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Revisiting LBJ’s Legacy, 40 Years After His Death

Political journalist Sam Lubell pointed out the irony that Johnson’s Vietnam policy eventually caused a challenge from liberals by Gene McCarthy to the president with the most progressive civil rights policy ever. When President Johnson finally announced his retirement on March 31, 1968, this very proud (and very accomplished) man’s job rating had fallen to the lowest level since Harry Truman, when he was forced to stand down in 1952.

Historians have generally been kind to the Johnson presidency: the first recorded survey of professors since LBJ left office in 1969 came in 1982, when he was ranked 10th best. For the rest of the 20th century, surveys of historians generally ranked him in the top third of presidents, mainly due to his domestic achievements. In the 21st century, even with surveys that included more conservative scholars, he still averages in the top third. Many intellectuals are liberal on social issues and anyone who did that much for minorities is going to look good in their eyes.

Whatever the intellectuals think, ordinary voters are more ambivalent about the Johnson legacy. Three times since 2001, the Gallup Poll asked Americans whether they approved of how LBJ conducted his presidency. On average, 20% did not express an opinion. But his approval ratings have consistently crept upward: from 39% in 2002 to 41% in 2006 and 49% in 2010. Since Johnson always had close relationships with the black and Hispanic communities, as their share of the national population has grown, his popularity has not surprisingly begun a comeback.

“If you seek his monument, look around,” was the epitaph for the great architect of London, Sir Christopher Wren. After the last “Baby Boom” anti-war protester dies off in the 21st century and the events of the Vietnam War are as forgotten as those of the War of 1812 or the Mexican War, the monuments of Lyndon Baines Johnson -- the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the national parks created, Medicare, and the Immigration Reform Act -- will loom larger than ever.