Evan Smith: Your father’s hundredth birthday is upon us, as is the fortieth anniversary of his last year in the White House. You yourself were only twenty years old in 1968. Does it feel like that much time has passed, or does it feel like yesterday?
Luci Baines Johnson: So much of the work that was part of the Great Society is my life’s work. It’s not a closed chapter. It’s an ongoing mission. Jack Valenti summed it up when he said, “Those of us involved in the Great Society look back upon it as the springtime of our lives.”
ES: What would your dad think of the world in 2008?
LBJ: Anyone who is a graduate of the political stump knows that trying to hypothesize about what somebody might have thought, said, or done is mighty dangerous territory to get into. But you and I were having a conversation earlier about how when [LBJ aide] Harry McPherson went to vote [in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary in Maryland], the person who gave him his ballot said something like, “Wow. Wouldn’t Lyndon Johnson have thought this was great?”
ES: The implication was that President Johnson would have marveled at Barack Obama’s being a candidate for president.
LBJ: Oh, I think it was a dual implication. At that point, the two people in the primary were Hillary Clinton and Senator Obama. Lyndon Johnson felt that womanpower was America’s greatest untapped natural resource. And, of course, he was a man who spent his political life trying to right the wrongs of segregation and open the doors of opportunity to all of us, regardless of the color of our skin, our gender, our ethnicity, our religion. I can show you a note from my father on my seventeenth birthday—it’s actually the only handwritten letter I have from him. A history teacher always, he timed it at 12:10 p.m. At four o’clock that afternoon he signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Can you imagine a better birthday present for me, something that changed all of our lives? What a thrill.
ES: And now we have an African American nominee.
LBJ: I was standing right behind my father on that day in 1965 when he signed the Voting Rights Act into law. As a young adolescent—I probably had a date that afternoon—I said to Daddy, “Why are we going up to the halls of Congress? Why aren’t we just signing it here in the East Room?” My father shook his head and said, “Oh, Luci Baines, don’t you get it? We’re going up to the halls of Congress because the Congress will never look the same again as a result of the courageous decisions that these men and women are making. Some who are here today will not be here again because they dared to support the Voting Rights Act. And some who will be coming would never have had the opportunity but for this act.” And that has been the case.
ES: Is civil rights his greatest legacy?
LBJ: It’s a dynamic duo: It’s civil rights and education. I was stunned, in 1972, when my father had his education papers opened before his civil rights papers, because of those three magnificent pieces of legislation: the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act. I said to him, “Daddy, why are you opening those first?” He looked at me and said, “Luci, it doesn’t matter what color you are. It doesn’t matter what your ethnicity is. If you don’t have an opportunity to take advantage of all the education you can, you’ll never be your best.”
ES: So it’s both.
LBJ: It’s kind of like, who do you love the most, your mother or your father? They bring different things to the table. Of course, to be able to vote, to be able to buy a house in an affordable neighborhood, to be able to participate fully in American life, to enjoy our planes, trains, hotels, motels, water fountains—no one, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, would ever want to turn back the clock on those. Well, I can’t say no one, but most Americans. The vast majority of Americans.
ES: It’s interesting that you hesitated. It’s an acknowledgment of the reality that here we are in 2008, all these years later, and we still haven’t resolved the race question.
LBJ: We definitely have a ways to go—those are a few words that I do think I can put into Daddy’s mouth. The work is far from done. But the impact was enormous and survives.
ES: Another of President Johnson’s lasting legacies is his success at persuading people to do things that might not have seemed to be in their self-interest. I wonder if part of the reason we can’t deal with some of these problems today is that there aren’t people in positions of high leadership with those same powers of persuasion.
LBJ: My father thought that politics was not a zero-sum involvement. It wasn’t “I win, you lose.” It was “We work together, we get something better. I might not get the whole loaf I want. You might not get the whole loaf you want. But together, we can make something of it.” I’ll tell you, a beautiful example of that is when he didn’t give the first pen used to sign the Voting Rights Act to one of the great civil rights leaders who was there. I felt that they were so deserving, but my father gave it instead to [Republican senator] Everett Dirksen [of Illinois]. I asked him why, and he said, “Because all of those great civil rights leaders were already for that legislation. They had already made that commitment. We could stand in our corner and espouse the righteousness of doing it, but if we hadn’t been able to get Everett Dirksen to step across the aisle and bring our foes with us, we would have had a great bill, but we