On anniversary of his achievements, there’s an effort to define him beyond Vietnam.
President Lyndon B. Johnson greeted a crowd in 1964. Family and friends of Johnson say that his presidential legacy has been tainted by the Vietnam War, and they are working to highlight his legislative milestones on their 50th anniversary.
AUSTIN, Texas – Luci Baines Johnson leaned forward in her father’s private suite at the LBJ Presidential Library, her voice breaking as she recounted the “agony of Vietnam” that engulfed Lyndon Baines Johnson and the pain she feels to this day of witnessing his presidency judged through the prism of a failed war.
“Nobody wanted that war less than Lyndon Johnson,” said Johnson, 66, who is the president’s younger daughter. “No matter how hard he tried, he didn’t seem to be able to get out of that quagmire. Not only did he not get out of it in his lifetime, but his legacy indeed has that weight of the world on it.”
But now, 50 years later — with a coming rush of anniversaries of the legislative milestones of the Johnson presidency — Luci Johnson and the diminishing circle of family and friends from those White House years have commenced one last campaign. They are seeking a reconsideration of Johnson’s legacy as president, arguing that it has been overwhelmed by the tragedy of the Vietnam War, and has failed to take into account the blizzard of domestic legislation enacted in the five years Johnson was in the White House.
On Monday, the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum will announce details of a Civil Rights Summit to be held here in April to commemorate Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act, attended by three of the four living former presidents — Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — and perhaps President Obama.
Offering an alternative take
A ceremony is being planned inside the massive slab of the library, to be followed by celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Johnson initiatives: Medicare, the Clean Air Act, public broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Head Start, the requirements for seat belts, and warnings on cigarette packs. The events are intended to offer a counterweight to the way Johnson has been portrayed over the past decades.
Larry Temple, a former Johnson aide who is chairman of the LBJ Foundation, said the coming months may offer a last chance for surviving members of the Johnson administration to make his case.
“The next five years will be the 50th anniversary of everything he did,” he said.
The campaign comes at the end of a long period in which aides and advisers to Johnson, who died at age 64 in 1973, have largely stayed in the shadows. They have patiently watched the adulation of John F. Kennedy — whom Johnson succeeded and with whom he had a competitive relationship — that accompanied the commemoration of another 50th anniversary: the Kennedy assassination.
“I’ll tell you: I don’t think people understand that this country today reflects more of Lyndon Johnson’s years in the White House than the years of any other president,” said Joseph A. Califano Jr., who was Johnson’s top domestic aide.
‘Agony of Vietnam looms’
Still, despite the sweeping changes brought by Johnson’s Great Society programs, it is a fraught case to make. Even Johnson’s biggest advocates acknowledge that any historical reckoning of him has to account for his polarizing image as a president who pressed an unpopular war that led to the deaths of nearly 60,000 Americans.
In many ways, the effort to improve Johnson’s reputation began in December 2012 with the opening of a newly designed Lyndon B. Johnson Library. Where there was once a largely empty corridor now sits a wall of pens symbolizing the bills Johnson signed. The amount of space devoted to Johnson’s life before he became president has been cut back to make room for an exhibition laying out Johnson domestic initiatives, with an “Impact on You” section for each.
Still, the largest room is dedicated to the war.
“We have not shied away from Vietnam,” Temple said. “It is there, and it is always going to be there.”
Luci Johnson, in an interview, made no effort to defend her father’s decisions in Vietnam, but said the public had never appreciated its toll.
“The agony of Vietnam looms over all of us,” she said. “Look at Lyndon Johnson when he came into the presidency. Look what he looked like when he left. Vietnam was his cross.”