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Mark Shields - Lyndon Johnson would be a happy man today

Long before he would become a respected Washington attorney (no, that is not an oxymoron!), Harry McPherson, as a young man, had recently graduated from his home-state University of Texas Law School and come to Washington and gone to work in 1956 on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson. Nine years later, McPherson, by then a White House counsel, was in the House chamber when President Johnson summoned a joint session of Congress to pass the nation's first voting rights act in order to enforce constitutional guarantees for black Americans to register and vote in the United States of America.

Johnson brought most of his audience to their feet and brought tears to the eyes of many when he said, "Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice."

The president paused dramatically for several seconds. Then, adopting the lyrics of the civil rights movement's anthem, he stated forcefully, "And ... we shall overcome."

On Aug. 6,1965, after the Congress had passed his Voting Rights Act, Lyndon Johnson, the master politician and son of the Confederacy, confided solemnly to Bill Moyers, then his young White House assistant, "Bill, I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come."

He was right on both important counts: All Americans must strive to overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice, and the South has become for Republicans their most reliable regional source of both electoral votes and U.S. senators and House members.

Lyndon Johnson was no plaster saint. I will leave it to others to document his shortcomings in style and substance. The tragedy that was his Vietnam policy forced his decision not to seek a second presidential term and, almost surely, hastened his early death barely four years after he left the White House.

But President Lyndon Johnson's commitment to equal rights and equal justice for all Americans was genuine. In October 1964, Johnson had made a speech quite unlike that ever given by any other presidential candidate. He reminded his New Orleans dinner crowd that he would enforce the new civil rights law, guaranteeing every American free access to all public accommodations, which had passed with Senate support from "two thirds of the Democrats" and "three-fourths of the Republicans."

Then, LBJ spoke of the words of an old and ailing U.S. senator from Texas who told Speaker Sam Rayburn how he just wished he felt better, because, "I would like to go back down there and make them one more Democratic speech."

Johnson continued, quoting the old senator: "Poor old state, they haven't heard a real Democratic speech in 30 years. All they ever hear at election time is Nigra, Nigra, Nigra."

There was a collective gasp in the room. Then, according to eyewitnesses, the Southern audience gave the Southern president a five-minute standing ovation.

Why is this relevant almost half a century later, during the apparently endless 2008 presidential campaign? Here is why. When Harry McPherson, today an authentic Washington wise man, went to cast his ballot in this year's Maryland Democratic presidential primary in his hometown of Kensington, the precinct official, whom McPherson did not know, apparently recognized the onetime LBJ aide and, without even mentioning the historic candidacy of the junior senator from Illinois, said simply, "Lyndon Johnson would be a happy man today."

As indeed he would be.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.