The Omission of Lyndon Johnson from the Democratic Pantheon

If there is a unifying thread to U.S. history it is that of the ongoing process of bringing American practice into line with American principle, of the march of freedom, of the expansion of the franchise. In this story there is one great subplot that stands above all others: that of the experience of the African American: the middle crossing, slavery, the fatal flaws of the U.S. Constitution, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement. At the denouement of this story stand two characters, towering over all others: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Taylor Branch was right to structure his biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. around Exodus. King led African Americans out of the dessert, but was not allowed to enter the Promised Land himself. Lyndon Johnson, on the other had, is an exile: a man from the heart of the franchise, who is today persona non grata.

Today, Lyndon Johnson would have been a hundred years old (27 August 1908 – 22 January 1973) and George Packer comments on the strange exclusion of this giant of the left from the Democratic pantheon (“L.B.J.’s Moment,” Interesting Times, The New Yorker, 24 August 2008):

Whenever Democrats gather to celebrate the party, they invoke the names of their luminaries past. The list used to begin with Jefferson and Jackson. More recently, it’s been shortened to F.D.R., Truman, and J.F.K. The one Democrat with a legitimate claim to greatness who can’t be named is Lyndon Johnson. The other day I asked Robert Caro, Johnson’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographer and hardly a hagiographer of the man, whether he thought Johnson should be mentioned in Denver. “It would be only just to Johnson,” Caro said. “If the Democratic Party was going to honestly acknowledge how it came to the point in its history that it was about to nominate a black American for President, no speech would not mention Lyndon Johnson.” Caro is now at work on the fourth volume of his epic biography, about Johnson’s White House years. “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.”

In the week of Johnson’s one hundredth birthday, I would like to believe that there is some Democrat in Denver who will do him the justice of speaking his name.