I do not want to be the president who built empires, or sought grandeur, or extended dominion. I want to be the president who educated young children to the wonders of their world . . . who helped to feed the hungry . . . who helped the poor to find their own way . . . who protected the right of every citizen to vote.—Lyndon Baines Johnson
I was four years old when Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in as the 36th President of the United States. He was never supposed to be President. A tall, lanky, crude Texan with a dirt-poor rural pedigree, his thick Southern drawl won few converts from the coterie of Harvard intellectuals that surrounded JFK. Johnson lacked Kennedy’s grace and charm, youth and good looks, glamour and class. But he was a masterful politician and a far more effective President, at least before the shadows of Vietnam cast a dark cloud over his legacy.
I have thought much about Johnson ever since Andrea and I saw All the Way starring Bryan Cranston as LBJ on Broadway earlier this month. It was a brilliant play, masterfully performed by a talented and engaging cast that captured the complexity and nuance of Johnson’s accidental presidency during the year in which he successfully achieved the historic passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
It is hard to imagine fifty years later just how momentous and divisive was this law, which outlawed discrimination in hotels, restaurants, theaters, and other public accommodations that engaged in interstate commerce; authorized the Justice Department to file legal actions in federal court to enforce the desegregation of public schools; prohibited state and municipal governments from denying access to public facilities on account of someone’s race; and prohibited discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The law helped us to become a more racially just and equal country. Because of the Civil Rights Act, “colored” and “white only” restrooms and water fountains became ancient relics of a racist past; segregated public parks and lunch counters a distant memory. The foundations of Southern apartheid, of segregation and Jim Crow, a shameful legacy of bigotry and prejudice, were abolished with one stroke of a pen.
Johnson pressed and promised, manipulated and threatened, flattered and cajoled his way through the multi-dimensional morass of politics in the House and Senate. With the substantial and irreplaceable help of then-Senator Hubert Humphrey, the most principled and passionate supporter of civil rights in the Senate, Johnson succeeded in overcoming the staunch and venomous opposition of Southern Democrats and in garnering enough liberal and moderate support among Democrats and Republicans to defeat the inevitable attempt by the Southern segregationists to filibuster the law.
Richard Russell and other southern politicians who opposed the Act were outraged. They called it an extreme and unconstitutional usurpation of federal power, a violation of the Southern way of life. As depicted in All the Way, Johnson knew intimately, and all too well, what motivated his fellow Southerners. Despite having acquiesced and treaded cautiously on civil rights when he was in the Senate, the Presidency freed him to exercise his conscience and use the immense power of his office for good. When an aide advised against risking political capital on the civil rights bill so soon after being sworn into office, Johnson responded, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?” As he pressed forward, Johnson demonstrated unwavering commitment, courage and perseverance unmatched in the recent history of presidential administrations.
And yet, Johnson was a complicated and not always likable man. Full of petty jealousies, he despised Robert Kennedy and treated his loyal foot soldier Humphrey with contempt. Funny and gregarious one minute, charming and gracious another, he could quickly turn sour and crude, mean and vengeful. But he did not waver from his goals once he set sights on them. Anything or anyone that stood in the way of achieving the bill he wanted and promised – a bill with teeth that has withstood the test of time – would be trampled and buried by Johnson’s relentless pursuit of racial justice. All the Way shows Johnson and the behind-the-scenes maneuvering in a way that would have been difficult to re-create in another forum. Watching the portrayal of Johnson in action, I can understand why, despite his personal flaws, those who worked closely with him were convinced that he was totally and genuinely committed to changing the nation for the better.
The civil rights community was initially, and understandably, skeptical of Johnson. After all, he had not been much of a friend as Senate Majority Leader, diluting the 1957 Civil Rights Act to the point it was a virtually worthless bill (the only way to have achieved passage in his mind), and paying civil rights little more than lip service prior to his ascent to the White House. But Johnson’s Texas roots gave him plenty of raw experience with prejudice and discrimination in ways that Kennedy’s privileged existence had not. By the time Johnson became Vice President, he recognized civil rights as the defining issue of our time.
Of course, the real movement for the civil rights revolution was initiated outside of Washington – in bus boycotts and freedom rides; in confrontations with southern governors on university steps; in the violent assaults, police dogs and fire hoses let loose on nonviolent protestors; in the murders of civil rights workers and the bombings of black churches. But Johnson boldly risked his entire presidency on the cause of civil rights and acted with an urgency and purpose rarely seen in American political life. “We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights,” he said to a joint session of Congress on November 28, 1963, just five days after Kennedy’s assassination. “We have talked for 100 years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law.”
