Most young people don't spend their time, after a long days work, rounding up wayward youth, listening to their dreams and hardships, then dispensing what knowledge he could to those few soles that stuck around long enough to hear his message.
Most young people could not find the mettle within themselves to spend the day with people of privilege, then seek those less fortunate souls, hiding underneath America's boot, in the evenings, in hopes of bring to them the realization of America's promise.
Those that he found and would take the time to learn, were always the better for it. And, after a few months, they came to trust him, his judgement and direction. Both parties were being were being transformed as a result of the interaction.
There was an understanding between the young people he reached out to: exceedingly poor and largely marginalized in the broader society, and their teacher: a professional who clearly could have been using his talent and access to powerful people to do something other than spend his evenings working with poor people he had never met in his life.
His Pupils were learning that this, too, was their America. Regardless of what had been a part of their daily experiences to that point, the application of, and investment in, self was the all-important factor in upward mobility. The teacher, on the other hand, learned that these minds, much different from the wealthier students at his day job in their access to the American Dream, were no less qualified, given the proper tools, or fervent in it's pursuit.
The experience proved to be so moving, it would shape the actions of the teacher in his later role as President of the United States. And so, Lyndon Baines Johnson wrote about that period of his life as such:
I shall never forget the faces of the boys and the girls in that little Welhausen Mexican School, and I remember even yet the pain of realizing and knowing then that college was closed to practically every one of those children because they were too poor. And I think it was then that I made up my mind that this nation could never rest while the door to knowledge remained closed to any American.
Ten years later he would be elected Senator from his home state of Texas and just three years later, in 1951, he was elected the the powerful role of Majority Whip, second most powerful position in the United States Senate.
When, in 1952, Republicans won control of the Congress, the remaining Democrats decided it was time for a leadership change. They turned to the Senator they knew was a person that could "get things done" and elected as Minority Leader, Lyndon B. Johnson. When Democrats took back both Houses of Congress in 1954, Johnson then had the role of Majority Leader, the most powerful position in the Congress. He would, in this role flower into one of the most influential legislators in American history.
In 1957, when President Eisenhower, a Republican, wanted to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the task of getting the bill through an unwilling Congress fell to Johnson. After twisting arms and pulling teeth, he allowed a long-time member of his party, avowed racist and Democratic Senator from South Carolina, Strom Thurmond, to go on record with the longest one-man filibuster in opposition of the bill the Congress had ever witnessed, then dropped the gavel and passed the vote. He just felt African-Americans having the right to vote was more important than party unity.
John F. Kennedy chose Johnson as his Presidential running mate in 1960, and upon winning the election, put Johnson in charge of newly created (an then powerless) Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. The unintended consequence of Kennedy's action was, Johnson kept overwhelming the White House with legislative requests and data. Johnson, you see, was an obsessive workaholic. So, after being in charge of all the legislation for the entire country for 7 years, aggregating data and creating new law on one subject was a piece of cake. The time spent at EEOC would put Johnson in contact with minorities of all flavors on a daily basis, and would prove equally influential as his years spent teaching the Mexican Students in his youth.
When Johnson ascended to the Presidency after the assassination of Kennedy on November 22, 1963, he felt it his duty to use the full force of his knowledge and influence in the Congress, to make Kennedy's political platform a reality. Nobody, before or since, has ever had such an understanding of the nuances required to bring a bill into law.
With his innate understanding of when to press (and when to pull) members of Congress, along with his years of tutelage at the knee of Roosevelt, Johnson became a prolific legislator and, in doing so, tremendous agent of change.
Consider that President Johnson passed laws on:
- Barred discrimination in voter registration requirements, a real problem in the Southern half of the United States due to the large population of Blacks who were under-represented in public office.
- Barred discrimination in all public accommodations: theaters, hotels, motels and restaurants.
- Barred discrimination in access to public facilities, such as parks, forests and beaches.
- Encouraged the Department of Justice to sue school districts that continued to segregate on the basis of race.
- Barred Federal funds being given to agencies that practiced discriminatory practices
- Barred discrimination against interracial married couples in the workplace.
- Barred discrimination against individuals due to political affiliation.
- Gave Federal courts the power to prosecute State cases where there was sufficient evidence of tampering by segregationist elements, thus bringing justice to the southern portion of the U.S. for the first time in nearly 100 years.
- Strengthened the tools of the EEOC to combat discrimination as a reason for being discharged from a job.
- Created the Federal Transit Administration
- Made $375 million in matching funds available to States to use on large urban public rail projects (sic, public transportation).
- Signed legislation protecting 9 million acres of wilderness, overnight. The protected areas now number in excess of 100 million acres.
- Shifted the burden of proof for private encroachment onto public lands to the private party, thus clearing the courts of 1,000's of phony claims.
