Lyndon B Johnson

LBJWhile in Austin I also got an opportunity to spend time at the President Lyndon B Johnson library. All past presidents have libraries in their honour. The LBJ library is the only one with no entry fee (at LBJ’s request). That should tell immediately you something about this man.

Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ for short) was America’s 36th President. He started off working as a teacher in a rural school in Texas, pretty soon though he was propelled into politics. After a long and successful career in US politics, as a congressman, senator and vice president, he had the difficult and unenviable task of picking up the pieces after JFK was assassinated in 1963.

In many ways he is similar to the incumbent president, George Bush. After all, he was born, raised, died and is buried in Texas. His entire two terms in office were dogged by a very unpopular war he had inherited and didn’t shy away from: the Vietnam War. He will always be remembered for the part he played in that unfortunate time in America’s history.

RacismHis similarity with George Bush ends there, though. LBJ was, indeed, a great man. This was apparent early on in his career when he was one of only three Southern senators to refuse to sign the Southern Manifesto (a document which opposed racial integration in public places). As president, he managed to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed. A landmark law which, along with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would end most forms racial segregation in the US. If that was the only thing he ever did, he would be great man.

That was not enough. He waged a “war on poverty” and set about pushing through laws which he called “The Great Society“. Laws that saw better protection of civil rights, medicare, medicaid, more spending on education and environmental protection among other things.

Oval OfficeDue in large part to his efforts, the level of poverty in the US dropped to 11% (from the historical 20%) and stayed around 11-15% ever since.

He was also a powerful and passionate orator. His landmark speeches are recorded for all time online and in libraries, for example:

“I shall never forget the faces of the boys and the girls in that little Welhausen Mexican School, and I remember even yet the pain of realizing and knowing then that college was closed to practically every one of those children because they were too poor. And I think it was then that I made up my mind that this Nation could never rest while the door to knowledge remained closed to any American”

He is often depicted with a phone in his hand, because he was forever sitting in his oval office (a replica is pictured above) on his phone negotiating fickle partisan support for his laws. He apparently required people to take dictation while he went to the toilet and worked late into the night on public policy.
Much of the spending on those social reforms has been cut back now. Neo-conservatives criticize his laws as being ineffective, expensive and unwieldy. In my book, if the conservatives are baying for your blood you’re doing the right thing. Johnson was far from perfect, he left politics as an unpopular president due to the expense of his social reforms and his handling of the war. In 100 years, however, when they look back at the achievements of Bush versus LBJ, I know who history will remember kindly.