How sad! Until I read it in Robert Caro’s column, I had no idea that Wednesday had been the 100th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s birth. Despite it all, he remains my great political hero, Martin Luther King’s partner in waging the Second Reconstruction to a victorious conclusion, ratified that very day in Denver, unanimously, by acclamation.
Naturally, everyone mentioned that Thursday was the 45th anniversary of “I Have a Dream.” But could a word of praise not have been spared for the other half of the team?
I suppose my fellow Boomers will never forgive Johnson for Vietnam; fair enough, though it seems to me that Francis Bator makes a good case for the defense in No Good Choices. And the Kennedy crowd and the Adlai Stevenson crowd, much as they hated each other, hated Johnson more, as much for his uncouth manners and lack of formal education as for his (manifold) vices. For myself, I find it hard to forgive his failure to raise the money — a tiny amount, by contemporary standards — that would have elected Hubert Humphrey and kept Richard Nixon out of the White House.
But Caro, who started his project of writing LBJ’s biography with such a pronounced anti-Johnson bias that he made the segregationist Coke Stevenson the hero of the first volume merely because Johnson had defeated him, does LBJ justice now. He recounts the story of Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech to a joint session of Congress, the speech that drove the Voting Rights Act to passage.
Martin Luther King was watching the speech at the home of a family in Selma with some of his aides, none of whom had ever, during all the hard years, seen Dr. King cry. But Lyndon Johnson said, “We shall overcome” — and they saw him cry then.
Will no one now, after all these years, shed a tear for Johnson, who knew full well that he was destroying the Democratic Party in the South for a generation, and did it anyway?
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones:
So let it be with [Johnson] …
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you, then, to mourn for him?
Johnson, who was not a sentimentalist, might have thought it enough to complete the work without mentioning the man. But I think we lose something when we forget our benefactors.