President Lyndon Johnson delivers the State of the Union address in 1966. / Associated Press
AUSTIN -- There was a time -- a long time -- when Democratic presidential candidates would not even utter the name Lyndon Baines Johnson.
This week, the three Democrats elected president since Johnson traveled to Texas to honor the memory of LBJ -- a president once reviled for the Vietnam War, now revered for a domestic record that includes landmark civil rights laws.
"We're here because the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act made it possible for Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to be president of the United States," Clinton said during a speech Wednesday.
Clinton spoke during a three-day summit on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an event that has drawn scores of lawmakers and civil rights activists from decades past.
The summit is part of what ex-Texas lieutenant governor and LBJ protege Ben Barnes called "the re-introduction of Johnson" more than four decades after his death in 1973.
It's another example of how, like stock values, presidential reputations can rise and fall over time. It is now a buyer's market for Johnson, amid a string of golden anniversaries that include, this year, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and, next year, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
"LBJ was known as the Vietnam president," said Mark Updegrove, director of the Lyndon Johnson library in Austin. "But I think ultimately he'll be known as the civil rights president."
Quite a change from 1992, when Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton made a campaign stop at the LBJ library but never mentioned Johnson by name -- even though the event took place on Johnson's birthday.
On Wednesday night, Clinton paid tribute to Johnson's "pivotal, brilliant leadership" on civil rights legislation.
"Just as Abraham Lincoln stewarded the 13th Amendment through Congress, Johnson's leadership embodies the power of the presidency to redeem the promise of America," Clinton said..
During his speech, Clinton also echoed previous summit speakers by decrying what he called renewed efforts to restrict voting through voter identification laws and other methods.
Obama speaks Thursday and while not detailing what Obama plans to say, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president has a "deep appreciation" for Johnson's work in pushing the civil rights and voting rights acts.
Those laws ended segregation and removed voting barriers for African Americans and other minorities, transforming American society for decades. One result: the 2008 election of the nation's first African-American president.
"It's fair to say there is a connection between the passing of that legislation and the fact that Barack Obama is president of the United States," Carney said.
Former President George W. Bush also speaks Thursday at the LBJ summit and plans to discuss education as a civil right.
During a summit session on Wednesday, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who helped Johnson with his memoirs and later wrote a biography of him, said LBJ was prouder of the civil rights legislation than any other accomplishment.
"And," she said, "he knew it would stand the test of time."
Yet Johnson, who took office after President John Kennedy's assassination in 1963 and won a landslide election victory over conservative Barry Goldwater in 1964, declined to run again in 1968. His presidency fell apart amid the discord spawned by escalation of the war in Vietnam, as critics denounced Johnson for having a "credibility gap."
Johnson's "Great Society" legislation also triggered a new conservative political movement that contributed to Republican Richard Nixon's presidential election in 1968 and Ronald Reagan's triumph a dozen years later.
Now Johnson supporters say his record is being re-examined in total, both his domestic and foreign policy actions.
Barnes said the array of legislation that Johnson signed â?? including Medicare, Head Start, immigration and environmental bills, as well as the civil rights laws â?? created "the framework and the foundation of our government today."
During his summit appearance on Tuesday night, Carter -- the first of the three Democrats to be elected since Johnson -- praised his "great insight and political courage and wisdom and tenacity."
Carter, a state legislator in Georgia when the civil rights laws passed, said Johnson "literally changed my personal life and the life of everyone in America."
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