09/27/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Forgotten Man

Lyndon Baines Johnson was born 100 years ago today. After Franklin Roosevelt, his record as a progressive Democrat was unsurpassed. Thanks to his leadership and passion, Congress enacted Medicare, Medicaid, federal aid to education, Headstart, the Job Corps, legal services for the poor, and countless other pocketbook measures that helped millions out of poverty and reinforced a secure middle class. And Johnson took immense risks to pass the three landmark civil rights laws. It is not an exaggeration to say that without Johnson's leadership, Barack Obama would not be accepting the Democratic nomination for president this week.

But here in Denver, where podium time has been found for a mind-numbing array of obscure speakers, the day will pass without ceremony or acknowledgment. Why? In part because for many Democrats, Johnson's greatness on domestic achievements has an asterisk--the Vietnam War, a divisive debacle too reminiscent of the Iraq War.

But, interestingly, the decision to ignore Johnson was made by Barack Obama himself. Senator Tom Harkin, a huge admirer of Johnson's War on Poverty and the rest of the Great Society, told me that several months ago he contacted the LBJ presidential library in Austin. Harkin arranged to have a short, 11-minute film made about LBJ and the Great Society as a centenary tribute. He pitched it personally to Obama, who was not keen on the idea. They cut the film to seven minutes. Still too long, said the convention planners; and finally to five minutes. It will air, with no fanfare, reportedly during non-prime-time Thursday, not even LBJ's actual centenary. No official announcement has yet been made.

What's the problem here, people? Do they not want to be reminded of a truly bold progressive Democratic president? Or is the reminder of civil rights struggle not the message this surprisingly bleached-out convention wants to send? Is Michelle's Obama's happy memory of the Brady Bunch more comforting to whites than the memory of LBJ and Dr. King, whose "I Have a Dream" speech was delivered 45 years ago this week? Or just the bad taste of the Vietnam War, which epitomized the Democratic divisiveness that this convention desperately hopes to avoid? Maybe all of the above.

When I was researching Obama's Challenge, especially my chapter on how great progressive presidents lead, nothing moved me as much as Lyndon Johnson's principled courage on civil rights. Here is an extract:

The landslide election of November 1964 increased the Democratic margins from 66 to 68 in the Senate, and from 259 to an astounding 295 in the House, a better than two-to-one margin that nearly equaled FDR's at the peak of his power. But the right to vote continued to be denied throughout the Deep South, and when legal maneuvers failed the white power structure turned to terror. In Mississippi, just 6 percent of qualified blacks had been permitted to register. While Johnson tried to use the tools of existing law, the movement escalated its tactics.

On March 7 1965, Dr. King began his historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to register blacks to vote. Alabama officials were determined to block the peaceful march. On their first try, the roughly 500 marchers got just six blocks before being turned back by police batons, bull whips, tear gas, and even crude weapons fashioned from barbed wire. The police were joined by a hastily deputized mob. A white minister from Boston, the Reverend James Reeb, was killed.

America finally witnessed, on national television, the raw terrorism, stripped of its pretenses, that had maintained the system of racial privilege and oppression in the South since before the Civil War. An outpouring of national outrage followed. Thousands of people converged on Selma to join Dr. King, who would be beaten back a second time. Finally, 3,000 people would join him to complete the march, their right of peaceful assembly protected by National Guard troops placed under federal command by order of the president of the United States.

It was in this climate of the breakdown of law that Lyndon Johnson addressed Congress and the nation March 15, 1965. In just the way that FDR more than thirty years before had spelled out what had befallen the banking system, what the president was doing to remedy the crisis, and what he expected of the people, Johnson spoke masterly words about civil rights.

At times, history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. There, long suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many of them were brutally assaulted. One good man--a man of God--was killed.