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LBJ’s legacy: Creating a better world is what Americans are supposed to do


History offers a rough kind of justice.

As the nation’s president and three of his predecessors gathered this week at the University of Texas for an LBJ Library conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, they confirmed what has been building for many years now: a thoroughly justified revival of Lyndon B. Johnson’s standing.

If historians still don’t quite go “All the Way with LBJ,” as his 1964 campaign slogan would have it, they have moved a good part of the way in his direction since he departed the White House in 1969, leaving behind a country torn by the Vietnam War and weary of the conflicts the 1960s unleashed.

The Johnson comeback brings with it a new appreciation of the durability of the reforms enacted on his watch. It turns out that there are irreversible social reforms — changes in how we govern ourselves and view our society that future generations come to take for granted and refuse to wipe off the books.

The list of achievements in Johnson’s heyday is well documented in the 2008 book “The Liberal Hour” by Colby College scholars G. Calvin Mackenzie and Robert Weisbrot. Environmental advances along with the establishment of new consumer protections and federal aid to education set the stage for more progress in later years.

But the LBJ fixation can be misleading. There is, for example, a devout wish that President Obama had the inclination to match LBJ as the Harry Potter of legislative wizardry. It’s entirely fair to criticize Obama for his apparent aversion to schmoozing legislators. The problem is that Obama could spend hours sharing beer and bourbon with our elected representatives and still not overcome the sharp ideological turn in contemporary conservatism that has moved Republicans toward resolute opposition to nearly everything he does.

The GOP wasn’t always like this. Two valuable new books on the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Todd Purdum’s “An Idea Whose Time Has Come” and Clay Risen’s “The Bill of the Century,” both point to the unsung Republican civil rights heroes — notably Rep. William McCulloch, whose district was in a similar area of Ohio as House Speaker John Boehner’s is today. Republican help on the bill was essential back then.

And as the distinguished historian David Garrow makes clear in a review essay on the Purdum and Risen books in The American Prospect, we often forget how important religious voices and church-based organizing were in pushing through civil rights. The “values voters” of that era were focused on the struggle for justice, not on battles over culture more recently associated with that label. There is both an opening and a need for such a movement again, focused this time on economic injustice and the injuries of class inequality.

The LBJ revival is often seen as signifying a “leftward tilt” in the Democratic Party, and it’s true that progressives are gaining ground. But the deeper LBJ legacy is of a consensual period when a large and confident majority believed that national action could expand opportunities and alleviate needless suffering. Johnson showed that these were not empty dreams and that finding realistic ways of creating a better world is what Americans are supposed to do.


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