- Expanded, and made permanent, the Food Stamps Program. Before he did this, the FSP was running as a pilot program, not available in most communities in the country and with expenditures of about $17 million per year. Johnson made the program national, gave the Agriculture Department manpower and upped the annual expenditures to $75 million in the first year, to $100 million in the second year and $200 million in the third.
- Created Community Action Program, which was instrumental in getting Native Americans the tools needed to move their communities out of poverty.
- Created Head Start program, which fed, clothed, educated and gave access to medical personnel, to impoverished children across the country.
- Created VISTA, which sent 50,000 volunteers into underdeveloped communities to assist in job creation, education, health-care and civic improvement.
- Created Job Corps, a program, that for the first time, focused on training wayward youth in job skills, trades development and then assisted in finding them gainful employment.
All of this legislation was put through Congress, signed into law and put into IMMEDIATE practice, WITHIN THE FIRST 9 MONTHS of Johnson's Presidency.
His next 4 years would bring:
- Gave more federal money to colleges and universities, to "prepare America's best minds for the challenges ahead."
- Drastically expanded the Community College system, thus giving millions of low-income Americans access to higher-education.
- Created the federal scholarship program, for high achievement students.
- Created the Federal Student Loans Program, which ensured every American that could qualify for College was guaranteed access to a low interest loan, should they need one.
Seniors and the Under-served
- Created Medicare, the first-ever health-care program for senior citizens. The law gave ALL people over the age of 65 federally-backed insurance to cover all of their health care needs.
- Created Medicaid, the first-ever health-care program for no and low-income citizens, suffers of chronic illnesses and Americans with disabilities. The bill was passed to assure that all citizens, even those without financial means, had access to health-care.
- Expanded the free clinic system within the Department of Health, by quadrupling the budget.
- Made it illegal to use age as a basis for discrimination, to be used conjunctively with the other discrimination legislation previously passed.
- Strengthened the Voting Rights Act, by giving the federal government control over registration standards.
- Dramatically shifted the immigration policy of the U.S. by closing the loopholes which allowed Western influx into the country to go unfettered and for the first time allowed citizens of countries such in Asia, Africa and South America to immigrate on a first-come first-served basis with the countries of Europe, the result of which is the wonderfully diverse country we know today.
- Signed the Freedom of Information Act into law, which gives citizens the right to gain access to all governmental records that are not a specific threat to national security.
- Created the Public Broadcasting Service, or PBS, the entity that would ensure there would always be a public voice in the electronic media. This would soon give rise to Sesame Street, The Electric Company and other children's programming that was considered "unprofitable" by the large media companies during that era. PBS would also introduce Americans to the rest of the world, as it was the first to show travel shows, documentaries and programming which originated in other countries. Additionally, in the networks decision to include cooking and craft shows, the large media blackout on females in programming was circumvented and, eventually, broken.
- Passed the Fair Housing Act, which is the foundation, still in use to this day, for all laws banning discrimination in housing.
- Passed the Bilingual Education Act, making it mandatory for communities with large non-English speaking populations to provide education for it's citizenry in a secondary language.
- Passed the first major, prohibitive gun ownership law in 50 years: excluding ex-felons and the sale to minors. Also regulated the interstate transfer of weaponry much more heavily.
And while Kennedy announced the vision and Richard Nixon was (for 6.5 months) President during it's culmination, the idea for, funding of and drive toward, putting a man on the Moon was largely a result Johnson's efforts.
Lyndon Baines Johnson accomplished more in his time in the Presidency than just about anyone, save Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln and FDR. So why is this brilliant and effective legislator, who laid the foundation for what many consider to be the Liberal Platform, not mentioned as one of the greatest Presidents who ever lived?
Because he escalated a war (Vietnam) he had inherited from his predecessor.
The results were wholly disastrous, as the additional troops in the wars' theater produced dramatic increases in American combat dead and wounded. Back home, with the outrage, activism and cynicism of the public at heights not seen before (or since), Johnson would refuse to seek a second term, and largely allow his extraordinary achievements to remain overshadowed, historically speaking, by his Vietnam War blunders.
This was a man that achieved so much, and in a relatively short amount of time. His domestic policy was directly responsible for cutting poverty in the United States in half, to 10.1%, in less than four years. He was responsible for electrifying most of the rural U.S., after taking a walking tour of impoverished West Virginia in the early 1960's. He put Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Justice, on the Supreme Court. Extraordinary achievements by any measurement. And yet his legacy rests in the minds of our countrymen next to thoughts of tear-gassed college students, screaming half-burned Vietnamese girls and body after body of dead and maimed American soldiers seen on television news programs during those times.
As President Obama, who has accomplished far less in his year plus in the Oval Office, moves to escalate the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, my thoughts (and his, I pray) travel back to Johnson, who famously quipped:
"While you're saving your face, you're losing your ass."