changes in civil rights were happening too fast; two years later that number shot up to 85 percent. It wasn’t long before the talk in the country shifted from equality to law and order, one theme of Nixon’s 1968 campaign.
Of course, as the decades have passed, feelings have cooled. Vietnam has receded, and no one questions the importance of the landmark civil rights laws of the era. Imagine, for a minute, what the country would have looked like had those bills not been passed? Under JFK, the Civil Rights Act had stalled, and critics complained that Kennedy hadn’t put his political capital behind it. How much longer could the country have preserved its standing in the world when it refused to grant full equality to all of this citizens? How much longer would it have taken had it not been for LBJ?
And perhaps that is part of the significance of the civil rights summit as well. Despite these accomplishments, the legacy of LBJ has been looked at cooly by subsequent Democratic presidents, who some members of the adminisration have felt kept LBJ at arm’s length because of the baggage of Vietnam. To bring them to Austin will help shine a full, even light on Johnson’s administration, the good and the bad. As he once put it, “history with the bark off.”
( LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto; LBJ at the signing of the Voting Rights Act )