Fifty years later, former President Lyndon Johnson got the tribute he more than earned. Four presidents praised his contribution. The Great Society, the War on Poverty, Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act opened doors that had been locked. “I lived out the promise of LBJ’s efforts,” said President Obama, rejecting the cynicism of those who would dismantle Medicare and food stamps, signature LBJ achievements. Bill Clinton praised LBJ for demonstrating “the power of the presidency to redeem the promise of America.”
Getting our history right is vital. For decades, LBJ’s achievements have been slighted. Liberals scorned him because of the war in Vietnam, and finally drove him to not seek re-election. Conservatives loathed him because of the Civil Rights achievements, with Republicans moving to displace Democrats as the party of the South. The War on Poverty, which dramatically reduced poverty in America, was dismissed as a failure, as the anger of the cities exploded. New Democrats dismissed him for believing in big government, as they tacked to a conservative era.
In fact, as the Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas, recognized last week, Johnson was a giant, standing with Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln as presidents who saved America. Under Johnson, the scourge of segregation was finally ended, and equal protection under the law moved from a lie to a promise. Millions were lifted from poverty, as the poor were provided a ladder up out of despair. Johnson’s reforms — Civil Rights, Voting Rights, Immigration, Medicare, child nutrition, food stamps and more — were nearly as great as those of FDR, and never matched since.