LBJ Experts Assess His Legacy On 50th Anniversary Of His Death
Marking the 50th anniversary of the death of the 36th President of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson, on January 22, 1973, Mark K. Updegrove, president and chief executive of the LBJ Foundation, and Mark A. Lawrence, director of the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum, discussed with Forbes what they believe are Johnson’s most important and enduring contributions to the country.
Johnson, who was John F. Kennedy’s Vice Presidential running mate in 1960, became President when Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. He was elected President in 1965; hampered by the unpopularity of his Vietnam War policy and civil unrest in the U.S., he announced his retirement in March 1968.
Among the measures passed during LBJ’s administration were the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which JFK was negotiating before his death; the Voting Rights Act of 1965; Medicare and Medicaid; and the 1965 Immigration Reform Act, which ended a policy of immigration based on national origin.
The controversy surrounding Johnson’s Vietnam War policy notwithstanding, Lawrence suggested his efforts to further voting rights, Medicare, Medicaid and immigration “are the core of what LBJ hoped to achieve and will most likely endure. (These advances) have become part of everyday expectations of what it means to be a citizen of the United States.”
With the exception of voting rights, Updegrave said “the major tenets” of LBJ’s Great Society social reform program “continue to stand.”
Added Lawrence, “At its core, I think the innovations of the Great Society, Medicare and the Civil Rights Act have been so widely accepted in everyday life it would be hard to imagine” abolishing them.
“When LBJ died, his legacy was shrouded in the taint of Vietnam. It takes at least a generation to take a more dispassionate measure of a president. With LBJ it took far longer because it took so long for passions around Vietnam to recede,” said Updegrove.
“It’s only been in recent years that’s there’s been more balance in looking at LBJ’s legacy. If you look at LBJ’s domestic policy, the laws of the Great Society, they built the foundation of modern America. I don’t think most Americans recognize the full extent of what he did during the course of his presidency,” he added.
Also working against LBJ, he said, was his public image “relative to his very glamorous predecessor,” JFK.
Also coloring LBJ’s reputation, said Lawrence, were the efforts of President Ronald Reagan and later Republican leaders to combat “big government.”
To mark the anniversary of LBJ’s death, Lawrence and Updegrove, who are both based in Austin, are editing a collection of historians’ essays about the Johnson era, LBJ’s America; it will be published in October by Cambridge University Press.