It was the beginning of a new week and, as usual, I had driven from Fort Worth late that Monday afternoon to the Dallas studio of KERA/Channel 13, the public television station for North Texas.
The date was Jan. 22, 1973.
I had just sat down at my desk to begin preparing for that evening’s live broadcast of Newsroom when The Associated Press bulletin came across the wire.
President Lyndon Baines Johnson had died.
When our shocked staff met briefly to reformat the program, I mentioned to our producer and moderator, Lee Cullum Clark, that I wanted to say a few words about the president during the show.
“It will be personal,” I said.
Lee didn’t question me about what I would say. She simply told the director that after she opened the program and announced the president’s death, she would go straight to me for my commentary on LBJ.
Although I had only about an hour to pull my thoughts together before the 6:30 p.m. newscast, it wasn’t difficult because I was part of Johnson’s legacy. His deeds had a direct impact on me, so all I had to do was put my feelings on paper.
My hometown, Fort Worth, was still segregated when Johnson became president. But the day after he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, I went alone to the Hollywood Theater downtown to integrate it, something I was able to do without incident.
There was no way I could have known then that seven years later, as a young newspaper reporter, I would be assigned to spend two weeks in Austin to prepare an in-depth report on the soon-to-open Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library.
Those memories came back to me recently as I read The New York Times article about plans by the Johnson family and former White House aides to focus attention on the president’s legislative agenda rather than the issue for which he is so often defined: the Vietnam War.
Their attempt is not to rewrite history or ignore the war that was his and the country’s tragic burden, but to note that there are lasting domestic accomplishments that still have an impact on individuals today, 50 years later.
To commemorate passage of the Civil Rights Act, the LBJ Library and Museum has planned a Civil Rights Summit to be held in April. Former Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are expected to be there. It’s likely that President Barack Obama also will attend, as I can’t imagine his missing such a historic opportunity.
Johnson did more for civil rights than any president since Lincoln. It is that part of his legacy that I identify with most, having been a direct beneficiary.
So I join with his family and others in saying there is much more than the Vietnam War for which the 36th president must be remembered and even revered.
While many conservative politicians and pundits summarily dismiss Johnson’s “Great Society” programs as failures, there is no question that this Texan who ascended to the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy helped to change America for the better.
Imagine an America without Medicare. No senior citizen benefiting from that program would call it a failure.
Go into a classroom of energetic 4-year-olds who are eagerly learning and tell me that Head Start is not doing just what its name suggests: giving underprivileged youngsters a boost as they begin their education.
If Johnson had done nothing more than those two things, his presidency would have to be regarded as a success.
Of course I’m proud of several other things that the president gave to this country, like the Public Broadcasting Act, the Clean Air Act and the National Endowment for the Humanities, all of which his detractors malign.
In that piece I wrote for public television the day he died, I called Johnson “my main man.”
I still feel that way.