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From LBJ to BHO

Posted on Nov 12, 2008
Archive / White House Press Office / Cecil Stoughton

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King Jr. and others look on. (enlarge)

By Stanley Kutler

Barack Obama’s victory on Nov. 4 may have rung down the curtain on the Civil War, a war that did not end at Appomattox as the history books have it, but instead has raged and festered within American political and cultural life ever since. Victory has many fathers and mothers. Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, John Lewis, Viola Liuzzo, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner are just a few of the memorable people who labored to reverse the long tide of American racism. They are prominently and rightly remembered in the history books.

The 36th president of the United States seems strangely absent in the current celebrations. Perhaps Lyndon B. Johnson is not fondly remembered. When Bill Clinton ritualistically invoked his patron saints among his Democratic predecessors, he rarely mentioned LBJ. 

Johnson today is best remembered for plunging the nation deeper into the quagmire of Vietnam. He pursued a war that deeply divided us at home and left an angry scar across the nation. But LBJ alone is not responsible for that war. Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy made the initial commitment. Johnson’s successor, Richard M. Nixon, willfully maintained the war for four more years, resulting in 25,000 more American deaths and untold hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese—despite his knowing for four years that we could not “win.”

Vietnam was a painful lesson for the limits of American power, but one brazenly brushed aside by George W. Bush and his neocon co-conspirators in 2003 as they went hunting for nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Sadly, the misinformed nation largely acquiesced, as it, too, had forgotten its history. 

In domestic affairs, LBJ found his place. A longtime virtuoso for the give and take of the legislative process, he scored notable policy successes, many of which remain with us despite the promises of Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich to eradicate all memories of those achievements. But Johnson deserves our best memories for his contributions to reversing racism. Those triumphs provided the tools that certainly made Obama’s victory possible. 


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Johnson prodded, cajoled and pushed the Democratic majority in Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year.  Yes, pushed, for that illusory Democratic majority included the likes of such staunch segregationists as Strom Thurmond, D-S.C., Richard Russell, D-Ga., and John Stennis, D-Miss., among other old-line Southern Democrats.

LBJ needed a coalition and left a rich legacy for “reaching across the aisle” and working in a bipartisan manner. The Republicans, far different from their successors of today, considerably enabled the great civil rights victories. Their leader, Sen. Everett Dirksen, R-Ill., like LBJ, was a connoisseur of congressional processes and politics. An icon of the Republicans’ conservative Midwest base, Dirksen was no stranger to the traditional practices of his party, especially its unwritten contract with its like-minded fellow-conservative Southern Democrats.  Dirksen generally disdained principles but proudly included “flexibility” among his few. Like Johnson, he recognized the moment—“an idea whose time had come,” using Victor Hugo’s words that became a theme of the civil rights movement. 

The black protests that began with college students sitting at a segregated North Carolina lunch counter ultimately had to find their expression in concrete achievements. After Birmingham, Ala., police unleashed their fire hoses and dogs on protesters, President Kennedy addressed the nation on what he called the moral question. Johnson knew it was more than that.

Kennedy’s request for legislation got mired in Southern obstructionism, but his successor quickly responded and made the cause his own in ways Kennedy never could. Johnson provided the necessary passion, skill and energy that eluded Kennedy. After suffering an eight-month-long filibuster, LBJ finally secured the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but a crucial voting rights section had been gutted, and blacks remained at the mercy of local customs and state officials who creatively found ways to deny them the right to vote.

In March 1965, the president addressed Congress, asking it to resume work on civil rights, but now to focus specifically on voting rights. His speech deserves to be better known. Unlike Kennedy’s “moral” plea, Johnson knew firsthand how exploitation explained the racial divide in America. Poverty, lack of education, lack of opportunity, lack of dignity—all resulted from the exploitation of one group by another. Johnson knew it from his own experience, as he said. In his speech, he promised several times, “We shall overcome.” With a style and cadence that became so familiar to us in 2008, Johnson added: “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.”

After the voting rights bill passed, presidential aide Bill Moyers found LBJ rather downcast. “Why?” Moyers asked. “Because, Bill,” the president replied, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”1 It is true that Strom Thurmond, Newt Gingrich and the Southern Democrats who became Republicans indeed profited from the 1965 legislation.

