Saturday, March 20, 2010

The LBJ Era Departs

For many years, I worked in a building that was located along LBJ Freeway here in Dallas.

I worked for an auto loan company, and I often had to call people — customers, dealers — and sometimes those calls required me to give them our mailing address. More than one gave me a questioning response when I told them the street address.

"LBJ stands for Lyndon Baines Johnson," I would tell them. If that produced no knowing response, I elaborated. "He became president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy." That was usually sufficient. The people with whom I spoke were not always old enough to remember Johnson, but they recognized Kennedy's name.

Those conversations always struck me as odd because, when I was a child, everyone knew what LBJ stood for.

I was still quite young when he left the White House. I knew his first name was Lyndon and his last name was Johnson. I had heard him called Lyndon B. Johnson. I'm not sure if I knew exactly what his middle name was, but I had heard plenty of people refer to the president as LBJ.

There always seemed to be footage on the evening news of angry college students marching in protests against the war and chanting things like "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids have you killed today?"

I mean, unless you were deaf, dumb and blind (or, perhaps, just plain Forrest Gump stupid), just about everyone who was alive in those days knew what LBJ stood for!

My father was a college professor, and I knew some of his students. And they not only knew what LBJ stood for, most of them seemed to think LBJ was going to be around forever.

That wasn't true, of course. As I say, he left the presidency in 1969 after choosing not to run for another term; then, in one of those ironic twists of history, he died of a heart attack two days after that term would have ended.

Thus, he proved all those predictions of his immortality to be indisputably wrong in rather short order.

And, one by one, most of the figures from Johnson's administration have left the earthly scene as well. His secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, died last summer, and then today, two more people from the LBJ days — Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall and Liz Carpenter, a close aide to both President and Mrs. Johnson for many years — have died.

Udall was 90. Carpenter was 89.

It strikes me as ironic that not one but two people from the Johnson presidency should die within a week of the 45th anniversary of what is arguably the most significant speech that Johnson ever gave.

On March 15, 1965, Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress to press for the passage of the Voting Rights Act about a week after the infamous "Bloody Sunday" confrontation in Selma, Ala., during the first Selma–to–Montgomery voting rights march.

He adopted a line from the protest song that had become synonymous with the civil rights movement as he took a stand against discrimination in the most public way that a president can. On that evening, Johnson said, "Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome."

My mother was active in the Human Relations Council in my hometown in Arkansas when I was growing up, and I know from speaking with many of the black members in those days that they were deeply moved and inspired to hear the president of the United States use a phrase that was so closely linked to "the struggle," as they called it. That was one of the last things that most of them had ever expected to see in their lifetimes.

Language has power. It isn't always how much you know but how you express it that makes the impression. And, in Johnson's case, what he knew (which was the moral and ethical thing to do) and the best way to express it came together at a crossroads in American history.

There is no denying that there was plenty of deception and trickery from the Johnson administration when it came to its policy on Vietnam. But, on March 15, 1965, he spoke to — and, perhaps, with the assistance of — what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."

It may have been the shining moment of Johnson's life and presidency.

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