Andrew L. Yarrow
is a public policy professional and author of "Measuring America: How Economic Growth Came to Define American Greatness in the Late 20th Century"
After the high-profile commemorations of the 50th anniversary of former President John F. Kennedy's assassination, it is a bit surprising that the simultaneous anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson's ascendance to the presidency has received so little attention (although the 50th anniversary of his "War on Poverty" on Jan. 8 received more).
LBJ is a tough figure for Americans to grapple with. He was neither the martyred JFK, discredited like Richard Nixon, lionized like Ronald Reagan, best forgotten like George W. Bush, nor ever affable like Bill Clinton.
In the undergraduate post-World War II U.S. history course that I have taught for a number of years, I arrive midsemester at the week when I devote two class periods to LBJ. Simplistically - but only somewhat so - I tell my students that we'll spend one session talking about the "good LBJ" and one about the "bad LBJ."
Sadly, but understandably, the "bad LBJ" is the image of our 36th president that all too many Americans have. The reasons for this knee-jerk reaction by both baby-boom liberals and post-Reagan conservatives are obvious: Vietnam and the Great Society.
As a 10-year-old when antiwar demonstrators chanted "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" I, at an early age had the "bad LBJ" etched into my mind. My Lai. Napalm. The Tet Offensive. George Romney declaring himself "brainwashed" by U.S. military leaders, who kept seeing victory just a few hundred thousand troops around the corner. Later, the young John Kerry's haunting line about "the last man to die for a mistake."
When Johnson announced he would not run for reelection on March 31, 1968, there would have been a long national sigh of relief had the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. not been assassinated four days later and America's cities burst into flames. A tragic war. A lost war. A nation in turmoil. In 1968, who wouldn't say, "Good riddance, LBJ"?
The other war
Thirteen years later, the growing conservative attack on LBJ's Great Society social programs was summed up in Reagan's pithy first inaugural quote: "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." In the years that followed, it became the conventional wisdom that the Great Society had "failed" and that unfettered free markets, not government programs, were the golden path to prosperity and national success.
This month, on the 50th anniversary of Johnson's declaration of a "War on Poverty," conservatives and many a liberal will be quick to pronounce LBJ's other "war" as "lost" and a mistake.
Yet, they are wrong. The "good LBJ" accomplished and made possible some extraordinarily good things that have made the lives of almost all Americans better.
Johnson's "War on Poverty" cut the poverty rate from 22 percent to 12 percent in seven years, the steepest and fastest decline in U.S. history. Thanks to Johnson's Great Society programs, tens of millions of Americans today who otherwise would be poor are not. At the same time, LBJ's Medicare raised health-insurance coverage among the elderly from 56 percent to 97 percent. Between Medicare and Medicaid, Johnson's health program for the poor, more than 100 million Americans today receive benefits. It was touching to see angry tea party demonstrators demand: "Keep your government hands off my Medicare."
However, Johnson's greatest domestic achievements may well have been in advancing civil rights more than any other president, with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed job and other discrimination on the basis not only of race but also sex and religion, and made racial segregation illegal. The 1965 Voting Rights Act, a century after the end of the Civil War, finally made it illegal to "deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color."
A very long list
As I tell my students during "good LBJ" day, these may have been the highlights, but they were only the beginning of Johnson's monumental legislative achievements. It may seem like a laundry list, but the bills that LBJ signed between 1964 and 1966 should put our present do-nothing Congress to shame: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Higher Education Act, Head Start, the Economic Opportunity Act, the Food Stamp Act, the Child Nutrition Act, comprehensive immigration reform, the creation of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, the Motor Vehicle Safety Act, the Endangered Species Preservation Act, the Child Safety Act, the establishment of the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, and the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act. And 45 years ago, during Johnson's last Christmas Eve in the White House, three Americans became the first human beings to circle the moon, beaming back a TV message watched by a quarter of the world's people.
Johnson, in his characteristically unvarnished language, once said: "I knew from the start if I left the woman I really loved - the Great Society - in order to fight that bitch of a war in Vietnam then I would lose everything at home."
He was all too right.
The horrors of Vietnam cannot be minimized. Government is not the solution to all problems, and Great Society spending helped lead America into the morass of debt that plagues us today.
Yet, while I recently cleared away a door full of refrigerator magnets, one proudly remains - an LBJ campaign button.