The contrast could not be greater. Last year, we marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This year, we note the 50th anniversary of the election of President Lyndon Baines Johnson. One president is still revered, and rightly so. The other is still reviled, but unfairly so.
With the passage of time, our evaluation of every president changes. Harry Truman, once dismissed as not up to the job, is now considered an effective, tough-minded decision-maker. Ronald Reagan, who left office in a wave of hero-worship, is already seen by some as having been more and more ineffective and out of touch. Now, 50 years later, many presidential historians agree it's time to take another look at LBJ.
For one big reason, that's not so easy. I remember a fellow graduate student in Switzerland saying to me once, in all seriousness: "If you took away the mountains, Switzerland would look just like New Jersey." But, of course, you can no sooner take the mountains away from Switzerland than you can take the war in Vietnam away from Lyndon Johnson.
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Vietnam will always be the issue that defines the Johnson presidency. He didn't start the war, JFK did. But Johnson continued the war, escalated it wildly and kept the war going in the insane belief that more men, more planes and more bombs would eventually lead to victory over the Viet Cong. By the time LBJ realized that strategy was not working, the war had claimed 30,000 American lives, destroyed his presidency and left Americans dealing, for the first time, with the pain of having started a war only to lose it. That sad reality haunts us still.
But what's largely forgotten is that Vietnam is only a part of LBJ's legacy. He didn't even spend much time on it, at first. Top aide Jack Valenti recalled, "We hardly discussed it because it was not worth discussing." Johnson was focused, instead, on his Great Society legislation – and that's where he had his greatest impact, perhaps improving the lives of average Americans more than any other modern president. "When he left office, the trial and tribulations of the war were so emotional that it was hard to see everything else he had done beyond Vietnam," notes presidential historian and Johnson biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin. And yet, she adds: "The country fundamentally changes as a result of LBJ's presidency."
He's been called a master manipulator, a bully, a fearsome arm-twister and a man who would never take no for an answer. Whatever his methods, former Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson certainly knew how to get things done. Compare today's "Do-Nothing" 113th Congress with President Johnson's record in dealing with what he dubbed "The Great 89th." As recounted by domestic aide Joseph Califano in his book "The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson," out of 200 measures Johnson proposed to Congress, 181 were passed and signed into law – for a batting average of .905. No other president has ever, or will ever, come close.
His list of major accomplishments reads like a catalog of every progressive cause of the 20th century. Among other achievements, Johnson was responsible for: Head Start; the War on Poverty; Medicare; Medicaid; VISTA; the Teacher Corps; the Model Cities Program; the Office of Economic Opportunity; the Clean Water Restoration Act; the highway beautification program; the National Endowment for the Humanities; the National Endowment for the Arts; the Public Broadcasting Act; and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. He even passed the Child Safety Act, which requires those impossible-to-open-not-just-for-children tops on pill bottles.
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But, on the domestic front, Johnson will be most remembered for his historic contribution to civil rights. True, only a Southern Democrat could convince his fellow Southern Democrats to abandon their segregationist past and support civil rights legislation. But not every Southerner would even try. Johnson would. Johnson did, despite the political risk to his own party. And Johnson won. In July 1964, with Martin Luther King Jr. standing behind him, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act – after which, he told an aide, "We have lost the South for a generation." One year later, he signed the Voting Rights Act, allowing millions of Southern blacks to vote for the first time.
No, we'll never forget Vietnam. But, despite the war in Vietnam, LBJ is still, after FDR, our most effective and most liberal president. He deserves a second look.