Rescuing a Vietnam Casualty: Johnson’s Legacy

By ADAM NAGOURNEY New York Times News Service

AUSTIN, Texas - Luci Baines Johnson leaned forward in her father’s private suite at the LBJ Presidential Library, her voice breaking as she recounted the “agony of Vietnam” that engulfed Lyndon Baines Johnson and the pain she feels to this day of witnessing his presidency judged through the prism of a failed war.

“Nobody wanted that war less than Lyndon Johnson,” said Johnson, 66, who is the president’s younger daughter. “No matter how hard he tried, he didn’t seem to be able to get out of that quagmire. Not only did he not get out of it in his lifetime, but his legacy indeed has that weight of the world on it.”

But now, 50 years later - with a coming rush of anniversaries of the legislative milestones of the Johnson presidency - Luci Johnson and the diminishing circle of family and friends from those White House years have commenced one last campaign. They are seeking a reconsideration of Johnson’s legacy as president, arguing that it has been overwhelmed by the tragedy of the Vietnam War, and has failed to take into account the blizzard of domestic legislation enacted in the five years Johnson was in the White House.

On Monday, the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum will announce details of a Civil Rights Summit to be held here in April to commemorate Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act, attended by three of the four living former presidents - Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush - and perhaps President Barack Obama.

A ceremony is being planned inside the massive slab of the library, to be followed by celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Johnson initiatives: Medicare, the Clean Air Act, public broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Head Start, the requirements for seatbelts, and warnings on cigarette packs. The events are intended to offer a counterweight to the way Johnson has been portrayed over the past decades.

“Our goal has NEVER been to create a false image of LBJ,” wrote Tom Johnson, a former president of CNN and a former publisher of The Los Angeles Times, who served for 40 years as chairman of the LBJ Foundation, in an email to other foundation members. “What we are striving to do is to achieve recognition of the truth about LBJ’s years, most of which (except Vietnam and some recognition of civil rights) has been forgotten or swamped by Vietnam.”

Luci Johnson responded to that with a one-word note: “AMEN!”

Larry Temple, a former Johnson aide who is the chairman of the LBJ Foundation, said the coming months may offer a last opportunity for the surviving members of the Johnson administration to make his case.

“The next five years will be the 50th anniversary of everything he did,” he said.

The campaign comes at the end of a long period in which aides and advisers to Johnson, who died at age 64 in 1973, have largely stayed in the shadows, quieted by the memory of a war that still prompts anguished debate and condemnation. They have patiently watched the adulation of John F. Kennedy - whom Johnson succeeded and with whom he had a decidedly competitive relationship - that accompanied the commemoration of another 50th anniversary: the Kennedy assassination.

“I’ll tell you: I don’t think people understand that this country today reflects more of Lyndon Johnson’s years in the White House than the years of any other president,” said Joseph A. Califano Jr., who was Johnson’s top domestic aide in the White House.

This advocacy of a broader view of Johnson is not confined to his immediate circle.

“I absolutely think the time has come,” said Doris Kearns Goodwin, a historian who wrote a biography of Johnson. “When he left office, the trial and tribulations of the war were so emotional that it was hard to see everything else he had done beyond Vietnam. The country fundamentally changes as a result of LBJ’s presidency.”

Still, despite the sweeping changes brought by Johnson’s Great Society programs, it is a fraught case to make. Even Johnson’s biggest advocates acknowledge that any historical reckoning of him has to account for his polarizing image as a president who pressed an unpopular war that led to the deaths of nearly 60,000 Americans.

The more generous assessment of Johnson by some historians and his own circle is not shared by the public, a source of frustration for Johnson’s family and friends. A CNN/ORC poll conducted in November that measured job approval ratings of the nine most recent former presidents found that Johnson, with 55 percent, ranked seventh - ahead of only Richard M. Nixon and George W. Bush.

“I think a lot of that is just a popularity contest,” Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, 69, the president’s older daughter, said in an interview. “I read that when Harry Truman left office, everybody thought he was horrible, his popularity was way low. You can see now that people have recognized what a good president he was.”

Asked how her father would ultimately be judged, she responded: “I think that’s something the historians will look at. But can you think of where we would be without Lyndon Johnson? If we had not passed a civil rights bill? Before Daddy, we didn’t have any federal aid to education. The immigration bill. Think of what we would be like if Daddy hadn’t signed that bill.”

