Jesse Jackson's love for often-derided Lyndon Johnson

  • 28 September 2011
  • From the section US & Canada
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Jesse Jackson
Jesse Jackson still has the fire in his belly when it comes to the issue of poverty

I meet Jesse Jackson in the auditorium of his offices, a converted synagogue. It is an impressive building with sweeping pews and huge stained glass windows.

He's rather stately, too: a Chicago institution still trying to stir things up, still a radical.

He's tall and immaculate in a brown, pin-striped suit, with an almost mild manner quite at odds with the decades-long image of a trouble-making firebrand. He tells me that these days he tries to keep his passion under control.

I am in Chicago to look at the issue of unemployment because of the jobs figures released at the end of the week. More of that later, but I'm fascinated to hear about Jesse Jackson's admiration for an often-derided US president: Lyndon Baines Johnson, also known as LBJ.

Child-killer chants

He tells me that most politicians mainly bother about the visible, the well-off, what he calls "passengers on the top deck of the ship".

"Lyndon Johnson was an under-recognised American transformer, focused on those in the hull of the ship," says Mr Jackson.

"He came from a very poor background in Texas, and he taught poor children. He came bottom-up. Most presidents come top-up, and pay their donors back first.

"Lately, you hardly hear politicians use the word poverty; they talk about the middle classes all the time."

LBJ (left) with JFK (right)
Jackson says there has been too much focus on the Kennedys, not LBJ (left)

Jackson wants politicians to emulate LBJ's crusade against poverty, and has begun his own campaign following in Johnson's footsteps, speaking in the Appalachians.

I'm fascinated by LBJ, largely because he is the subject of the most magnificent work of political biography ever written. Robert Caro has written three volumes so far, and he hasn't even covered LBJ's ascension to the White House yet.

LBJ emerges as an immensely skilled politician, a master of the darkest arts, crude, a cheat and a liar, who appeared to sacrifice any principle or value in his hunger to hang on to power, get more power and get what he wanted.

It makes what he did with that power all the more amazing.

He established the Great Society, creating a welfare system and expanding the federal government - which conservatives argue did damage that is still being felt today.

But he is often remembered for the Vietnam War, the chants of "LBJ, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" which make him one of the Democrats' least-favourite presidents from their own party.

Jesse Jackson says LBJ changed America profoundly. He is, of course, talking in part about Johnson's civil rights legislation.

"The 1964 Civil Rights Act made racial segregation illegal," he says.

Thumping the pew for emphasis, he continues: "From Texas to Florida to Maryland, we couldn't use a public toilet; could not buy ice cream in Howard Johnston [restaurant chain]; we could not rent a room in the Holiday Inn. Staunch legal apartheid. Johnson ended that."

But LBJ wasn't just about civil rights for blacks, he says.

"Women often couldn't serve on juries; 18-year-olds got the right to vote," he says.

"The whole body democratising democracy is Lyndon Johnson. Fair Housing Act. Child Nutrition act, the Clean Air Act, Medicare, Medicaid.

"We've done ourselves a disservice focusing on the Kennedys, Camelot and the how Lyndon Johnson inherited the war and got trapped trying to finish it. But Johnson took us way back up to higher moral ground."

What does Jesse Jackson think about today's president?

You'll have to wait until the end of the week for that.

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