WASHINGTON — History offers a rough kind of justice.
As the nation’s current president and three of his predecessors gathered this week at the University of Texas for an LBJ Library conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, they confirmed what has been building for many years now: a thoroughly justified revival of Lyndon B. Johnson’s standing.
If historians still don’t quite go “All the Way with LBJ,” as his 1964 campaign slogan would have it, they have moved a good part of the way in his direction since he departed the White House in 1969, leaving behind a country torn by the Vietnam War and weary of the conflicts the 1960s unleashed.
The Johnson comeback brings with it a new appreciation of the durability of the reforms enacted on his watch. It turns out that there are irreversible social reforms — changes in how we govern ourselves and view our society that future generations come to take for granted and refuse to wipe off the books.
It’s impossible to imagine that the Civil Rights Act will ever be repealed. The law itself and the broad political and social movement that came together to pass it permanently altered the nation’s attitudes on race. Racism will never be fully stamped out, but our default position — most visible in the rising generation — is that racial discrimination is both wrong and stupid. At the least, attacks on the civil rights legacy must be indirect and subtle, as in the Supreme Court’s weakening of the Voting Rights Act.
Similarly, despite all the efforts to contain Medicare’s costs, government-provided health insurance for the elderly is a fact of life. An overriding contest in our politics now is whether the guarantees in the Affordable Care Act will also come to reflect a new normal.
The list of other achievements in Johnson’s heyday is well documented in the 2008 book The Liberal Hour by Colby College scholars G. Calvin Mackenzie and Robert Weisbrot. Environmental advances along with the establishment of new consumer protections and federal aid to education set the stage for more progress in later years.
But the LBJ fixation can be misleading. There is, for example, a devout wish that President Obama had the inclination to match LBJ as the Harry Potter of legislative wizardry. It’s entirely fair to criticize Obama for his apparent aversion to schmoozing legislators. Charlie Cook, the veteran political analyst, has said that the movie He’s Just Not That Into You might as well be about Obama’s relationship with even members of his own party in the House and Senate.