Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Lyndon Johnson and the American Promise

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. 


  1. Mark,

    Two points:

    You previously wrote: “At the peak of the Vietnamese conflict, LBJ confided in Senator Richard Russell that he knew we could not win the war in Vietnam, but he felt compelled to stay the course so as to avoid being the first American president to lose a war. Johnson’s pride and political calculations cost the lives of tens of thousands of some of America’s finest young men.”

    So Johnson sent husbands, fathers, sons and brothers to die for his political glory; not because he felt fighting communism was a worthy cause, but because he worried about his reputation. There are lots of examples of pure evil in this world and this is as good as most.

    Now keep that in mind as we turn to civil rights legislation:

    “These Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days and that’s a problem for us since they’ve got something now they never had before, the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now we’ve got to do something about this, we’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference. For if we don’t move at all, then their allies will line up against us and there’ll be no way of stopping them, we’ll lose the filibuster and there’ll be no way of putting a brake on all kinds of wild legislation. It’ll be Reconstruction all over again.”

    And. . .

    “I’ll have them niggers voting Democratic for 200 years”

    Clearly the man was an amoral and black-hearted racist who fought against civil rights legislation over and over again because as senator the only way it benefited him was if he opposed and stopped it. If it passed, the president got the credit. So he fought against civil rights, bragging even that he opposed anti-lynching laws, right up until he became president and then he became a proponent of civil rights for exactly the same reason: It benefited him.

    All of which brings up one of my favorite questions: When someone shares your philosophy of life is there anything, ANYTHING, ANY-DANG-THING, that person could do to make you cancel your fan club membership?

    Rich R.

  2. Rich,

    This may be the least thoughtful comment you have ever posted (which is really saying something). I am not even sure what your point is. Is it that Johnson had to overcome the racial attitudes of someone born in Stonewall, Texas in 1908? As Johnson acknowledged, “[I]t is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.” This is something you could learn from. Regardless of Johnson’s past racism and the fact he catered to his southern base when he was in the Senate (as did almost all southern politicians of the time), when he became President, he used his office for good. At the end of the day, that is really all that matters. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “[W]hile it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me.”

    Anyone who reads my essays knows that I have mixed feelings about Johnson the man. He was dead wrong on the war – morally wrong and practically wrong – and I have always said so. On civil rights, whatever his past transgressions, the fact is he did more for the rights of blacks and other minorities (and all Americans) than anyone before or since Abraham Lincoln.

    I suspect Johnson understood better than most, as Adam Serwer of MSNBC has written, "that there is no magic formula through which people can emancipate themselves from prejudice, no finish line that when crossed, awards a person’s soul with a shining medal of purity in matters of race. All we can offer is a commitment to justice in word and deed, that must be honored but from which we will all occasionally fall short."

    Is it simply that you have to do or say something to cut me down personally? Your criticisms are tiresome and unhelpful. I really do not care what you think of me or my writings. I put a lot of effort and thought into what I write and you are free to read or not, comment or not. But in the highly unlikely event you desire to engage in respectful dialogue, you are going about it all wrong.

  3. Mark,

    My comments were not meant to “cut you down” and I have no doubt that you put a lot of effort and thought into your writing. But I think your conclusions are wrong and I challenge you to substantiate what you write.

    And, sadly, you missed the point of what I was writing which was that the evidence strongly suggests that Johnson was a despicable man who did things solely out of self interest. I supplied evidence of that, which was my main point, and then asked you if these facts, some of which you admit, sway you in any way.

    You elect to take my question personally, a trait shared by way too many liberals (hence speech codes!), instead of addressing my point. A point, I might add, which was more thoughtful than some of yours. For example, you described Senator Johnson’s attacks on previous (and of course Republican) civil rights efforts as “acquiescing" and “treading cautiously” when, in fact, he was a passionate and active foe.

    You seem to think that the presidency gave Johnson some kind of epiphany when it came to civil rights and you quote from his speeches, but his private words say otherwise as I pointed out and you ignored. Where, in fact, is the evidence that he overcame his prejudices?

    So my “thoughtless” comments combined two pieces of evidence to support my theory of Johnson, which is in direct opposition to your view, and your response was to complain that I was picking on you.

    Nevertheless, my question is a valid one. How does a liberal, who believes that a politician committed mass murder for personal goals, still hold that man in high esteem, especially when the politician’s own words suggest that the good he did was also motivated by the same self interest? Imagine you work with a terrific prosecutor who has an unbroken record of securing the death penalty for horrific killers and he finds himself in the middle of just such a trial when he discovers evidence that this latest defendant is innocent. He hides the evidence and proceeds with the trial, securing a death sentence and preserving a perfect record that will come in handy when he runs for office. Would you write the same type of essay for this man as you did for Johnson? There is no doubt that the prosecutor has made the world a better and safer place and it can be argued that, over all, he did much more good than bad.

    So you can address my points or take your ball and go home, but please don’t dismiss the facts and logic I present as nothing more than me attacking you for sport. That screams surrender and you are better than that.

    Rich R.

  4. Rich,

    I do not see people in black-and-white terms. You do. I believe people are more nuanced and complicated.

    Until you criticize any of your “heroes” in anything they did or said, you have no credibility criticizing me for expressing admiration for those who, I believe, have improved the world whatever their shortcomings (particularly since I do criticize the shortcomings of those I admire).

    I have no obligation to answer every stupid question you put in a comment. This does not imply agreement with what you say - it simply means I have no time for your nonsense.

    If you think that what you have written here and in many prior comments is not a personal attack on me, you are seriously delusional.

    "Where, in fact, is the evidence that he overcame his prejudices?" Re-read my essay.

  5. "My own rehabilitative efforts took a big leap with Bush’s final days when he “abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system." I may love him to death for keeping my family safe for seven and half years and for letting Americans keep more of what they earn, but I’m now able to view his accomplishments and failures more dispassionately. I can admire his McCain-like will in pressing ahead with the surge against enormous pressure while at the same time believing that his final act as president was a betrayal of the very country he valiantly defended."

    "From my own correct political perspective I can tell you that watching Bush hawk his book has been bittersweet. Although it reminds me how much I love the guy (“Let’s talk about water boarding!”) it also reminds me of his great failures (bailouts, immigration, Medicare, Harriet Miers, etc…)."

    Now was my question really stupid? If a Gold Star mother asked you the same question about a president who sacrificed her first born, not for a noble cause, but to save his political ass, would you respond the same way? Tell mom you have no time for her nonsense?