Johnson's "we shall overcome" speech was one of the best ever given to Congress.
John Edwards made reducing poverty a centerpiece of his presidential campaign. Yet he never mentioned Lyndon Johnson, the first -- and only -- president to declare war on poverty and sharply reduce it.
Recounting the achievements of Democratic presidents, Barack Obama cites Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John Kennedy -- but not LBJ, the president responsible for the laws that gave him (and millions of others) the opportunity to develop and display their talents and gave this nation the opportunity to benefit from them.
When Hillary Clinton noted that "it took a president" to translate Martin Luther King's moral protests into laws, she broke the taboo and mentioned Johnson, only to be rebuked. Lyndon Johnson is the invisible president of the 20th century. The tragedy of Vietnam created a cloud that still obscures Johnson's achievements.
Our nation -- particularly Democrats -- pays a high price for indulging in this amnesia. If we make Johnson's presidency invisible, we break the chain of this nation's progressive tradition and deny people an understanding of its achievements and resilience from the time of Theodore Roosevelt. Worse, we lose key lessons for our democracy: that courage counts and that government can work to benefit the least among us in ways that enhance all of us.
Americans under 40 have seen in Washington only administrations that were anti-government, mired in scandal, inept, gridlocked, driven by polls, or tilted toward the rich and powerful. For decades Americans have endured political micromanagement in which passage of one bill -- welfare reform, No Child Left Behind -- over an entire Congress or presidential term is considered an accomplishment.
President Johnson submitted and Congress enacted more than 100 major proposals in each of the 89th and 90th Congresses. His initiatives included establishing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and endowments for the arts and humanities as well as environmental and consumer protections. But his heart was in the War on Poverty. When Johnson took office, 22.2 percent of Americans lived in poverty. When he left, only 13 percent were living below the poverty line -- the greatest one-time poverty reduction in U.S. history. Johnson proposed and convinced Congress to enact Medicare, which today covers 43 million older Americans; Medicaid, which covers 63 million needy individuals; the loan, grant and work-study programs that more than 60 percent of college students use; aid to elementary and secondary education in poor areas; Head Start; food stamps, which help feed 27 million men, women and children; increases in the minimum Social Security benefit, which keep 10 million seniors out of poverty; and an array of programs designed to empower the poor at the grass roots.
No president since Johnson has been able to effect any significant reduction in poverty. In 2006, the poverty level stood at 12.3 percent; today is it almost certainly higher. He also threw himself into the fight against racial discrimination. In 1964 there were 300 black elected officials in America. By 2001, there were some 10,000 elected black officials across the nation, more than 6,000 of them in the South. In 1965, there were six black members of the House; today there are 42; the only black member of the Senate is headed for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Behind these achievements are important lessons for future presidents. LBJ was a revolutionary whose conviction that poverty and racial discrimination were moral issues helped shape the nation's response. He knew that the political capital from the sympathy generated by John Kennedy's assassination and the huge margin of his own election in 1964 was a dwindling asset. He saw himself in a race against time as he fought to remedy the damage that slavery and generations of prejudice had inflicted on black Americans. In his War on Poverty, he sized up the limited patience of Congress and affluent Americans.
Johnson had extraordinary courage and fought for racial equality even when it hurt him and his party. After signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964, Johnson was defeated in five Southern states, four of which Democrats had not lost for 80 years. In 1965, he drove the Voting Rights Act through Congress, and in 1966, he proposed legislation to end discrimination in housing.
In the 1966 midterm elections, Democrats lost 47 seats in the House and three in the Senate. Border-state and Southern Democratic governors and members of Congress demanded that Johnson withdraw his housing proposal and curb his efforts to desegregate schools. Undeterred, in 1968, he pushed the Fair Housing Act through Congress.
Those who seek to change the ways of Washington should remember, too, that Johnson knew how to reach across the aisle. He assiduously courted Republican members of Congress to support his Great Society proposals, not only because he needed Republican votes to pass the initiatives but because he saw bipartisan support as an essential foundation on which to build lasting commitment among Americans. He knew that the endurance of his legislative achievements and their acceptance by state and local governments, private interests, and citizens required bipartisan support.
Too many lessons of Lyndon Johnson's presidency have been lost, because the Democratic Party, the academic elite, political analysts and the media have made him the invisible president. It's time to take off the Vietnam blinders and see his entire presidency.