All this because the gentle watercolor wash of half-century retrospectives, so warm and kind to his martyred predecessor, John F. Kennedy, makes a new series of 50th-anniversary reassessments — on the War on Poverty this winter, on the famous Great Society speech at the University of Michigan in May, with the Civil Rights Bill in July and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August and more to follow — irresistible and perhaps even necessary.
Ordinarily a half-century’s passage is enough to quell the chants and cheers of events long ago, and the rule in Great Britain for almost six decades has been that public records and Cabinet papers are open for inspection after 30 years. But the events of 1963-1969 are so central to our national identity — and increased longevity so dramatic that many of the participants of the principal events of that period are still alive — that the passions of the Johnson period have not dimmed.
George W. Bush, speaking in Johnson’s home state recently, showed no preoccupation with how he will be regarded in the future. “History,” he said, “will ultimately judge whether I made the right decisions or not.” But for Lyndon Johnson — who had no nonchalance for the verdict of anybody, including Clio, the muse of history — the time of judgment is nigh.
And at this juncture of judgment all of the many faces of Johnson are colliding: the visionary and the reactionary, the idealist and the ideologue, the wily negotiator and the stubborn autocrat, above all the strongman and the broken man.
In the Kennedy retrospectives last year, Johnson was an afterthought in Old Spice aftershave — bored, ridiculed, peripheral. In this year’s retrospectives, he will be engaged, feared, central.
Johnson has been dead for nearly as long as John Kennedy was alive. The Johnson years are as distant to us today as the World War I armistice was to Johnson when he took office. Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1964 is separated from the second term of Barack Obama by the same amount of time separating the landmark White House bill-signing ceremony from the White House screening, for Woodrow Wilson, of the racist film “Birth of a Nation.”