Johnson was right, but only for a short run. Forty-odd years is not terribly long, given the eventual payoff in 2008. The Voting Rights Act broke down prevailing Southern laws and customs barring black voting, and soon black votes and officeholders rose dramatically in the South. But not until Obama’s run in 2008 did the black vote reach such incredibly high figures, both for registration and turnout.

Two weeks after his inauguration, President Obama will begin the celebration of the Abraham Lincoln bicentennial. By his example, he marked this year’s LBJ centennial in a very special way.

1 Robert Dallek, “Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President,” P. 170.

Stanley Kutler is the author of “The Wars of Watergate” and other writings.

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By Paracelsus, November 20, 2008 at 9:54 pm Link to this comment

@ Azcat

I had heard of LBJ being able to blackmail politicians into voting his way. I wish I knew a definite source. Do you know of any sources or books?

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By Azcat, November 20, 2008 at 6:53 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

LBJ is not at the forefront due to his overbearing and illegal tactics.  If you bring LBJ into the question, ballot box stuffing (his senate races in Texas) and the restriction on sermon content from pulpits are on the table.  The present restriction on on sermon content is due to LBJ passing laws after he was “attacked” during his Senate runs.  LBJ was a very powerful man, both within the law and most notably outside the law.

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By prole, November 14, 2008 at 9:22 am Link to this comment

There’s many a good reason for LBJ to be “not fondly rembered”. “Johnson today is best remembered for plunging the nation deeper into the quagmire of Vietnam. He pursued a war that deeply divided us at home and left an angry scar across the nation” Left an angry scar across what nation, the U.S? That’s nothing compared to the cataclysmic scars it left all through the devastated nation of Vietnam, as well as surrounding lands in S.E. Asia. The scorched earth and casualties running into the millions were one of the greatest crimes in history for which there is no exoneration. Alone or not, LBJ was the chief architect of the carnage, regardless of the other unpardonable villians that played secondary roles before and after. “Vietnam was a painful lesson for the” depravity “of American power” but one which not even George W. Bush could brazenly quite equal (at least not, yet). But LBJ not only “found his place” in domestic politics (of a sort), he also found his place in zionist politics as one of the most zealous supporters of Israel in American political circles before or since. He first came to national prominence upon becoming the the youngest majority lea in Senate history in 1955 and shortly after in late ‘56, during the Suez crisis, vigorously opposed Pres. Eisenhower’s demand that Israel return the Sinai to Egypt. Although, LBJ ultimately lost that political row, it set the tone for his future, unflagging support for Israeli aggression, similar but on a smaller scale, to his own later in Vietnam. AIPAC director in that day, Si Kennen, described LBJ as, “Front rank, pro-Israel”. After becoming president, LBJ in his first two years more than tripled aid to Israel from what it had been in the last JFK budget; and removed all pressure on Israel’s secret nuclear arms program. After the seminal ‘67 Six Day War, LBJ in contrast to Eisenhower earlier, did not insist that Israel withdraw from territory newly occupied through aggression. And there they still are forty years later. By his example at the AIPAC convention in June and statements on Jerusalem as undivided capital of Israel and appointment of Rahm Emanuel and much else, Obama “marked this year’s LBJ centennial in a very” ominous way.

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By felicity, November 13, 2008 at 2:40 pm Link to this comment

Just about every president since and including Roosevelt has attempted to get Congress to legislate some kind of universal health care (sans the insurance business) in this country, only to be met with obdurate refusal by Congress.

As long as we continue to hold presidents somehow solely responsible for the good or the bad that occurs during their terms, Congress will be allowed to function, unaccountable and thus blameless. 

To judge Johnson or any president without judging the Congress that legitimately shared his power, is to subvert the Constitution - not to mention allowing Congress to get away with putting what is its failure in the lap of whoever is president at the time.

Obama’s biggest problem will be this Congress - Democrats and Republicans alike. Hopefully, people will take their focus off Obama and direct it to the culprits in Congress who will inevitably throw up roadblocks to any viable changes he attempts to initiate.

