Spectator Column – Carla Carlisle

My favourite Jessica Mitford story dates back to her days in Wash-ington when she was a young widow with a baby daughter. Each week, she dutifully wrote to her mother, Lady Redesdale. One week, she wrote about having tea with Lady Bird Johnson. Her mother wrote back: ?Who is this Lady Bird-Johnson? I can?t find them in Debrett?s.?

The story came back to me this morning as I was thinking about Lady Bird Johnson?s husband, Lyndon, better known as LBJ, the 36th President of the United States. I can?t really say I knew him, but I once danced with him at the White House. It was at the wedding of his daughter Luci, a fellow classmate and the first girl in our class at National Cathedral School to get married. I never saw her again after her wedding. Over the years, I heard that hers was also the first divorce in our class, that she had turned into an interesting and strong-willed woman ?just like her mama?.

For the record, LBJ was one of the great presidents of the 20th century. He was responsible for the Great Society, legislation that created Medicare (healthcare for the elderly) and Medicaid (health care for the poor), the only two aspects of a national health service that exists in the US. He also launched the War on Poverty, the first hope the desolate poor in Mississippi, the hills of Kentucky, and the inner cities of Detroit and Chicago had known since the days of Roosevelt?s New Deal. Johnson, a Southerner, went further: he introduced the first civil rights legislation since 1875, passing the Civil Rights Act that achieved what the Emancipation Procla-mation hadn?t: equality enforceable by law.

Nobody really remembers that now. What they remember is Vietnam. In 1963, when Johnson entered the White House after the assassination of Kennedy, there were 16,000 American soldiers in Vietnam. By early 1968, there were 550,000. In 1964, Johnson was elected President in his own right by a landslide. Four years later, in a country that had turned against the war and its President, Johnson announced he would not seek re-election.

I guess if you live long enough, you start seeing parallels in history. For the next six weeks will be a Blair-a-thon, relentless analysis of the leader who brought his party into the 21st century. Here in the countryside, the lens will be aimed at the senseless slaughter of thousands of animals during the foot-and-mouth crisis, on the insanity of an urban class war fixated on fox-hunting as the bonfire of Baghdad was being laid. The more soft-hearted will try to focus his legacy on the last-minute peace in Ireland which, on the Richter Scale of Political Achievement, will be compared to Johnson?s achievements in Civil Rights.

Looking at the endless reruns of election night in 1997, I see the young Blairs and the happy, hopefulness of the country. I confess I was mighty relieved that the era of Conservative creepiness was over. I also remember, after 9/11, my relief that this country had a leader who could articulate America?s tragedy, something their own President could not do. It was that consummation of the ?special relationship? that I blamed as the war in Iraq looked increasingly inevitable, as if Mr Blair and Mr Bush had had a one-night stand and Mr Blair now faced a shotgun wedding.

In the next few weeks, folks will be saying we?ll miss Mr Blair when he?s gone. But when the dust of history settles, I think Mr Blair will be another Johnson: a leader who pushed his country into a futile war.