Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Austin City Limits: Do What I Say

LBJ  Presidential Library (photograph by Hallie Cohen)
When Lyndon Baines Johnson left office he travelled around Austin in a Lincoln Continental with the Seal of the Presidency on the door and two flags on the front. The Lincoln Continental it should be pointed out was the limousine used at the funerals of both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, the North Korean despot and father to Kim Jong-un "Deeply Hated, but Present: a U.S. Touch at Kim's End," NYT, 12/28/11). Vladimir Putin has been compared to a reptile ("The Accidental Autocrat," The Atlantic, 3/05) but Johnson exhibited the territoriality of a dog, famously shaking his beloved "Jumbo" at colleagues who were unfortunate enough to be in his proximity in the congressional bathroom. Johnson died of the a massive heart attack at the age of 64, but in the last two years of his life he held court in the replica of his Oval office that was recreated in the LBJ Presidential Library. Both the limousine and the office are still on exhibit today in the library, which is on the campus of the University of Texas adjacent to the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs. Johnson recorded all his phone calls and you can hear him berating Adam Clayton Powell and jollying up the Washington Post’s Katharine Graham. But one of the most dramatic parts of the library is the floor to ceiling manifolds of all the bills Johnson managed to get through congress. You might be one of those whose view of Johnson’s legacy as being stained by his prosecution of the Vietnam War (remember "hey, hey LBJ, how may kids have you killed today?") but if nothing else the library points to his huge contribution as a Roosevelt Democrat who earned his stripes in the gritty hard boiled world of Texas populist politics. Lyndon Johnson championed the Great Society which would eventually comprise The Civil Rights Acts of l964 and the Voting Rights Act of l965, Pell grants, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities,  Head Start, VISTA—in short the world of entitlements which Republicans have spent decades trying to do away with and which they are still fighting to remove today. Johnson’s biographer Robert Caro is quoted as saying: “Abraham Lincoln struck off the chains of black Americans but it was Lyndon Johnson who led them into voting booths, closed democracy’s sacred curtain behind them, placed their hands upon the lever that gave them a hold on their own destiny, made them, at last and forever, a true part of American political life.” Johnson wrote his own epitaph in his final State of the Union address in l969 with these words: Now, it is time to leave. I hope it may be said, a hundred years from now, that by working together we helped to make our country more just, more just for all of its people, as well as to insure and guarantee the blessings of liberty for all of our posterity. That's what I hope. but I believe that at least it will be said we tried." Would another way to describe Johnson's legacy simply be, "do what I say, don't say what I do?" But what kind of a politician employs the kind of ballot fraud that Robert Caro claims went into the l948 senatorial election? How is pure unmitigated ambition countermanded by a sense of purpose? Here was a man who plainly wanted to make his mark but to what extent was the opportunism mixed with a bona fide vision? The LBJ Library Presidential Library is a historical treasure and testament to the complex character of the 36th president of the United States.

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