Harry Middleton: LBJ ... A century ago, a leader was born

[Mr. Middleton served as an LBJ aide in the White House.]

Lyndon Johnson counted on history to make the final assessment.

"I hope it may be said," Johnson told Congress as he departed Washington in 1969, "that we helped to make this country more just. That's what I hope. But I believe that at least it will be said that we tried."

The century mark Johnson set for evaluation is still a long way off. But this year affords another opportunity. Wednesday is the centennial of LBJ's birth, an occasion to reflect on the life of the man who once loomed so large on the national stage — and to reflect particularly on the five years of his presidency.

For some of us, the prospect stirs mixed reaction — deep satisfaction muted by a cautious hope. It is an occasion to relive those heady days when we were involved, however modestly, in a great adventure.

My own participation decidedly qualifies as modest. I was in the Johnson White House only for the last half of the administration, when the nation seemed to be coming apart. I missed the glory years when the Great Society was on its triumphant march. But to whatever extent we were active, it was, for all of us, what White House special assistant Jack Valenti called "the springtime of our lives."

The cautious hope is that the occasion will somehow unlock the prison of memory in which LBJ is trapped. Johnson has become "invisible," as his domestic policy adviser Joe Califano aptly has said; he is the president "abandoned by the mighty, including the leaders of his own party, his name never invoked, his contributions rarely heralded."

The situation is particularly ironic because that invisible president launched a revolution — the avalanche of legislation encompassed in the Great Society — whose reverberations, a half-century later, still echo through our national life.

When Johnson was majority leader in the Senate, reporters started calling him powerful. His reaction was that the only power he had was the power to persuade, which prompted another senator to observe, "Good God Almighty, that's like saying the only wind we have is a hurricane." Johnson's power was legendary, but it was real, and it was a power he carried with him into the White House.

President Kennedy had an ambitious agenda, but he had faced a Congress that was often hostile and almost always reluctant to move, so many of Kennedy's initiatives were stalled in committees. Congress, in the words of columnist Walter Lippman, "was on a sit-down strike."

In virtually no time, Johnson, catapulted into the presidency after Kennedy's assassination, changed that condition. ...

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