Rob Reiner’s new film “LBJ” hit theaters nationwide and the early reviews have been Oscar worthy.
Lyndon Johnson, along with the characters of the era, have been brought back to life not only by Rob Reiner but by Robert Schenkkan’s award-winning play “All the Way,” which became a well-regarded film on HBO. It’s all based on the exhaustive work on Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro, who began researching the world of Lyndon Johnson in 1976, shortly after he finished his classic book on Manhattan political icon Robert Moses. For the last 40 years, Caro has discovered so many threads of the life of Lyndon Johnson that eluded so many historians that his planned three-volume biography soon grew to five. The final volume is now being written and is eagerly awaited.
Bill Moyers used to call Johnson “Five of the most ten interesting people I’ve ever met.” Johnson himself was a very complex and driven character who emerged from the Texas Hill Country to achieve the highest rungs of power until the Vietnam wrecked The Great Society.
These recent movies and plays take Lyndon Johnson from the moment he took the oath of office on Air Force One after JFK’s assassination, through his landside win in 1964, until the passage of the Voting Rights Acts in 1965. They also represent a complete turnabout for portrayals of Lyndon Johnson over the years. Prior to Robert Caro, Johnson was usually depicted as a foil--a one dimensional cardboard cut out-- to the more sophisticated and elegant Kennedys.
However, Caro caught a lucky break at the outset. After publishing the landmark biography on Robert Moses, he then set his sights on Lyndon Johnson who died young at 62 in January 1973. Most of LBJ’s White House colleagues were very much alive. Better still, many of his colleagues from the early days of The New Deal were in the autumn of their years and Caro captured their stories before they slipped between the cracks of history. Caro also has benefitted from a series of great bios by Robert Dallak, Doris Kearns Goodwin, not to mention the endless flow of declassified of documents from the Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, but he also has 40 years of his own source interviews. Each of them brought new surprises.
Finally—some grudging respect from Liberals. What Johnson did with the 88th, 89th, and 90th Congresses was to transform who we are as a country and a people; it made us better as a nation and allowed us to move closer to the ideals envisioned by the Founding Fathers. John Kennedy could not achieve it but Lyndon Johnson, for all his character flaws, delivered.
There would be no Barack Obama without Lyndon Johnson. The Great Society created middle class aspirations for minority groups, long shunted to the sides of American society. We forget how much landmark legislation emerged from the Johnson Administration and we take it for granted that any resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue would have accomplished the same. When chained together, the collective achievements of all of the Democratic Presidents who succeeded Johnson don’t come close to what he accomplished legislatively.
However, we forget that Johnson had a tougher road to travel. Until the reforms of the 1970’s, the votes needed for cloture in the Senate was 67, far more than today’s supermajority of 60. Congressional and Senate chairmanships were driven by seniority, which favored long-tenured Southerners–often hostile to Civil Rights–because there was no functioning Republican Party regionally until the early 1970’s, only liberal and conservative factions within the Democratic Party. Besides, few African Americans were able to vote.
The inability to reach cloture became a conservative firewall against any Civil Rights reform until 1957, when Lyndon Johnson engineered the first improvements since Reconstruction. Federal Anti-Lynching bills went nowhere. However, after Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case and the backlash against the school integration that followed, it became clear that a new Civil Rights bill was needed, and Lyndon Johnson would make it happen.
Many liberals like Paul Douglas of Illinois and Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota were upset that the 1957 bill was a half-measure, however, the Senate by nature is a deliberate body where good ideas can wait in line for decades. Conservatives like Richard Russell and John Stennis felt the tug from the powerful interests aligned with denial and believed that race relations were being used by “outside agitators” to create mischief and undermine their way of life.
In the end The Civil Rights Acts of 1957 was a “baby-step” in the right direction but it took Johnson’s heavy lifting and a ferocious understanding of Senate rules to keep both wings of the Democratic Party from fracturing. Second, it allowed Johnson to move from a regional to a national stage. Unlike Kennedy, who read about poverty in a Michael Harrington article in The New Yorker, Johnson lived through it and saw the visceral hopelessness that could grind down the most optimistic of souls. He also knew it would take several Civil Rights Acts to achieve full political equality, but it would cement his reputation as one who “Out-Roosevelted Roosevelt.” It would be a way to move African American voters into the Democratic ranks, which remains true today.
The “Emerging Civil Rights Debate.” Many in the leadership of the NAACP, like Medgar Evers, came of age fighting in Europe during World War II. They fought for freedom of others but returned home expected to reassume their roles as second and third-class citizens. The days of blind subservience were being replaced by a new generation who demanded basic citizenship. There were bus strikes in Montgomery and high schools like Little Rock’s Central High were integrated by court order where armed National Guardsmen escorted students by bayonet. Generationally, their younger siblings began thinking about expanding the right to integrate bus stations, water fountains, hotels, restaurants, and lunch counters. Literacy tests, poll taxes, and brutal intimidation would soon collide with basic rights and rising expectations. A new media called television news was spending a great deal of time in many rural Southern hamlets and Jim Crow was now seen by people outside of the South. If this was not remedied legislatively, we would fall into what amounted to a Second Civil War.