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By Blackspeare, November 13, 2008 at 10:29 am Link to this comment

LBJ’s landslide victory and the dominance of the Democratic Party in the Congress spelled doom for the GOP much as we see and hear today.  But like then and like the Phoenix, the GOP may rise from the ashes of BHO’s victory.  Now, if LBJ had ended the Vietnam War expeditiously coupled with his “Great Society” program, then perhaps the GOP would have been finished. Now if BHO can achieve a degree of success in his first term and avoid a GOP resurgence in 2012, then perhaps this might be the beginning of the GOP as a minority party for the foreseeable future.  The GOP is quite aware of their potential demise and the politics will be intense to neutralize BHO.  Limbaugh and Hannity will be at the top of their game!!!

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By Folktruther, November 13, 2008 at 9:50 am Link to this comment

I agree, Paracelsus, that federal violence is usually used for anti-people purposes.  Indeed, it was used by Ike primarily because a state governor was publically and flagarantly disobeying federal law.

Yes, it would have been economically cheaper to buy the slaves and free them.  And as Marx said, it would be cheaper to buy the industry from capitalists and socialize it.

But that isn’t the way power works.  It may be economically feasible but not POLITICALLY feasible.  Because the only means of retaining economic property is by political power.  If the government freed the slaves because it was right and just, why then couldn’t it take away the money from the former slaveholders and give it to the people, or the former slaves, also because it is right and just.

That is why rightwingers have such dispicable anti-people values.  Their hatred of the population is the obverse of their love of power which defends the oppression of people. 

And so the Educated classes, who control the learned and mass media, generate anti-people worldviews that legitimate power.  These religious, political and scientific worldviews are condensed in the souls of the oppressors who regard any infringement immoral.

And this they teach the young in the schools, universites and other learned bureaucracies.  And in the mass media.  As Steve Biko wrote before he was murdered by the South African apartheid regime:

  “The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

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By Paracelsus, November 12, 2008 at 10:08 pm Link to this comment

@ Folktruther

The putative motive to war, using force, in Vietnam was to preserve “democracy” and “capitalism”. On the surface, this accords well Wilsonian ideals on promoting “democracy” in the world. We do know that real interests in Vietnam was getting a lock on the mineral resources and the opium Asian trade.

The force used by Ike to ensure desegregation in the schools, to preserve the human rights of black people. The troops were used in a region of the country to spread democracy in the South over and above the authority of state government. I suppose if the states were strictly federated, and the supremacy of DC was more circumscribed, then people in other regions of the nation could boycott goods from the South. They could protest in the South or near the South. The charm of it is that the damage of bad government is limited only to a region or grouping of states. Under a highly centralized federal system, the damage(or benefit) is all over the country as States rights are nearly unrecognized. Liberalism as a positive philosophy must enforce by guns and courts to reach an egalitarian goal of group benefit. The same positive philosophy that enforces wage and hour standards also can enforce eugenic policies like forced sterilizations. Positive liberalism assumes that there must be a policeman to ensure ethical, egalitarian conduct. I think the old argument was a religious, “Christian” people were capable of paying a workman a fair wage, and that families were independent units capable of making their own moral decisions. I think that positive liberalism became a force as industrialization made older notions quaint and unworkable for mass man. Large cities with dependent proletarians auger against the older Jeffersonian notions of democracy.

As to the Civil War, I think it may never have been necessary if the issue was solely about slavery. It would have been cheaper and safer for government to to buy the manumission of the slaves. The loss in lives and treasure far outweighs the price for buying the freedom of all the slaves. There seems to be a bias toward solutions that promote tyranny, bloodletting, and war profiteering. The Lincolnian government exhibited the same disagreeable signs of dictatorship that the Bush government exhibits now.

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By Paracelsus, November 12, 2008 at 9:23 pm Link to this comment

@ Folktruther

When I say that LBJ was good about using force, I meant he often took recourse to it, not that it necessarily resulted
in good results.

As to the use of troops in the South to enforce equality, I think it is scary that force must be used to get white people to behave themselves. It means that the institutional bias of federal government is to assume that the States and the people need intervention from those who know better to follow federal laws. I feel pessimistic about the future of Americans if they cannot initiate a fair and sporting society on their individual, conscious free will.

