Lyndon Baines Johnson, the unmentionable, invisible, unappreciated Democrat

When basketball-playing Democratic front-runner Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaModerate or left of center — which is better for Democrats in 2020? Obama: Countries facing severe effects of climate change offer 'moral call to rest of the world' Democrats' self-inflicted diversity vulnerability MORE slam-dunked Hillary Rodham Clinton in the important North Carolina primary a few weeks back, he received a major assist under the basket from those below the age of 30, first-time voters and, by a whopping 13-1 margin, African-Americans, who make up a third of the state’s Democratic electorate.

During his raucous victory-night celebration in Raleigh, Obama invoked familiar names from the political past (as presidential aspirants do) to suggest how his own cloth might fit onto that impressive patchwork quilt that is the American presidency.

Thomas Jefferson; Andrew Jackson; Franklin Delano Roosevelt; John Fitzgerald Kennedy — the names heralded by the man who could very well make history himself by being the first African-American to ascend to his nation’s highest office.


But for the president responsible for passing the nation’s most important civil rights laws? Not a whisper of a mention. For the president who registered more African-Americans to vote than any other? Not a mumble.

No mention for the president responsible for desegregating more schools than any chief executive in history. Nor for the president who appointed the first African-American solicitor general, Supreme Court justice and Cabinet secretary.

A week or so after the primary, candidate John Edwards, who made fighting poverty the centerpiece of his own campaign, endorsed Obama. Again, there was no mention of the man whose Great Society programs arguably lifted more people out of poverty than any other president before or since.

I am, of course, talking about the 36th president, Lyndon Baines Johnson — the now-invisible Democratic president.

The above citations and many more are on the mind of former Johnson domestic policy adviser Joseph Califano, as he and other devotees approach this summer’s 100th anniversary of LBJ’s birth.

The Obama-Edwards LBJ muteness is not unique to them. It is widespread among Democrats coast to coast and it is easy to understand. We lost the Vietnam War, and Johnson, despite the fact that he didn’t start it, couldn’t figure out how to end it.


The “dark cloud” of Vietnam, the tragedy of a failed war, explains modern-day Democrats’ decision to ignore Johnson altogether, says Califano.

Giving the recent keynote address at a Johnson centennial celebration hosted by the Kaiser Foundation here in Washington, Califano said that for Democrats to indulge in such “amnesia” is unfair, not only to Johnson but also to “our nation and its future.”

“Why? Because if we make Lyndon Johnson’s whole presidency invisible — if we are unable or unwilling to speak his name — we become less able to talk about the lasting achievements of this nation’s progressive tradition, a tradition that spans both parties over the past century.”

Califano reminded the crowd that although Johnson had the same “hunger to be loved” that all politicians have and was “brilliantly opportunistic,” he also had the courage to use his political capital for good purposes.

After putting his reputation on the line with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Johnson, despite winning the race against Barry Goldwater in a landslide, lost five Democratic Southern states because of his courageous stands.

Despite the fact that he probably stole his Texas Senate race after having the first one stolen from him, I am a huge Lyndon Johnson fan.

Johnson was the first president I remember paying attention to and, to this day, can recall the emotions that swept over me when he went on television 40 years ago and said: “I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office — the presidency of your country. Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

It doesn’t get much more dramatic than that.

The real reason I am a Johnson devotee, however, is very personal. As a young man in a single-parent family with few resources and little hope, my government took a chance on me. Living on Social Security survivor benefits, I was able to attend college only because of government grants, government-run student loans and government work-study programs. My government took a chance on me when boots and bootstraps were not available.

Happy Birthday, Mr. President.

You can reach Jim Mills at