AUSTIN, Texas — The keepers of President Lyndon B. Johnson's legacy have embarked on an ambitious project to elevate awareness of the Texas Democrat's accomplishments in his quest for civil and social justice.
A $10-million redesign of the LBJ Library and Museum announced earlier this month is intended to give visitors a better understanding of the landmark reforms Johnson propelled through Congress and is being done even as many of his initiatives are under attack by conservatives.
A new exhibit will feature interactive segments on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregation, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which gave blacks and other minorities unprecedented access to the electoral process and some say paved the way for the election of the nation's first black president.
A computer simulation will give visitors a chance to fill in for Johnson and make decisions about the escalation of the Vietnam War. They'll get to listen to his phone conversations with Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy and others. The renovation also will give more room to exhibits on the 1965 Medicare law that provides health care to senior citizens and Johnson's contributions to manned space exploration.
"That sweeping spate of legislation that was passed during his administration continues to resound in a way today that the legislation of no other president in my lifetime and yours does," said library Director Mark Updegrove, 50. "We want people to see the difference this man made to their lives, why it's important to know about this president who reigned in the White House almost half a century ago."
But as the library devotes more space to the programs, some are looking to cut them back in real life. The renovation is due to be finished next December, weeks after a presidential election that will likely hinge in part on voters' feelings about big government.
The Voting Rights Act, Medicare and federal funding for education and public broadcasting — some of the hallmarks of Johnson's administration — are being increasingly challenged by conservatives.
"Johnson is often a punching bag," said Guian McKee, a historian at the Miller Center, a think tank focused on presidential and policy history at the University of Virginia. "He becomes a symbol of big government. But if you look at the reforms he created and implemented, they're actually quite popular and remain quite popular and a major component of what the United States government today does. Yes, they attract attacks but many ... I think are firmly established."
Lawmakers have so far this year avoided a threatened slash of payments to doctors who treat Medicare patients. But Republican presidential candidates are making promises to limit benefits and encourage retirees to seek private insurance coverage instead of depending on the government service.
Medicare was part of Johnson's "War on Poverty," a series of programs that critics say is the "creation of the modern welfare state."
"I have to say that the legacy of that is a $15 trillion national debt that's at the root of the fiscal problems the United States faces today," said David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. "We have promised far more than we can afford to pay to tens of millions of Americans, and Lyndon Johnson played an important role in putting us into that situation."
As the budget debate wages in the nation's capital, another attack on Johnson's efforts is taking shape in courtrooms. A keystone of his Voting Rights Act — a requirement that states with histories of racial discrimination get federal clearance before changing election practices — is being challenged as unconstitutional in at least five different lawsuits, each claiming the 46-year-old law is no longer necessary.
"I wish this were the case," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said recently while at the LBJ Library. "The reality is that — in jurisdictions across the country — both overt and subtle forms of discrimination remain all too common."
Citing a pending case involving redistricting in Texas, Holder called the Voting Rights Act a critical tool to safeguard the right to vote for all Americans.
Meanwhile, federal funding for public broadcasting — legislation Johnson signed in 1967 to "enrich man's spirit" — has been a prime target for cuts.
"I don't want to take the position that none of these programs are untouchable. ... There's the possibility of improvement in all of them," said Harry Middleton, Johnson's White House speechwriter from 1966-69 and director of the library for 31 years. "I wouldn't say that everything that passed in the Great Society is so pristine that it shouldn't be touched, but I don't like the tenor of what I have been hearing."
Still, Middleton believes the legacy will live on.
"He changed the way we live in this country, his policies did," Middleton said. "Of course, that cannot ever be ignored."