This means that the elite establishment will generalize force as a valid method to enforce other federal laws upon what were states that assumed sovereign rights. We have agencies with their own police forces to arrest people under federal laws that are completely insane. For example the FDA can use agents with guns to arrest people for selling B-17 or laetrile with the assumption that the States and the people are incompetent to do so.
Although I approve that black folks are able to vote and use desegregated public and private facilities, I have no confidence in the people and states to act ethically without coercion of a central government. Such a state of affairs makes it easy to rationalize passing federal laws that usurp local authority. Do we want the government to enforce federal marijuana laws? The rational is these states with legal marijuana laws are composed of adult children who cannot maturely decide what to put in their bodies. I do not have a solution, nor would I attempt one. I present a dilemma, a paradox.

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By Folktruther, November 12, 2008 at 4:41 pm Link to this comment

Paracelsus, your comments range from the brilliant to the other extreme.  Johnson was good about getting his way by violence?  Prevented the spread of communism in Souteast Asia?  Installed Free Enterprise by force?

Don’t you remember, Paracelsus, the US power system LOST the Vietnam war.  Communism spread to Cambodia and Laos.  All corporations were nationalized.  Vietnam adopted the party-capitalism system VOLENTARILY.

troops were sent to integrate Soutern schools by Ike.  You equate using troops to enforce equality with using them to impose imperialism?  There seems to be two warring forces in your breast.

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By sab, November 12, 2008 at 4:05 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Paracelsus, I would suggest you read what Prof.Chomsky had very elequently explained in “Lessons of Vietnam War” the main reason behind US intervention in Vietnam. Which was to crush Democracy and show the neighboring countries that they better not try anything “funny”.

By killing 3.5 million Vietnamese, US committed a comparable crime as Nazis committed against the Jews during II world war.

Here’s the link to very insightful interview of Prof.Chomsky:

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By Paracelsus, November 12, 2008 at 2:57 pm Link to this comment

Lyndon Johnson was good about using force to get his goals accomplished. In that era of civil rights, the US government was using force to prevent communism from spreading in SE Asia. It was for the ostensible good of Vietnamese that we forced a free market system upon them through the violence of arms. In that time it was for the good of the South and of the nation that national guard troops were used to force integration of the schools. The South was still wedded to the old thinking of federalism that the DC government could only deal in affairs that concerned all the States, such as defense, minting money, and other narrow areas despite the bargain of FDR’s New Deal. It would be nice if people at the state level to be moral and egalitarian, so they could voluntarily rid themselves of Jim Crow. But Southerners still thought of themselves as being part of little league nations, and that meant home rule in racial affairs. I am glad for the reforms achieved, but now we have the problem federal government going too far the other way, where local police departments are becoming fantastically federalized with Homeland Security.

As to Johnson’s control of the Senate as majority leader, he initiated the types of legislative processes that are the bane of Congress right now. Much of the legislation was laudable such as a $3 billion housing bill for HUD, but the legislation was barely read, and there wasn’t a quorum present to approve it.

I would be careful in praising powerful politicians, for though they can do much good, they can set a precedent to do much evil.

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By Paul_GA, November 12, 2008 at 2:40 pm Link to this comment

MMadden, I believe it’s too late to “win” the Afghan War; especially now, with the country in an economic quandry such as it hasn’t seen in nearly 80 years and the military well-nigh exhausted (particularly the ground forces—Army and Marines). It’s time to abandon the Afghan effort and do something about our economy; otherwise, this country runs the risk of national bankruptcy brought about by imperial overstretch.

America can’t do it all; we should’ve learned that in Vietnam. Genius is the art of limitation, as Goethe once said.

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By mmadden, November 12, 2008 at 1:54 pm Link to this comment

The preemptive strike on Iraq was illegal but the Afghan war must continue until we meet our objectives. The expulsion of the Taliban and the arrest or killing of Osama bin Laden.

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By Folktruther, November 12, 2008 at 1:48 pm Link to this comment

Unfortunately, TAO, your analysis of American power realities appears to be spot on.

As to the Mayans…  any idea what can happen OUTSIDE the power system to affect it?

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By Paul_GA, November 12, 2008 at 11:34 am Link to this comment

Pardon me, Melfeasance, but don’t you mean 1864? In 1854, the president was Franklin Pierce, not Lincoln.

And with respect to Mr. Kutler, I say whatever good LBJ may have done in his White House years was more than offset by the evil of the Vietnam War. Obama had better end the Iraq and Afghan wars and the “global war on terror”, or else he’ll be recalled as just another pea-wit who thought that war was the path to presidential greatness, as his predecessor did. For Heaven’s sake, the country may be on the verge of a depression! How can a country lift itself out of such a rut and still fight three wars at once? Or more? (Let’s not forget Iran, Pakistan, Syria, etc.)