Johnson made it his personal crusade to secure the signatures of a majority of House members on a discharge petition, a rarely invoked procedure that released the bill from the House Rules Committee, where it had stalled under the vice grip of its segregationist chairman, Howard Smith of Virginia. He deployed Humphrey to win over Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who was the key to delivering the 23 Republican votes needed to overcome the Southern filibuster in the Senate. “You’ve got to spend time with Dirksen,” Johnson pleaded to Humphrey. “You drink with Dirksen! You talk with Dirksen! You listen to Dirksen!” Behind-the-scenes, Johnson used pork barrel dispensations to secure the support of whichever senators he needed. But he did not compromise on the bill itself.
Despite constant tension with King and Abernathy, SNCC and SCLC, and the uprising of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party during the 1964 Democratic Convention, Johnson proved his commitment through perseverance and determination. Eventually, King and the civil rights leadership, and even the Kennedy men, acknowledged as much. “[N]o president, before or since” noted Richard Goodwin in Remembering America (Harper & Row, 1988), “acted more firmly or with greater commitment to the cause of black equality than Lyndon Johnson.”
But Johnson’s ambitions did not end with the most sweeping civil rights law in history. Voting rights was the next big obstacle to fulfilling the American promise. The “right to choose your own leaders,” the president said, “is the most basic right of democracy,” a right then denied to millions of citizens simply because of the color of their skin. “Their cause must be our cause too,” Johnson proclaimed. “It is not just Negroes, but it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated literacy tests and other provisions that discriminated against racial minorities and instituted strong enforcement measures and extensive federal oversight. It dramatically reshaped the national political landscape. By 1966, over a half million black voters were added to the rolls. For the first time in history, blacks voted in large numbers in southern primaries and elections. By 1980, ten million blacks were registered to vote and nearly 5,000 African Americans held elected office. It is not a stretch to state that the past half-century of American progress on race is almost unimaginable without the 1964 and 1965 laws.
Lincoln asserted that the object of government was “to elevate the condition of men – to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.” Johnson believed that all citizens should have a chance to share in American abundance, from the elderly and sick to the poorest among us. On May 22, 1964, Johnson stood before the graduating class of the University of Michigan and set forth his vision of a Great Society, “a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and enlarge his talent . . . where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community . . . where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.” “Your generation,” he told the students, has the chance “to help build a society where the demands of morality, and the needs of the spirit can be realized in the life of the nation.”
Johnson’s legislative accomplishments in the first two years of his presidency alone changed the fabric of American society more than any president since Franklin Roosevelt. Medicare and Medicaid, federal aid to education, college work study programs, highway beautification, environmental advances, the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities, Head Start, community health centers, legal services for the poor, fair housing legislation, food stamps, special education for children with disabilities, federally-funded medical research, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting are just some of his lasting achievements. They attest “to the possibility of devising a practical, tangible response to the most intractable difficulties of our society,” wrote Goodwin, when “the turbulent energies of a whole nation, seemed bursting with possibilities – conquer poverty, walk on the moon, build a Great Society.”
But the same towering ambitions that led Johnson to change the course of American history on matters of race and economic justice, also caused him to steer the ship of state into unforgiving rocks. It is the agony of Vietnam, a war that divided the nation and resulted in the deaths of nearly 60,000 Americans, for which Johnson is ultimately branded. Had he exercised the same strength of character and foresight to the moral quicksand of Southeast Asia as he did in civil rights, he would have been among the greatest presidents of the 20th century. It is both the triumph and tragedy of Lyndon Johnson that makes him to this day one of the most fascinating, complex, contradictory, and larger-than-life figures of American history.
In the end, Johnson felt betrayed and abandoned by the very people he most tried to help. In the last years of his presidency, America’s cities were filled with unrest as blacks rioted in the streets, King and the liberal preachers opposed him on Vietnam, and key members of his own party abandoned him and questioned his leadership. It was a nation divided – all of his efforts, his determination, and his dreams were shattered by a divisive war and movements he could not fully understand or relate to. “What was broken was Johnson himself,” writes Goodwin, “and along with him, the Great Society, the progress of a nation, the faith of a people, not only in their leadership, but in the nobility of their destiny to lead a troubled world out of the wilderness of war and the miseries of almost universal poverty.”
I continue to believe that Lyndon Johnson could have been one of the greatest presidents of modern times. He charted the course for a better America and helped us come close to achieving the American promise – that all men (and women) are created equal. But because his legacy is forever tainted by the tribulations of Vietnam, his promise remains unfinished.
William Butler Yeats wrote, “Joy is of the will which labours, which overcomes obstacles, which knows triumph.” The American story is still being written. Although it pains me to think of what might have been, it gives me hope to think of what might still be.