They keep waiting, but longtime aides to former President Lyndon B. Johnson, LBJ historians, and even his daughter Lynda Bird Robb say it doesn’t look like today’s politicians are ready to give the Texan credit for laying the groundwork on the programs and civil rights advances they are building on today. At a huge LBJ homecoming this week to celebrate the former president’s 100th birthday, his former domestic policy aide, Joseph Califano Jr., named names--John Edwards, Sen. Barack Obama--in a keynote address urging that Washington and the public pull the “invisible president” out of the shadow of Vietnam to herald his long list of domestic achievements.
“Throughout this year, and last week in endorsing Barack Obama, John Edwards made reducing poverty a centerpiece of his presidential campaign. Yet he never mentioned Lyndon Johnson, the first--and only--president ever to declare war on poverty and sharply reduce it,” Califano told the Centennial Celebration for President Lyndon Baines Johnson at the Kaiser Family Foundation. Then he added, “A few weeks ago in his eloquent victory speech in Raleigh, N.C., Barack Obama followed a familiar pattern of omission. In recounting the achievements of previous Democratic presidents, he mentioned the pantheon of FDR, Harry Truman, JFK--but not LBJ. Not Lyndon Johnson--not the man who would be proudest of Barack Obama’s candidacy and what it says about America, the president uniquely responsible for the laws that gave this man (and millions of others) the opportunity to develop and display his talents and gave this nation the opportunity to benefit from them.”
Robb hailed the event and the fact the Democrats are running a woman and black for the first time in history, but added that she’s disappointed her dad never gets mentioned by the candidates. “Well, I guess it hurts. It makes you feel sad that people who from our perspective you would think would see that.” But she added, “Daddy would be so excited that we have a person of color and a woman running.”
Sen. Hillary Clinton did mention LBJ once, but it backfired because it was seen as a slight toward Martin Luther King Jr.
Others at the event added that the reason LBJ doesn’t get his due is because of the Vietnam War. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who mentions LBJ often and even sat at Johnson’s Senate desk, said, “It is true that Vietnam has been an obstacle for many and hard to overcome.” Califano agreed, but urged his audience to get over Vietnam. “It’s time to take off the Vietnam blinders and let our eyes look at and learn from the domestic dimension of this presidency. Let everyone think what they will about Vietnam. But let us--especially Democrats--also recognize the reality of this revolutionary’s remarkable achievements,” he said.
Historian Douglas Brinkley said he thinks the tide is turning and that a new Democratic president would usher in a Great Society-styled progressive era. “We’ve got to now get the word out on LBJ,” he said.