For some reason, the best route for getting elected is still to run against government, making one wonder if a scientist, say, would ever think of applying for a research job by pointing out how much he or she hates science. This curious distrust of politics, running high in the Obama mania, also leads to a lot of historical injustice. Take the case of Lyndon Johnson, the forgotten president.
As you doubtless failed to notice, this year is the 100th anniversary of LBJ's birth, which was August 8, 1908 in the tiny town of Stonewall, Texas. His special assistant for domestic affairs, Joseph A. Califano Jr., recently gave a fine speech trying to rescue his boss from the deep cloud of historical amnesia that has set in. Making LBJ invisible, as for instance John Edwards did in making poverty his theme but never mentioning Johnson, who did more to reduce poverty than probably any American president, breaks the chain of a progressive tradition and fosters the fiction that people who really know how to make government do things are somehow beneath mention.
So Califano tries to set the record straight, and it's worth considering Lyndon the Invisible. He got more than 100 major bills past Congress, including establishing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, endowments for the arts and humanities, and environmental and consumer protection measures. Most notably, he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, acts of extraordinary political courage that exacted a severe price on his party for years. (The reaction was swift, with Democrats losing 47 seats in the House in 1966.)
But the real achievement was the forever-maligned War on Poverty, which has become a political punching bag for decades. Califano writes:
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.
Johnson did all this, Obama might note, by courting Republicans. He knew that only with bipartisan support would the politicians have the courage to take such tough votes, and that this was the only way to protect the legislation for years to come. The legislation lasted a long time and it vastly overshadows what most modern presidents have been able to accomplish. But history is a cruel judge. Johnson sank from history because of the Vietnam War.
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