Ode to the Johnson Era: Appreciation of 1964 social reforms runs deep in America

Sep 12, 2004

Because election seasons summon memories of earlier campaigns, and because 40 years is a significant anniversary, it is probably inevitable that aging veterans of the Great Society should now be looking back to the 1964 election. It was the one that changed the nation's social landscape.

At least, that's the way we see it. But does anyone else? Social reform is not much of an issue these days, and it would be easy to think that no one remembers the changes that rocked the country in the 1960s when, under an activist president's unrelenting leadership, Congress was turning out reforms -- as the New York Times put it -- the way Detroit turned out cars.

Recently, to commemorate the anniversary of three laws passed in 1964 and 1965 -- civil rights, Medicare and mental health -- a community health center in Round Rock honored Lady Bird Johnson. The event triggered a cascade of mail to the woman whose husband, President Lyndon Johnson, pressed those measures through Congress with her encouragement and support.

The letters reveal a subterranean appreciation of those long-ago reforms that runs through America's consciousness.

The letters -- more than 200 of them -- came from all parts of the country, from community health centers and governors, from 19 U.S. senators and 53 members of the House, from Texas legislators and county judges, and from two former presidents. The roster includes Republicans and Democrats. The theme that threads through them is how changed the country is today because of actions taken four decades ago.

"The 40th anniversary," wrote Gov. Ernie Fletcher of Kentucky, "is a reminder of the great strides that were made during the Johnson administration and how far we have come as a nation."

"The achievements of 1964 and 1965 changed our society and the lives of millions of Americans," wrote Raymond Tamasi of Falmouth, Mass.

"It is almost beyond our imagination," wrote Dan Wilson of Crookston, Minn., "to consider what our country would be like without those laws."

James Clyburn of South Carolina gave a personal testament to their significance. "Before, we lived in a world that offered little hope for young advocates like me, who wanted to participate politically but could not because of an oppressive segregation. Now I have realized the unlikely dream of being a member of the United States Congress."

Others told of more modest successes. "My 24-year-old son, suffering from a mental health condition, can live a more productive life," wrote Bob Templeton of Midland. Many of the letters thanked Mrs. Johnson for her support of the laws being celebrated.

"You were an important voice," said Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

Referring to her whistle-stop campaign through the South to promote civil rights legislation, U.S. Rep. Tom Allen of Maine declared: "You brought courage and good sense to a controversial yet vital matter."

Many of the tributes focused on the issues with which Mrs. Johnson has always been most closely identified -- Head Start and environmental conservation.

"You opened the nation's eyes to the beauty of America," wrote Cooke County Judge Bill Freeman.

"Thank you," said Texas state Rep. Lon Burnam, "for always letting us see the flowers around us."

"In the Army," declared Col. Tone Johnson, division surgeon with the Texas National Guard, "we give medals to people like you."

President Gerald Ford, who did give her a medal -- the Medal of Freedom -- added to its inscription: "Future generations will surely benefit from your tireless work."

Lady Bird Johnson, 91 now, her eloquent voice silenced by a stroke, her eyesight dimmed, listened intently as each letter was read to her, each voice speaking as if across time, of well-fought causes that live on in the lives of so many.

"I hope you can take satisfaction from all your accomplishments," one of the letter-writers told her.

She doesn't say, but I imagine she can.

Harry Middleton, author, presidential speechwriter and onetime journalist, is executive director of the LBJ Foundation, where he prepares new releases of President Johnson's White House tapes. He was director of the LBJ Library for 30 years.