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UC Santa Barbara Professor Laura Kalman and University of Virginia's Melody Barnes discuss the late President Lyndon Johnson.
Daily Record photo by Shannon West

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Above, the recent LBJ's America panel event attracted a large audience of students, teachers and the public to the campus of Texas State University, the late president's alma mater.
Daily Record photo by Shannon West

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Texas State University President Kelly Damphousse discusses LBJ's impact on the school.
Daily Record photo by Shannon West

Alma mater looks back at LBJ's legacy

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

A former president and Texas State University student is a beloved topic at his alma mater. The school recently held a panel to discuss the presidency of the late Lyndon Baines Johnson and how it shaped the current culture of the United States of America.

Those on the panel held Wednesday, Nov. 1, all contributed to the book 'LBJ’s America,' and included: LBJ Presidential Library and Museum Director Mark Atwood Lawrence, University of Virginia’s Karsh Institute for Democracy Director Melody Barnes, University of California Santa Barbara Professor of History Laura Kalman and Contributing Editor at Politico Joshua Zeitz.

Texas State University President Kelly Damphousse said that LBJ signed the Higher Education Act at the TXST campus in 1965.

“How fitting that he returned to his alma mater to open the doors to a college education for all Americans,” Damphousse said. “Texas State is the only university in Texas to have graduated a United States President or Vice President.”

Barnes said LBJ saw himself as a New Dealer–referencing the policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s-1940s. The University of Houston Digital History website stated that New Dealers believed that the government had a duty to intervene in all aspects of economic life in order to improve the quality of American life.

“He did the tradition of liberalism that was articulated by Franklin Roosevelt, but also recognized that that didn’t go far enough–certainly for people of color and people that are immigrants,” Barnes said. “It was his ability to surround himself with scholars and with people who not only understood the public policy environment but who also had studied issues of poverty, who had studied education and had deep expertise and the desire to pull those strands together to move beyond what Roosevelt had done to expand this idea of what America should and could be.”

Zeitz said that when Johnson launched what became his 'The Great Society,' his staff couldn’t agree on what that should encompass.

“He left it to his staff to figure out what the Great Society meant,” Zeitz said. “So, it’s hard to say what is the governing philosophy. But at the core of it … he was a New Dealer. If you’re looking for the common denominator there, it was the fundamental belief that the government had an affirmative role to play in helping to make people’s lives better. That might seem pretty simple and a matter of consensus, but really it wasn’t.” Zeitz added that at the time, the idea that kindergarten through 12th grade education should be publicly funded and that retired adults should have access to medical care, was not popular.

Lawrence said that when Johnson left office his reputation was not in the best state.

“Many conservatives were increasingly active in their criticism of the Johnson administration,” Lawrence said. “He was also losing support within many in his own party.”

Kahlman said that she completely agrees with that statement but notes that his reputation has since positively changed, especially in the light of the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, both considered historic achievements for Johnson.

“I think there are three reasons. One is a change in the way that we view the war in Vietnam,” Kahlman said. “The Johnson Library, which is my favorite Presidential Library … it has rushed to accommodate scholars by releasing new documents of evidence that has been so crucial to our understanding of him and especially the tapes [of his conversations] … and those tapes humanized him,” adding that people also now admire his ability to accomplish goals in a nonpartisan manner.

Barnes said she wanted to further stress the reasons that people currently view the Vietnam War differently than it was viewed at the time. She said that his reputation is likely renovated due to the sheer distance and time from the war, and a clear separation from the misinformation and disinformation of that time. She said it could also be his particular style of accomplishment and ingenuity.

“Body bags are not coming home right now. People are not worried about the draft. People are not worried that they might have to go off and fight in a war that they didn’t understand,” Barnes said. “At this particular moment, I believe that people want a sense of progress and forward movement and strength and decisiveness. He not only projected those things, he was those things.”

Zeitz said a world without Johnson is a world with a reduction to school budgets of approximately 20% to 25%, no federally subsidized school loans and no National Public Radio.

“His driving ambition, other than becoming president, was to almost match or exceed his political idol and that was Franklin Roosevelt,” Zeitz said. ‘And he did. And he provided this tremendous infrastructure and social infrastructure that today it would just be unimaginable to think of America without it, and for those reasons, his legacy has been fairly rehabilitated.”

To learn more about LBJ and some of his key policies go to millercenter. org/president/ lyndon-b-johnson/keyevents.

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