LBJ’s presidency gets another look as civil rights law marks its 50th anniversary


University of Texas students watch a livestream of former President Jimmy Carter Tuesday on the University of Texas campus in Austin. Carter spoke at the Civil Rights Summit. (Ashley Landis/EPA)

Sixty-nine days before the 1992 election, the Democrats’ standard-bearer came to the Lyndon B. Johnson presidential library on what would have been Johnson’s 84th birthday.

Before a cheering crowd of thousands, then-Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas gave a 20-minute speech — and never once mentioned the name Lyndon B. Johnson.

On Wednesday, Clinton will return to the library, and this time he will celebrate Johnson and his legacy as a liberal reformer — as Democrats have finally begun to do.

This new warmth toward the 36th president comes as his party has moved to the left in recent years.

The health-care law that President Obama put into place is the most ambitious domestic program since Johnson’s Great Society era. Where laws striking down racial barriers stand among the great achievements of Johnson’s presidency, Democrats have taken up gay rights as the civil rights struggle of the 21st century. The party also is putting a new emphasis on income inequality, an issue that carries echoes of LBJ’s War on Poverty.

Former president Bill Clinton praises Lyndon B. Johnson's presidential leadership at the Civil Rights Summit, which marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. (LBJ Presidential Library)

This leftward tilt is reflected in some of the party’s newest stars, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.

A fuller embrace of liberalism has come with criticism. The reaction nationwide to the Affordable Care Act has been ambivalent, at best, while Republicans continue to decry the massive expansion of government that took place under Johnson.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) recently said of the War on Poverty: “It has failed.”

Clinton is one of four presidents who are paying tribute this week to Johnson at a three-day conference to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. That law prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

Former president Jimmy Carter warned Tuesday at the conference that half a century after the passage of the act, complacency about civil rights has set in. “We feel like Lyndon Johnson did it. We don’t have to do any more,” he said.

On Thursday, Obama will give an address in the morning and former president George W. Bush will speak that evening, closing the event on a bipartisan note.

Twenty-two years ago, Clinton’s omission did not strike Johnson’s grievously offended former aides as an accident.

At that time, up-and-coming Democrats, whose party had lost three presidential elections in a row, were leery of being too closely associated with the kind of liberal activism that had been Johnson’s hallmark.

And for those whose political activism had been inspired by the 1960s, the stain of the Vietnam War had obliterated Johnson’s legislative achievements.

History tends to be kinder to presidents than their contemporaries are. When Gallup last year asked Americans their views of the nine most recent ex-presidents, seven registered higher job-approval numbers than they did when they left office.

Clinton and Johnson were the exceptions — though, in Clinton’s case, he remained extraordinarily popular, with 60 percent approval, down six percentage points from when he left the White House.

On average, only 42 percent said they believed Johnson had done a good job, which was a decline from a tepid 49 percent at the end of his term. Of the most recent presidents, only Republican Richard M. Nixon, who resigned amid the Watergate scandal, had a lower retrospective job-approval rating, averaging 33 percent.

In his waning days in office, Johnson was so unpopular that party leaders asked him not to attend the 1968 Democratic National Convention, even though, as president, he was the head of his party.

“Vietnam kind of danced around Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon,” said Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ presidential library. “But it clung to LBJ like the light of day.”

There is fresh evidence that Johnson may be having something of a resurgence — at least when it comes to domestic policy.

“The passions and pain of the Vietnam War have subsided to a degree to which we are now able to look at the broader achievements of the Johnson administration,” said playwright Robert Schenkkan, whose Broadway show about the president, “All the Way,” is playing to packed houses.

Since then, the country has fought two wars in Iraq — with more than half the public considering the second one a mistake — and sustained the longest conflict in its history, in Afghanistan.

Johnson’s legislative record also stands as a contrast to the polarization and paralysis of Washington today. The 89th Congress of 1965 and 1966 is regarded as arguably the most productive in American history, with a burst of legislation that exceeded in scope even the laws that were put in place during the New Deal.

In addition to the civil rights laws being celebrated this week, the Johnson years saw the passage of Medicare and Medicaid, major immigration legislation, a host of environmental and consumer-protection laws, a huge endeavor to fight poverty, and the government’s first investment in primary and secondary education.

Against that record, Schenkkan said, there is “a frustration widely felt across the country, in both parties, over the gridlock in Congress, the inability to get things done. There is a nostalgia for Lyndon Baines Johnson. Whatever you want to say about him, the man knew how to get things done legislatively.”

If Clinton was reluctant to invoke Johnson’s name during his first presidential campaign, perspectives already had begun to shift by the time his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, ran for president in 2008.

Comparing Johnson’s role in the civil rights struggle to that of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Hillary Clinton said: “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act. It took a president to get it done.”

At the time, her rival Barack Obama characterized her comment as “an ill-advised remark,” saying, “She, I think, offended some folks who felt that somehow diminished King’s role in bringing about the Civil Rights Act.”

That Obama will be joining those paying homage to Johnson this week suggests that the time may finally have arrived when Democrats have come to terms with one of the most complicated figures in modern history.

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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