Mark K. Updegrove, the director of the LBJ Presidential Library and the author of a Johnson biography, said that Vietnam will forever keep Johnson out of the ranks of America’s greatest presidents. Most historians “would place LBJ in the ‘near great’ category, the second quintile of presidents,” along with Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, Harry S. Truman, and Theodore Roosevelt, Updegrove said, adding, “There’s no question he should be judged on the entirety of his policy.”

“At the same time, we want to make people aware of all the things he got done - which is nothing short of remarkable,” he said.

The events here are not the only ones that might prompt a reconsideration: “All the Way,” a play depicting Johnson’s presidency starting on the day after the Kennedy assassination, is now on Broadway, with Bryan Cranston portraying Johnson. It focuses on his struggle to pass the civil rights bill and on the 1964 election campaign.

Vietnam is just one reason that Johnson is regarded with relatively low esteem today, historians said. His image has suffered, they said, as liberalism has come under attack over the past 40 years.

“He was the ultimate liberal president - he believed government was there to help,” Califano said. “The Republicans so beat us up on that score, and no one was there to answer.”

Johnson also suffered by comparison to Kennedy: He was neither youthful nor particularly attractive, and he was a staid, uninspiring speaker. After he left office, he returned to Texas to live out his life, becoming an absent figure in national Democratic politics. Today he is rarely mentioned by candidates for president or invoked in the litany of names - Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy - that ring out at Democratic conventions.

Temple said he had encountered people who believed that Johnson did not leave voluntarily but rather was forced out while still in office. (In a surprise announcement, Johnson said on March 31, 1968, that he would not seek or accept the nomination of his party for another term as president.)

In many ways, the effort to improve Johnson’s reputation began in December 2012 with the opening of a newly designed Lyndon B. Johnson Library which is partly financed by the LBJ Foundation. Where there was once a largely empty corridor now sits a wall of pens symbolizing the bills Johnson signed, a display that visitors see at the museum entrance. The amount of space devoted to Johnson’s life before he became president has been cut back to make room for an exhibition laying out Johnson domestic initiatives, with an “Impact on You” section for each.

Still, the largest room in the exhibition is dedicated to the war.

“We have not shied away from Vietnam,” Temple said. “Vietnam is Vietnam is Vietnam. It is there, and it is always going to be there.”

Luci Johnson, in the course of a 90-minute interview, made no effort to defend her father’s decisions in Vietnam, but said the public had never appreciated the toll it took on the family.

“The agony of Vietnam looms over all of us,” she said. “Look at Lyndon Johnson when he came into the presidency. Look what he looked like when he left. Vietnam was his cross.”

She recalled going to sleep in the White House, her sister in the next room, both their husbands away in Vietnam.

“Sometimes the last thing we heard before we went to bed, as we cuddled our babies in our arms, without their daddies, was ‘Hey, hey, LBJ, how many boys did you kill today?’” she said, her voice dropping to a hoarse whisper as she chanted the rallying call of the anti-war movement. “Sometimes that was our wake-up call.”

FILE -- President Lyndon B. Johnson greeting a crowd in 1964. Family and friends of Johnson say that his presidential legacy has been tainted by the Vietnam War, and they are working to highlight his legislative milestones on their 50th anniversary in February 2014. (George Tames/The New York Times)
Images on display at the L.B.J Presidential Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, Feb. 11, 2014. A Civil Rights Summit is to be held there in April to commemorate Johnson's signing of the Civil Rights Act. (Ilana Panich-Linsman/The New York Times)
The Great Hall at the L.B.J. Presidential Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, Feb. 11, 2014. As the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidential milestones approaches, his allies are highlighting domestic successes they say were overshadowed by the Vietnam War. (Ilana Panich-Linsman/The New York Times)
Mark Updegrove, director of the L.B.J. Presidential Library and Museum, among the archives at the library in Austin, Texas, Feb. 11, 2014. Updegrove said that the Vietnam War would forever keep Johnson out of the ranks of America's greatest presidents, but added, "There's no question he should be judged on the entirety of his policy." (Ilana Panich-Linsman/The New York Times)
Glasses belonging to President Lyndon B. Johnson inside a replica of the Oval Office at the L.B.J. Presidential Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, Feb. 11, 2014. As the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidential milestones approaches, his allies are highlighting domestic successes they say were overshadowed by the Vietnam War. (Ilana Panich-Linsman/The New York Times)
The L.B.J. Presidential Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, Feb. 11, 2014. As the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidential milestones approaches, his allies are highlighting domestic successes they say were overshadowed by the Vietnam War. (Ilana Panich-Linsman/The New York Times)