The relevance of LBJ
Miller Center scholars helped shape a groundbreaking CNN documentary on the 36th president
“Perhaps this is a moment to look at [President Lyndon] Johnson with fresh eyes,” said Melody Barnes, the J. Wilson Newman Professor of Governance at the Miller Center and executive director of the Karsh Institute of Democracy at the University of Virginia. “As we’re having debates over the role of government and the fulfillment of American democracy, this is a chance to think about and look at Johnson with a different perspective.”
Barnes—whose podcast, LBJ and the Great Society, was named the ninth best of its kind by the New Yorker in 2020—said the complexities of Johnson’s life make him an enticing character. Also, many of the same issues Johnson fought for while president (1963–69) are once again in the spotlight.
CNN’s four-part documentary LBJ: Triumph and Tragedy, which aired in February, featured Barnes along with two Miller Center colleagues: Guian McKee, associate professor; and Kevin Gaines, a faculty senior fellow.
UVA Today sat down with Barnes to explore LBJ’s legacy:
Q. WHAT MAKES THE CNN DOCUMENTARY SO COMPELLING?
A. People found it interesting to hear Lyndon Johnson’s voice and the inflection (through the material provided by the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Program and the LBJ Library)—hearing him in the negotiations, hearing him pushing and prodding and processing and thinking.
It gives you a multifaceted perspective—interviews with people who were in the room with him, who were on the other side of the negotiating table from him, as well as people who were allies but didn’t fully understand what he may have been thinking.
Q. HOW DO THE MILLER CENTER’S PRESIDENTIAL RECORDINGS SHAPE OUR IMPRESSIONS?
It’s one thing when you read about what someone has done, but it’s different when you actually hear it.
I found very strong opinions about Johnson. He had such a horrible legislative record on civil rights up until the late 1950s. And then, all of a sudden, he became a strong advocate.
Some people found it fascinating that I, as an African American, am doing this. “But he was a racist,” some have said. “Why are you interested in him?” Or people had views about policy that they thought he advocated for that he hadn’t.
What I heard most is that people appreciated the opportunity to think about Johnson and to shape, reshape, or deepen their own thoughts and perceptions of him.
For more about President Lyndon Johnson's secret White House recordings, go to LBJTAPES.ORG.