Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Older Than the President of My Childhood

Perhaps you're familiar with the most popular entry of my modest blog, "The President of My Childhood." I've been in an odd frame of mind for the past week or so, realizing that our 36th president, Lyndon B. Johnson, died at the age of 64 years 4 months and 3 weeks on January 22, 1973. I was a a senior in high school then, and he seemed impossibly old. His passing wasn't much noted by people my age, as the Vietnam War was still going on and the rancor of American involvement there was still very fresh.

You see, around the first of May, I turned 64 years 4 months and 3 weeks old. It's hard to imagine that I'm now older than LBJ was when he died, barely a month after this video of his last public appearance was recorded at the end of a civil rights symposium at the LBJ Library in Austin, TX. This might seem an odd fact to carry around in one's head, but there's a sort of following among those who have visited the LBJ Library and Museum, much facilitated by social media of course. He was a fascinating individual, tremendously conflicted and of two minds about most things. He hated the Vietnam War, and spent too much time listening to "experts" rather than following the intuition that told him that South Vietnam was simply too underdeveloped as a nation to resist the north's determination to unite the country under one government.

His true sense of pride, and the place closest to his heart, was the civil rights legislation passed during his five years and two months in office. If you understand the background and have a sense of history, this is a difficult video to watch. LBJ went into a deep depression after leaving office, resumed smoking and drinking heavily, and--aside from overseeing closely the construction of his presidential library--seemed hell-bent on his own self-destruction. Roy Wilkins and other leaders present were reportedly dismayed at the former president's appearance, the hesitancy with which he began his remarks. He got stronger though, and by the end had several audience members in tears. Jack Valenti described it as seeing the champ enter the ring one final time, not as strong as he was in his prime but rising to the occasion.

It is, in the end, a pretty good speech from a man who was not that good a public speaker. As one of the commenters to the link puts it, regardless of all that he did well and badly in his life, it's hard to see this man as anything but a good and decent person who loved his country. If you've gone as far as finding your way to this blog, give it a listen and try to understand the spirit of the times and the enormous changes his actions brought to American society in less than a decade since the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. It makes me feel that my own life's accomplishments, and those of most of us, are but nothing in comparison.


LBJ was particularly proud of Congresswoman Barbara Jordan
of Texas, shown here during the symposium with Vernon Jordan.

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