It's easy to interpret the 2012 election as a ratification of Barack Obama's first term. But down in Austin, the LBJ Presidential Library is making a strong case that the legacy voters cemented in November was Lyndon Johnson's. They're even selling "LBJ 2012" campaign buttons in the gift shop, and like its brash and ambitious namesake, the LBJ Presidential Library isn't being shy about making the point that it was Johnson's record as much as Obama's that Republicans ran against.
"I think that he's an underrated president, and I think it's taken a long time to objectively assess his legacy. We're finally coming to the point where the long, dark shadow of Vietnam has begun to recede, and we can more objectively look at not only what he did but how it impacts our lives today. It's hard to not realize what a consequential and important president he was," said Mark K. Updegrove, the dapper director of the LBJ Presidential Library and author of Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency.
Set to reopen Saturday on what would have Lady Bird's 100th birthday, the LBJ Presidential Library has embraced not only the elegant look of the Mad Men era but his controversial record as well. Right at the start, visitors see pens lined up side by side, stretching the length of a wall. These were the pens LBJ used to sign all the laws you remember him for -- the War on Poverty, Medicare, Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act, and Head Start -- as well as more we've forgotten he signed, including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Immigration Act of 1965, the Public Broadcasting Act, and bills creating the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. Starkly minimalist against a long, white wall, the black pens and litany of his bills read like a defiant response to Reagan Revolution. Despite three decades of conservative demagoguery against the poor, the legislative foundation of LBJ's Great Society remains intact.
The new library doesn't shy away from the Vietnam War, giving visitors a Situation Room-level view of the key decisions LBJ made. In fact, the warts-and-all exhibit allows you to read top-secret memos, listen in on recorded telephone conversations with advisers and review contemporary polling and news coverage without shying away from the disastrous results.
This is the only presidential library that allows visitors to listen to recorded telephone conversations, and Updegrove hopes the 643 hours of recordings will help visitors realize the relevance of LBJ's presidency.
"I think Vietnam got in the way. I think people associated him principally with Vietnam. They often gave credit to legislation he passed to Kennedy or others, maybe Martin Luther King or others, but in fact if you look at this library, if you hear these conversations, if you hear the people around him talk about what he did, you see it was very much his vision to create the Great Society that we benefit from in many ways today," said Updegrove.
Updegrove calls the recorded phone calls the "crown jewels of the archives," and library is coming out with an iPhone app allowing visitors to hear LBJ's private harangues. (Reportedly, the app does not allow LBJ to wake you up in the middle of the night to yell at you, as he was wont to do with aides.)
A longtime congressman and former Senate Majority Leader, Johnson defined himself as a president focused on legislation when he addressed Congress less than a week after John F. Kennedy's assassination.
"We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for one hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law," said Johnson.
Without forgetting the lessons of the Vietnam chapter, maybe it's time to turn the page to reacquaint ourselves with a president who "is very much alive and well in 2012, 2013 because the legislation that he passed impacts our lives today," said Updegrove. After all, Republicans have been running against LBJ's record unsuccessfully since Reagan. Like we say in Texas, it ain't braggin' if it's true.