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For LBJ, the Wait Goes On

On a Saturday morning in August, about 50 family friends and admirers of the late President Lyndon B. Johnson observed an annual rite by gathering in a park across the Potomac River from the National Mall to celebrate what would have been his 97th birthday.

Sipping lemonade and eating mini birthday cakes, the attendees stood on the only federal property in the Washington, D.C., area named for the president, whose five years in office were marked by some of the greatest legislative accomplishments of the 20th century and haunted by the Vietnam War.

The Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove, a small stand of trees accessible by a footbridge, sits surrounded by a much larger park named for his wife, Lady Bird. It offers a tantalizing view over the Potomac at the grand memorials dedicated to presidents who came before him.

Now, a small number of Johnson loyalists are seeking to claim a larger footprint for the 36th president in the District itself. Their aim is to rename the Department of Education building in his honor.

In theory, this should be a relatively easy task for a Congress that regularly approves new names for post offices and courthouses across the country, and for a city in which seemingly every piece of flagstone is dedicated to someone or other.

Indeed, lesser figures from Johnson’s own administration have fared better than he has.

Jack Valenti, a special assistant to Johnson, was on hand this summer when the Motion Picture Association of America renamed its downtown headquarters for him. And Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s vice president, in 1977 became the first living person to have a federal building dedicated to him, when his name was attached to the headquarters for the Department of Health and Human Services.

But in an era when conservative Republicans control Washington, Johnson’s road to recognition has been a rougher plod.

A bill to rename the Education building after Johnson had bipartisan support in the previous Congress, with Texas Reps. Joe Barton (R) and Gene Green (D) co-sponsoring it. The bill’s backers had lined up support from a bipartisan majority of the Texas delegation, plus several lawmakers outside it.

It died, however, when then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) objected and declined to bring the measure to the floor, according to sources close to the process.

“We couldn’t get floor time,” Green said, adding that DeLay “was Majority Leader at the time, he set the schedule, so I would assume he was part of it.”

DeLay spokesman Ben Porritt said, “There are a number of bills that cross through the office that, after review, do not make it to the floor.”

Next month, Green and Barton will try again. They plan to reintroduce the bill on Nov. 8, the 40th anniversary of Johnson’s signing the Higher Education Act into law.

DeLay’s removal from leadership after his indictment may or may not boost the campaign’s prospects. Either way, the timing could be awkward for Congressional Republicans: As Green noted, some of those same Republicans are eager to cut some of the very programs Johnson helped enact.

Despite the stumble in the 108th Congress, those behind the effort insist their campaign is apolitical and, given the anniversary, timely.

“This is about recognition for doing the right thing when it wasn’t easy to do,” said Lyndon Boozer, the son of Johnson’s personal secretary, Yolanda Garza, and the lead organizer of the effort.

Boozer, a BellSouth lobbyist who is named after Johnson, said he came up with the idea for the effort in 2001, when the Justice Department building was being named for the late Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Johnson’s work in civil rights would have made him a good contender for the building, Boozer thought. He quickly discovered Johnson’s name was not on any other building in the city.

“I thought that was wrong,” he said. “I think he deserves it.”

Casting about for an unnamed building worthy of Johnson’s name, Boozer talked by phone with one of the president’s daughters, Luci Baines Johnson, who lives in Texas.

She told him about a talk she had with her father while he was on his deathbed. The president, his daughter said, was talking about his work in civil rights. “Without your education, you can’t get your civil rights,” he told her.

After learning LBJ had signed two major education measures into law, Boozer zeroed in on the Department of Education building, an unnamed structure across Independence Avenue from the Air and Space Museum.

Lobbying lawmakers and aides himself, Boozer asked former Rep. Jim Jones (D-Okla.) to talk to the Bush White House. At 28, Jones had been named appointments secretary to Johnson, the current equivalent of chief of staff.

Jones, who later served as House Budget chairman and ambassador to Mexico, had several phone conversations and a face-to-face meeting with White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, “who liked the idea,” Jones recalled recently. He also talked to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas). She liked the idea, too, Jones said.

“Basically, we hadn’t pinned anyone down,” Jones said. “But we had good intentions of, ‘Yes, that sounds like a good idea, that sounds like something we would support.’”

For advice, Boozer leaned on Harry Middleton, a former Johnson speechwriter and director of Johnson’s presidential library in Austin, and Larry Temple, a special counsel to Johnson and president of his foundation. But Boozer wanted to avoid a scattershot lobbying campaign by Johnson alums still working in Washington. Jones agreed.

“The first step was to get a respected, bipartisan sponsor group,” he said. “They would take the ball and run with it.”

Inspired, perhaps, by the one-time Master of the Senate’s vote-counting skills, aides to Barton and Green rounded up support from 19 members of the Texas delegation, six of them Republican. They also had the support of 15 lawmakers from other states.

Then, amid an election season and facing the apparent opposition of the House GOP leadership, the measure stalled. After a planned hearing before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee failed to come off, supporters temporarily backed off.

“Politics is all about timing — Lyndon Johnson knew that,” said Boozer, who spent part of his childhood living on the former president’s Texas ranch.

That the push has made it this far testifies to Boozer’s will. The resources of his ad hoc effort pale in comparison to those of conservatives who rally to affix Ronald Reagan’s name and image wherever they will stick.

Antitax activist Grover Norquist heads an effort called the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project to coordinate Reagan boosters.

Those efforts include a bill by Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) to put Reagan’s face on the $10 bill, and another by Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) to put it on the $50 bill. Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) wants the Treasury to mint new Reagan-brand currency, featuring the Gipper’s image on $5 gold coins and silver dollars.

The list goes on. This summer, Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas) floated a proposal to rechristen 16th Street as “Ronald Reagan Boulevard.” And Norquist wants Reagan’s face added to Mount Rushmore, “provided such a project is approved as safe for the structure of the mountain,” he said in a recent statement.

Nevertheless, Norquist has no problem fitting Johnson somewhere between Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.

“I have no objection to some government building full of bureaucrats trying to slow down economic growth being named after LBJ,” he said.

Johnson’s backers hold out hope. “I doubt very seriously there would be much opposition, even from the most conservative Members of Congress, to naming that building after President Johnson,” said Middleton.

Added Jones: “This doesn’t seem to me something that lends itself to a high degree of partisanship. But you never know in this town these days.”