Public anniversaries usually mark great or tragic historic events. In American tradition, it means, among other things, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, D-Day and Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays.
But President Lyndon B. Johnson’s fiftieth anniversary is unlike any of these. It’s not his birthday that will be celebrated, but the legislation passed during his presidency. It was announced on Monday that in April the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum will hold a Civil Rights Summit to commemorate Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act. The ceremony will be attended by three of the four living former presidents — Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — and perhaps President Obama.
Actually, that civil rights bill represents only a part of one of the most impressive series of legislative initiatives ever to come from the White House. As architect and signer of Medicare, the Clean Air Act, Head Start, the Immigration Act, the requirements for seatbelts and warnings on cigarette packs and much more — his was the most active and potent presidential pen since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
As Joseph A. Califano Jr., who was Johnson’s top domestic aide, said, “I don’t think people understand that this country today reflects more of Lyndon Johnson’s years in the White House than the years of any other president.”
While the promoters of the Johnson legacy insist that they do not intend to try to rewrite history, it is clear that they will be stressing LBJ’s domestic achievements over the disaster of the war in Vietnam. They aren’t planning any ceremonies to commemorate the signing of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave Johnson carte blanche to escalate American involvement to over half a million troops.
But this is not surprising. Thanks to a large extent to the influence of public-opinion polls, history has become as much a popularity contest as an election campaign. A CNN/ORC poll conducted in November that measured job approval ratings of the nine most recent former presidents found that Johnson, with 55 percent, ranked seventh — ahead of only Richard M. Nixon and George W. Bush.
Thus, the family and friends of Lyndon Johnson seek to correct what they believe is an unbalanced, unfair image of the 36th president of the United States. And they hope that it will boost his approval rating. LBJ’s last campaign, if you will.
Of course, history is more than just a popularity contest, a matter of casting votes for or against, thumbs up or thumbs down. The Johnson anniversary should call forth some serious study of those years.
The conventional wisdom has it that were it not for Vietnam, Johnson would have been a popular president and ranked among the greatest in history. His domestic achievements would have stood out much more clearly without the pall of the war, the nearly 60,000 Americans killed there and the bitter divisions it caused.
But for all his legislation’s shaping influence on America, the notion that LBJ’s “War on Poverty” would have been won, or at least rightly appreciated, had it not been for that other war, is also mistaken.
Those who think so forget that in 1964, in the middle of what was to be a landslide victory over Republican nominee Senator Barry Goldwater, the black urban areas erupted in rioting. And for all of the strides in civil rights boldly pushed forward by Johnson, racial strife continued throughout his administration. A painful learning experience, it belied the liberal assumption that governmental altruism in the form of OEO, VISTA, Model Cities and the rest would solve the problems of race and poverty in America.
Johnson, the man, will also inevitably come under re-examination. We are reminded of what Johnson biographer Robert Caro has written: that power corrupts, but it also reveals. On the upward path to power, the pragmatic politician often must conceal his true aims, lest those who can help him up but don’t share those aims refuse him their support.
Thus it was with Johnson. As a politician from Texas, he played the racist to win votes and gain backing from the powerful southern caucus which enabled him to rise to unprecedented power as Majority Leader. He wheeled and dealed in the Senate as nobody else could on behalf of the rich oil interests, rarely letting on that he cared for the poor and downtrodden.
The true legacy of Lyndon Johnson is complicated: A man of unrelenting ambition — who wanted ultimately to do good for the people. A man who maneuvered for years in the Senate to thwart liberal legislation — but, as president, revealed himself as the biggest and most effective liberal of them all. A man who craved the adulation of others — but was hounded out of office by anti-war protesters chanting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many boys did you kill today?”
Americans suffered from his flawed personality and his flawed policies. But we have also benefited from his achievements.
There will never be a day off for Johnson’s birthday. But when all is said and done, LBJ does deserve a higher approval rating than he’s received until now.