Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter head the speakers list and organizers hope President Barack Obama also will be on hand next month when the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library celebrates the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
George W. Bush is also expected to attend. But it would be the active participation of the three living Democratic presidents that could signal an end to the Democratic Party’s decades-long refusal to recognize Johnson as being among its greatest presidents.
Whether at political conventions or other party events, Johnson’s name is often ignored when speakers celebrate past Democratic presidential greats, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Bill Clinton.
Originally, the omission was an attempt to separate the party from LBJ’s role in expanding the Vietnam War, which stands with Bush’s invasion of Iraq as one of the two biggest U.S. foreign policy disasters since the Second World War.
That legacy has long overshadowed the fact that Johnson compiled the most extensive domestic record since FDR, including not just the Civil Rights Act but the landmark measures of Medicare and Medicaid and the first large-scale federal aid to education.
A 2010 survey of historians by the Siena College Research Institute rated LBJ among the presidents in the mid-teens — first in his relations with Congress but last in foreign policy. A recent CNN poll of the nine most recent presidents showed respondents rated Johnson seventh with a 55 per cent job approval, ahead of only George W. Bush and Richard Nixon.
More recently, Johnson’s domestic achievements have become a prime target for conservative critics who question the value of big federal government programs. In 1991, then-president George H.W. Bush challenged the premise of Johnson’s "Great Society" at the University of Michigan, the venue where Johnson 27 years earlier formally gave that title to his domestic program.
Even Clinton signaled Democratic unease by declaring on the eve of his 1996 re-election, "The era of big government is over."
Yet nothing underscores the Democratic Party’s refusal to recognize Johnson as much as the fact that he is rarely mentioned by Obama, the nation’s first African-American president and a man whose election would not have been possible without the 1965 Voting Rights Act and other LBJ initiatives. At the 2008 convention that nominated him, a commemorative LBJ film was shown out of prime time and the future president ignored both Johnson and the far less successful Carter in his acceptance speech.
In announcing this year’s event, LBJ Library Director Mark Updegrove said he is "very hopeful" Obama will join Carter, Clinton and Bush at the April 8-10 Civil Rights Summit. (The White House doesn’t release presidential schedules that far in advance.) Updegrove said it’s the first of a number of events to commemorate "President Johnson’s prodigious legislative legacy" and its impact on the modern-day United States.
"Young people don’t understand how different a world this was 50 years ago," Updegrove said.
Participants will include LBJ’s two daughters, Luci Baines Johnson and Lynda Johnson Robb; several members of his presidential staff, including top domestic adviser Joseph Califano and deputy press secretary Tom Johnson; civil rights leaders Diane Nash and Rep. John Lewis of Georgia; and other prominent political, academic and athletic leaders.
Those sessions will be interesting, but an appearance by Obama, and his recognition of Johnson’s achievements and importance, would be a valuable start in giving LBJ his rightful role in the Democratic Party’s pantheon of historic leaders.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.
—McClatchy Tribune Services