AUSTIN — Driving into Austin with National Public Radio blaring, windows down to enjoy the wonderful almost-summer weather, I headed back to my alma mater’s campus to cover the Civil Rights Summit.
“Still,” said a man debating President Lyndon B. Johnson’s legacy, “the man was a complete opportunist.” The summit was set to celebrate the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with panels discussing social justice, women’s rights, education and immigration, with four presidents giving speeches.
All of this took place beneath the rafters of the LBJ library on the University of Texas campus, and in the shadow of his paradoxical legacy. Until a couple of years ago, mentioning LBJ’s name as a Democrat was simply not done, Washington Post reporter Karen Tumulty told me while waiting in a press room for Margaret Spellings, Bill Clinton’s secretary of education.
Shrouded in the Vietnam War, flipping on minority rights that he previously voted against like a “true southern Democrat,” Johnson’s complicated legacy allowed former President Bill Clinton to give a 20-minute speech on the steps of the library in 1992 — never once mentioning LBJ’s name — even though it would have been Johnson’s 84th birthday. Lady Bird Johnson was furious, Tumulty told me.
Now that the Baby Boomer generation is aging, Johnson seems to be coming back up in the world. Mentioned by several presidents and speakers during the summit, including President Barack Obama, LBJ’s incredible ability to get legislation passed got more credit than his fumbling of the Vietnam War.
He’s even got a TV show, sort of. Reportedly, Johnson is the closest real-life politician to Frank Underwood, a character on Netflix’s blockbuster series, “House of Cards.” Throughout the day, the journalists get shuffled to and from different media rooms to watch debates “on the big screen” away from the filled-to-the-brim auditorium. With all that going on, I can’t help but wonder what today’s Congress and today’s legislation would look like if Johnson was running the show.