1960. Lyndon Johnson did not have the easy grace or the alluring charisma of the Kennedy brothers. Perhaps John Kennedy was a reflection of what we aspired to while Lyndon Johnson was an accurate representation of who we were at that time. However, to most Northeastern liberals, Johnson had the wrong accent, the wrong demeanor, the worst manners, the wrong friends, and came from the wrong section of the country. Johnson’s selection as Vice President remains one of those great whodunits which history may never solve. Johnson received the vice-presidential offer as a courtesy and was expected to politely decline it so that the Kennedy Brothers could aim for Stuart Symington or Henry Jackson. To everybody’s surprise LBJ accepted, which caught the Kennedys off-guard. Robert Kennedy marched down to Johnson’s suite to dissuade Johnson from the ticket. Lyndon, humiliated by somebody who was a Senate staffer only a few short years earlier, elevated the issue to John Kennedy. Within a short time, the Kennedy -Johnson ticket was acclimated by the delegates but the origins of blood feud of the 1960’s found its launch point.
However, this is where John Kennedy outperformed his brother in the area of political smarts. By choosing Lyndon Johnson as the VP, they would sideline him from the Senate and allow new blood to drive New Frontier legislation through both houses for presidential signature. Without Johnson, Kennedy might have lost to Nixon in the fall because LBJ gave the young Kennedy legislative heft and delivered Texas as well as five other states of The Old Confederacy. Had Kennedy dropped Johnson, the humiliation of Johnson regionally would have paid dividends for the Nixon-Lodge ticket. Nixon would have peeled enough Southern whites away from Kennedy to win many of those southern states. Worse, had Kennedy eked out a win over Nixon without Johnson, he would have to deal with an angry LBJ as the Senate Majority Leader, which would have been no picnic.
The Fight for Civil Rights. John Kennedy made a masterful televised speech supporting Civil Rights legislation on the heels of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I’ve got a Dream” speech only to run into a hedgerow of congressional stonewalling. The President began to build a coalition to eradicate Jim Crow and liberals and moderate in both parties squared off against conservatives. Howard Smith, an ardent segregationist from Virginia and the Chair of the powerful Rules Committee, had every intention to keep it locked up for the remainder of the Kennedy Administration. However, the events in Dallas changed everything and when Johnson returned to Washington to address both Houses of Congress; he tied the memory of the martyred president to the final passage of the bill.
After Kennedy’s assassination and Bobby Kennedy’s withdrawal into grief, depression, and later a run for the US Senate from New York, Lyndon Johnson simply took charge; he took the sum total of a generation of experience in Washington and made the most with it. The period between the oath of office in Dallas and election night 1964 were an ascending point of his presidential management.
Just as only Nixon could go to China, only a Southerner could usher in Civil Rights. Johnson could communicate in a way the Kennedy Administration lacked; he spoke “Southern.” Surprisingly, when Johnson offered the Kennedy Administration assistance on how to win passage of the bill in 1963, advice which became for his later legislative successes were shunted aside, it was forgotten, placed in a drawer, and only discovered years later. Johnson could pull the powerful Richard Russell aside, tell him that he loved his mentor but also remind him that there would be a Civil Rights Bill—with him or without him. Released tapes of White House phone conversations from the Johnson Library show the President appealing to every mental and emotional lever available, shaming one religiously minded southern conservative that Jesus Christ himself would be watching him vote.
For Johnson, he was not only competing against the overwhelming memory of his predecessor, but he had decided that the Great Society would be the capstone of progressive legislation started by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. It had to be galling to the departing members of Kennedy Administration who served as holdovers in The Johnson White House that the person marginalized the most was solely responsible for its success. Robert Kennedy could barely bring himself to acknowledging Johnson’s direct approach and concluded that the new president had passed his brother’s Civil Rights legislation, as if it was as easy as delivering the morning newspaper.
In the end Johnson fought and broke the hold that segregationists had on Civil Rights legislation and it set the table for future successes to come. Johnson mirrored each constituency and intuitively knew what buttons to push. He burned up the phone lines long into the night, horse-trading in a way that has become a lost art in these modern times.
More importantly, the 1964 Civil Rights Act had the teeth of federal enforcement to redress matters when state authorities looked the other way, because until that day, Jim Crow was alive and well.
These films also foreshadow the darker side of the President Johnson, whose insecurities overwhelmed his accomplishments whenever the affection he craved was denied. It illustrates one of his opening humiliations with Robert Kennedy and Johnson’s personality would metastasize into the worst strains of paranoia, especially when it came to the prime resident of Hickory Hill.
Today we take the three pillars of The Great Society (Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Acts of 1965 and the Open Housing Act of 1968) as if they arrived giftwrapped from the Founding Fathers. As we get further away from memory of Vietnam, Johnson’s efforts cast a long shadow to cleanse this country of its original sin is compelling; the current occupant of the White House bears testament to his efforts.
In their opening chapters of his presidency before Vietnam ruined everything, Johnson was a triumph of substance over style who led that great tectonic shift political on the American landscape. Yes, there were unintended consequences that would flow from this. The South would realign over time to more of a conservative and Republican brand. The white backlash drove urban flight to bedroom communities. A cocktail of Vietnam protest and Civil Rights drove the student movements of the 1960’s. By 1968, the Great Liberal Consensus would be in ruins and the streets of Chicago would be full of bloodied protesters.
Change does not come without cost. Would we be better off with a Democratic Party circa 1958 but little to show for it? Of course not. Did Lyndon Johnson understand the political costs of Civil Rights to his Texas base? He acknowledged that to Congressman Jake Pickle after he cast his vote. Democrats might have slowly lost the South, but we regained our soul.
Johnson’s finest moment was yet to come when he addressed Congress and the nation after Selma to introduce The Voting Rights Act. He said, “But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
That’s a legacy as well. So, read the book and go see the movie.