As President-elect Barack Obama named significant members of his future cabinet
Monday, and as the U.S. Congress is preparing legislation for our future president, we stand on the cusp of witnessing unparalleled history a black man will be our president.
Much has been said of the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. We have heard, with good reason, tributes and acclaim thrown on people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, people who battled bravely in the face of hostility.
But we have heard surprisingly little about the accomplishments of one man former
President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson was as Robert Kuttner dubbed him in a column for The Huffington Post the forgotten man of the 2008 Democratic Convention.
Johnson took immense risks to pass the three landmark civil rights laws. It is not an exaggeration to say that without Johnsons leadership, Barack Obama would not be accepting the Democratic nomination for president this week, Kuttner wrote.
Mentions of Johnsons legacy are rare among Democratic politicians a contrast to their fanfare and fawning over the likes of Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy.
In her biography, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, Doris Kearns Goodwin, who knew Johnson in the twilight of his life, constructs an intimate profile of the Texan.
Johnson shared his grandfathers populist touch and his love for the Western frontier a place that, by Johnsons birth, had been closed off by laws and fences. Johnson had his fathers penchant for politics and, most importantly, his mothers boundless energy which he would use to outwork his opponents and was crucial to his work as a legislator and president.
As a politician, he reveled in process and procedure. He learned every procedural aspect of every position he ever held a knowledge he invariably used to his benefit throughout his political career. He was conscious of his Texan roots, aware he could have been pigeonholed as a regional, Southern politician.
In his early years in the U.S. Senate, when he courted and befriended a powerful and influential bloc of Southern senators, conservative Democrats, who opposed civil rights efforts, Johnson chose the issue of civil rights on which to demonstrate that his loyalty did not entail complete subordination, Goodwin wrote.
He was a committed Machiavellian, but the gaining and retention of power was not an ends for Johnson.
His concept of achievement, Goodwin wrote, was derived from the New Deal and Roosevelt, which dominated the formative years of his public life, and from those influences and conflicts of his childhood had brought him to equate achievement with fulfilling the needs and expectations of others.
As president, Johnson put to rest the argument, one peddled frequently by the Obama campaign that only a Washington outsider can bring change to Washington. Johnson, the consummate Washington insider, changed nearly every institution he belonged to from his days in student government at Texas State University-San Marcos to his term as president.
He had a vast array of personal and political skills at his disposal to pass legislation skills he honed as Senate Majority Leader. He intimately knew the Senate its members needs and wants and he knew how to form bipartisan coalitions.
Perhaps other presidents could have passed the 1964 civil rights legislation, but few could have done so with the understanding of political capital and with such haste as Johnson.
While still making use of his capacity to convey privately subtle differences in tone with
liberal Democrats, the blacks, the Southerners, and te Republicans, Johnson openly proclaimed a unifying and consistent purpose to secure a strong, sweeping civil rights bill, Goodwin wrote.
The Great Society legislation, a broad term describing a multitude of Johnsons liberal domestic agenda, was transformative, creating staple programs like Medicare and Medicaid. His domestic agenda advanced the liberal vision of America more than any other Democratic President, save Franklin Roosevelt.
The reason, though, for Johnsons tainted legacy and his largely ignored domestic accomplishments is Vietnam. The conflict left a bad taste in Democrats mouths and is undoubtedly why Johnson faced opposition from his own party. He was under fire from the liberal wing of his own party, the media and the intelligentsia all factions he has since said he never particularly liked.
The same skills he mastered in the U.S. Senate, the skills he used to successfully push his domestic agenda through, would be his ultimate undoing in Vietnam. Where cajoling, finessing and accommodating legislators for their support telling them what they needed to hear were normal methods of persuasion in the U.S. Senate, to the American people these tactics amounted to deception.
The point here, though, is not to defend Johnsons actions regarding Vietnam, there is little defending his many mistakes, but rather to illuminate his accomplishments as a domestic president.
It is strange and unfair that a party that prides itself on many of the same principles as Johnson, ardently defends many of the same programs he pushed through Congress and shares his vision of an America in which every person shared in the progress and the responsibilities of the country should not give him the credit his record deserves.
Far more praise has been heaped upon his younger, more attractive and significantly less accomplished predecessor. Johnsons domestic successes and the swift and decisive way he achieved them should be a standard Democrats hope Obama can achieve.
I want him to know, Johnson reportedly explained about his last-minute decision to have Harry Truman attend the signing of the Medicare bill, that his country had not forgotten him.
I wonder, he continued, if anyone will do the same for me.