LBJ Legacy Gets Another Look

Image: Image: US President Lyndon B. Johnson
TO GO WITH STORY by Virginie Montet, US-vote-race-people-King (FILES) US President Lyndon B. Johnson hands a pent to the Civil rights leader Martin Luther King (2nd-R) after signing the historic Civil Rights Bill in the East Room of the White House, in Washington, DC, 02 July 1964. On April 4, 2008 the US marks the 40th anniversary of the assassination of King, just as the first African-American candidate with a viable shot at the White House reinvigorates the King's civil rights "dream". In 1968, King was killed by a single bullet to the head while on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis, Tennessee. The Nobel peace prize winner was just 39 years old; he would have turned 79 in January. The mystery surrounding his assassination has swirled for years, with escaped convict James Earl Ray convicted of the murder and sentenced to 99 years in prison. AFP PHOTO/FILES (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)- / AFP - Getty Images

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One of the most complex and controversial presidents in U.S. history is getting yet another look with Democrats and political writers becoming increasingly nostalgic about Lyndon Johnson's legacy.

Here's the New York Times: "For Obama Presidency, Lyndon Johnson Looms Large" -- ahead of President Obama's travel to Austin, Texas on Thursday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of LBJ's 1964 Civil Rights Act. (Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush also are making appearances at the three-day Civil Rights Summit.)

The headline from the Washington Post: "LBJ's presidency gets another look as civil rights law marks its 50th anniversary."

Robert Caro's masterful book on LBJ, "The Passage of Power," is all rage among political observers and armchair historians.

And LBJ nostalgia has even hit Broadway with the play "All the Way" starring Bryan Cranston as the nation's 36th president.

All of this is remarkable given that the tragic and deadly Vietnam War incinerated Johnson's presidency, leading to his shocking decision not to run for re-election in 1968. Johnson didn’t even attend the Democratic convention that year due to the opposition to the war from his own party. And starting in 1968, Democrats would go on to lose five of the next six presidential contests.

As a student at the University of Texas in the 1990s, I vividly remember overhearing a fellow student say he was ashamed that Johnson's presidential library was associated with the school. "The University of Virginia has Thomas Jefferson," this person said. "We have Lyndon Johnson."

In her Washington Post piece, fellow University of Texas alum Karen Tumulty writes that Bill Clinton, campaigning at the university in Austin in 1992, never once uttered LBJ's name during his speech.

Now? Clinton is joining Obama -- as well as George W. Bush -- in praising LBJ's legacy.

And it's not just current and former presidents showering praise on LBJ. Political observers have celebrated how Johnson was able to win big domestic achievements like Medicare and Medicaid.

(Conversely, Republicans and conservatives have used the anniversary of Johnson's "War on Poverty" to argue how these programs haven't worked.)

As historian Robert Dallek has observed, past presidents are often judged by present circumstances. So it's not surprising that during a time of political dysfunction and congressional gridlock, a president who got big things done -- the Civil Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid -- becomes more revered.

Similarly, George H.W. Bush's cautious presidency is enjoying a renaissance after his son's not-so-cautious time in the Oval Office.

On the other hand, the end of the Cold War -- so much for the "domino theory" that communism in Vietnam would spread elsewhere -- put LBJ and the Vietnam War in a harsher light.

It's all a reminder how history -- and perceptions of history -- do change, especially when viewed through a present-day lens.