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By TAO Walker, November 12, 2008 at 11:33 am Link to this comment

Presuming the “historicity” of an Obama presidency’ solely on the basis of his half-Black-African genetic heritage seems insultingly condescending and stupidly simplistic, at-best….especially given the documented destructive proclivities of his White-European progenitors.  The desperated need in many to see in this man the answer to the prayers of an entire virtual-world in increasingly dire straits is maybe understandable.  It is not, however, at all worthy of respect.

From here in Indian Country it is easy to see that Barack Obama, whatever his personal qualities and professional abilities, has been put forward by the very same apparatus that “gave” its subject/citizens his soon-to-be predecessor….and with essentially the same object in-mind.  The hard truth, already amply in-evidence, is he will not be able to free himself and his administration from the ties that bind them so firmly to the very entrenched “establishment” that promoted the make-believe “Obama phenomenon” in the first place.

It is remotely possible his actual electoral constituency might pry him lose from his corporate sponsors’ crushing grip, and free him to fulfill the duties of his office in a way more beneficial to their actual living Human interests.  The “monied interests” themselves, however, will never let-go of their iron-bound hold on the levers of “power” without a fight-to-the-finish. 

Alas, theamericanpeople appear to have neither the vision nor the stomach for that kind of all-or-nothing risk to their “sacred” fortunes….nevermind their lives and “honor.”  So the odds are they will languish another four years in a conditiion of more-and-more uncomfortable, and not really involuntary, indentured servitude.

Given the mass and momentum of theallamericanpipedream, and the now-gone-“global” delusion of tame Two-legged “exceptionalism” in which the “USA” version is embedded, it becomes daily more certain that only some impulse originating OUTSIDE the civilization contraption itself could disrupt its dead-end “progress” sufficiently to open-up some possible avenues-of-escape to at least some of those ensnared within its toils.  The Mayans and others calculated just such a congeries of events and circumstances will come-about in a bit over four years from now.

That the best place to be to have access to any such “exit strategies” is at the “bottom” of this pyramid scheme is no-doubt quite “counter-intuitive.”  It remains, nevertheless, quite true.


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By Folktruther, November 12, 2008 at 10:36 am Link to this comment

Already Truthdig is sanitizing and diverting attention from Johnson’s wars to legitimate the wars of Obiden, which are probably going to continue.  The Vietnam war diverted money and attention from the War on Poverty which would have done more for racial minorities than any nice words.

Imperialist Dems and progressives are reconsstructing history to justify the continuing wars of Obiden.

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By Roshi, November 12, 2008 at 9:05 am Link to this comment

Allow me to preface my brief remarks by stating outright that I was an ardent Hillary supporter during the primaries, and equally thrilled with Obama’s candidacy after the convention. In other words, no sour grapes here.

That said, it’s astounding to me that in pointing out the historical facts around the political component of the civil rights movement, Hillary was pilloried by many of the bloggers here in Truthdig, as well as TPM and Huffington Post, and declared a racist. In fact, her summary of how a president can actively change the direction of the country was exactly right, as this period in our nation’s history clearly demonstrated. Without the principled leadership of LBJ on the issue of racial equality - principled because he understood the political cost to Democrats in the form of losing the southern white vote for several generations - the hard work of civil rights activists, no matter how passionate and righteous, would have meant a dream deferred.

I’m all for enthusiastic support of one’s chosen candidate, but as progressives we mustn’t cast history aside because it is inconvenient. That’s what Republicans do.

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By melfeasance, November 12, 2008 at 6:43 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

In 1854, for the first time in its history, the White House grounds were no longer restricted to white Americans.

“On the fourth of July Lincoln gave permission to the colored schools of the District of Columbia to hold a celebration on the White House grounds, and on August 6 he allowed Negroes to assemble on the grounds in day-long ceremonies observing the national day of humiliation and prayer which he had ordained. In these and other ways he set an example of tolerance for all his fellow countrymen.” 

—James G. Randall and Richard N. Current, “Race Relations in the White House,” Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Leadership of Abraham Lincoln, p. 152.

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