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Checking with Caro on Lyndon Johnson's centenary

August 27, 2008 |  3:00 pm


In the photograph above, from December 1963, President Lyndon Baines Johnson uses his charm on Sen. Richard Russell.

Today is the 100th anniversary of Johnson's birth. Although he was reviled by the activists of the Vietnam era, Johnson was undeniably a champion of civil rights, using whatever he had to -- including intimidation and guile -- to push the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act through congress. In an online-only piece in "The New Yorker," George Packer writes that Johnson

achieved greater things in domestic legislation than any President other than F.D.R.... Johnson’s Presidency represented the zenith of American liberalism, and its downfall.

Biographer Robert Caro ("The Power Broker") has written about Johnson, in all his complexity, in "Path to Power," "Means of Ascent" and  "Master of the Senate," for which he won his second Pulitzer. Caro is working on the fourth volume of his LBJ biography, and, as he tells Packer, reading today's headlines.

I am writing right now about how he won for black Americans the right to vote. I am turning from what happened forty-three years ago to what I am reading in my daily newspaper — and the thrill that goes up and down my spine when I realize the historical significance of this moment is only equaled by my anger that they are not giving Johnson credit for it.

Packer concludes that he'd like the Democrats to "do [Johnson] the justice of speaking his name." The thing is, many who spoke out against the Vietnam War still won't say it very nicely.

— Carolyn Kellogg

Photo credit: National Archives / Lyndon Baines Johnson Library