WASHINGTON – The federal building in Washington housing the Education Department is named after President Lyndon B. Johnson. The Department of Health and Human Services, a much bigger agency, is in a building named after his vice president, Hubert H. Humphrey.
Unlike most other contemporary presidents, Johnson has no airport bearing his name, and you can count on your fingers the number of times he has been prominently mentioned at the last 11 Democratic national conventions.
In a Gallup poll, only 20 percent of Americans rated LBJ an above-average president, a lower ranking than George W. Bush or Jimmy Carter.
Yet the 36th president affected the lives of most Americans and changed the fabric of today’s society more than any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
This is overlooked or brushed aside because of another legacy: the disastrous war in Vietnam. A few years ago, I raised Johnson’s presidency in the class I teach at the University of Pennsylvania, and my bright Ivy League students could identify him only with the war.
A confluence of events may redress this imbalance. This is the 50th anniversary of the Johnson-engineered Civil Rights Act of 1964; a Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, last week included Barack Obama and three former presidents. Then there is “All the Way,” a Broadway play starring the talented Bryan Cranston as Johnson, and Todd Purdum’s compelling book on the passage of the Civil Rights Act, “An Idea Whose Time Has Come,” which captures LBJ’s political brilliance.
“He left the presidency under the dark cloud of Vietnam, and it has taken us this long to maybe finally see the forest for the trees,” says Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ library at the University of Texas. “The laws he put in place were transformative.”
Race always has been the great American paradox. After Abraham Lincoln, no one did as much as Lyndon Johnson to address this blemish: the 1964 act barring discrimination in public accommodations, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the 1968 housing bill and the appointment of the first black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall.
The book and play capture the full Johnson, cajoling, charming, manipulating, forcing through the 1964 act, which is among the most important pieces of legislation in U.S. history. He understood the egos, frailties and needs of lawmakers. He paid special attention to Everett Dirksen, the Senate Republican leader (“Listen to Dirksen” is the name of a chapter in Purdum’s book).
It is especially appropriate to spotlight these civil rights measures now, as state legislatures, and even the U.S. Supreme Court, are rolling back some of those protections. Likewise, the conventional wisdom is that Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty failed. The centerpiece was the 1965 enactment of Medicare and Medicaid.
Despite worries about future financing and occasional scams, Medicare is central to the contemporary American experience. Last year, 52 million Americans were on Medicare and 57 million were on Medicaid.
There were failures as Johnson overreached. But the poverty rate fell for the five years after Johnson’s initial programs were enacted.
And there were landmark successes: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Higher Education Act, special education for children with disabilities, food stamps, medical research, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities.
Johnson was a bully: crude, insecure and paranoid. He also was unrivaled as an indoor (as opposed to outdoor, or campaign-mode) political strategist, and he could be compassionate and generous. Cranston gets all this.
“At some moments on opening night, I thought I was seeing my old boss,” says Joe Califano, LBJ’s top aide on the Great Society programs.
None of this absolves Johnson of the debacle of Vietnam, a war in which more than 58,200 Americans lost their lives. The chief architects of that war, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, acknowledged late in life that they had been wrong.
“He was partly responsible for an enormous tragedy,” says presidential historian Michael Beschloss. “But he also was hugely responsible for much of what we’re living today.”
Many black or Hispanic Americans, seniors who are sick, jobless families whose kids don’t go hungry because of food stamps, participants in the hundreds of playhouse and dance theaters across the U.S., and viewers of public television owe much to LBJ.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. Twitter: @AlHuntDC.