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LBJ’s admirers work to rescue his legacy from shadow of war

Family and friends of President Lyndon Johnson urged reconsideration of the Johnson years in the White House.

Associated Press/file 1966

Family and friends of President Lyndon Johnson urged reconsideration of the Johnson years in the White House.

AUSTIN, Texas — Luci Baines Johnson leaned forward in her father’s private suite at the LBJ Presidential Library, her voice breaking as she recounted the “agony of Vietnam” that engulfed Lyndon Baines Johnson and the pain she feels to this day of witnessing his presidency judged through the prism of a failed war.

“Nobody wanted that war less than Lyndon Johnson,” said Johnson, 66, who is the president’s younger daughter. “No matter how hard he tried, he didn’t seem to be able to get out of that quagmire. Not only did he not get out of it in his lifetime, but his legacy indeed has that weight of the world on it.”

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But now, 50 years later — with a coming rush of anniversaries of the legislative milestones of the Johnson presidency — Luci Johnson and the diminishing circle of family and friends from those White House years have commenced one last campaign.

They are seeking a reconsideration of Johnson’s legacy as president, arguing that it has been overwhelmed by the tragedy of the Vietnam War, and has failed to take into account the blizzard of domestic legislation enacted in the five years that Johnson was in the White House.

On Monday, the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum will disclose details of a Civil Rights Summit set for April to commemorate Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act, attended by three of the four living former presidents — Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush — and perhaps President Obama.

A ceremony will be held later at the library, to be followed by celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Johnson initiatives: Medicare, the Clean Air Act, public broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Head Start, the seatbelt requirements, and warnings on cigarettes.

The events are intended to offer a counterweight to the way Johnson has been portrayed during the past decades.

“Our goal has never been to create a false image of LBJ,” wrote Tom Johnson, a former president of CNN and a former publisher of The Los Angeles Times, who served for 40 years as chairman of the LBJ Foundation, in an e-mail to other foundation members.

“What we are striving to do is to achieve recognition of the truth about LBJ’s years, most of which [except Vietnam and some recognition of civil rights] has been forgotten or swamped by Vietnam.”

Luci Johnson responded with a one-word note: “Amen!’’

The campaign comes at the end of a long period in which aides and advisers to Johnson, who died at 64 in 1973, have largely stayed in the shadows, quieted by the memory of a war that still prompts anguished debate and condemnation.

They have watched the adulation of John F. Kennedy — whom Johnson succeeded and with whom he had a decidedly competitive relationship — that accompanied the commemoration of another 50th anniversary: the Kennedy assassination.

“I’ll tell you: I don’t think people understand that this country today reflects more of Lyndon Johnson’s years in the White House than the years of any other president,” said Joseph A. Califano Jr., a Johnson aide in the White House.

This advocacy of a broader view of Johnson is not confined to his immediate circle.

“I absolutely think the time has come,” said Doris Kearns Goodwin, a historian who wrote a biography of Johnson. “When he left office, the trial and tribulations of the war were so emotional that it was hard to see everything else he had done beyond Vietnam. The country fundamentally changes as a result of LBJ’s presidency.”

Mark Updegrove, of the LBJ Presidential Library and author of a Johnson biography, said Vietnam will forever keep Johnson out of the ranks of America’s greatest presidents. Many historians place him in the “near great’’ category.

“At the same time, we want to make people aware of all the things he got done — which is nothing short of remarkable,” Updegrove said.

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