The history and legacy of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society achievements, long obscured by the Vietnam War, are being recognized with fresh focus in this 50th anniversary year. The trend of reconsidering LBJ’s accomplishments through a lens other than Vietnam began last summer with the release of Director Lee Daniels’ film, The Butler starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, and the debut of the Broadway play, All the Way.
Tomorrow, the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum, in Austin, Texas, will announce its upcoming Civil Rights Summit, scheduled to take place in April. The event will commemorate President Johnson’s signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and three former presidents will be on hand for the ceremonies, including Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. It is not yet known if President Obama will be able to attend.
In the ensuing decades since LBJ left office, painful memories of the Vietnam War clouded the history and legacy of his many Great Society achievements. Johnson’s myriad landmark legislative accomplishments include Medicare, public broadcasting, the Clean Air Act, the National Endowment for the Humanities, seat belt laws, Head Start and health warning labels on cigarette packs.
Actor Liev Schreiber, who portrayed Johnson in The Butler, believes he is not given the credit he deserves. “Before I did this movie I wasn’t really aware of the extent to which LBJ moved forward the Civil Rights Movement.” Distinguishing the Johnson era from present day Congressional gridlock, Schreiber marveled at Johnson’s mastery of Congress, “He had an innate ability to keep both sides of the equation happy.”
As a former Senate Majority Leader, Johnson had a talent for cajoling members of the legislative branch to agree to his wishes. A perfect demonstration of this ability was his 1967 appointment of Thurgood Marshall as the United States’ first African-American Supreme Court Justice.
“He would cajole, he would threaten,” said Bryan Cranston, who plays LBJ in the Broadway play, All the Way. “Sometimes he was friendly, sometimes he was vicious,” continued the Breaking Bad star. “He swung so wide on the spectrum of human emotions,” observed Cranston, “in order to accomplish what he felt needed to be done.”
One of President Johnson’s two daughters, Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, noted that when Harry Truman left office, “Everybody thought he was horrible.” Public opinion later shifted dramatically in favor of Truman. Robb hopes her father’s legacy will finally achieve a similar adjustment. “Can you think of where we would be without Lyndon Johnson,” she said, reciting a list of her father’s accomplishments, including the Hart-Celler Act and federal aid to education, “Think of what we would be like if Daddy hadn’t signed that bill.”
Hart-Cellar was a landmark immigration reform law, which abolished the national origins quota system. Quotas were replaced with a system that focused on skills and familial relationships with American citizens and residents.
“He was the ultimate liberal president, said Joseph A. Califano, Jr., Johson’s chief domestic aide. “He believed government was there to help.” Califano asserted that Johnson’s policies are reflected more in the America of today than any other president’s.
On the subject of Vietnam, Johnson’s younger daughter, Luci Baines Johnson, is very emotional. Both of President Johnson’s daughters had White House weddings, and both of their husbands served in Vietnam. Luci Johnson recalled how she and her sister would go to bed at night, “as we cuddled our babies in our arms, without their daddies.” Outside their windows anti-war protesters would be chanting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many boys did you kill today?”
President Johnson’s friends and family say they are not interested in creating a false image of the man. They merely wish to have him remembered for the entirety of his policies, credit for which has long been swamped by Vietnam. They want Americans recognizing a more complete history of LBJ and his legacy of the Great Society.
By Melissa Roddy