WASHINGTON – President Lyndon B. Johnson put the bully into the bully pulpit. He knew where all the political bodies were buried, and he used that knowledge to cajole, coerce, and convince.
When five presidents gather at the LBJ Library in Austin to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the landmark 1964 civil rights bill, each must in his own way be envious of Lyndon Johnson’s domestic achievements. In addition to expansive civil rights laws, there is the War on Poverty, Head Start, Medicare, Medicaid, Pell grants, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and the Fair Housing Act.
We have to go back to Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressive era to find a president who approaches LBJ in the breadth and depth of his domestic achievements. The tragedy of Johnson’s presidency is that his political skills and his leadership on the home front were overshadowed by the war in Vietnam.
There is no history of his time in office that vindicates Johnson as a war president. He was bull-headed and refused to recognize until it was too late that a flawed strategy was guaranteeing defeat. He didn’t want to be the first U.S. president to lose a war, and so he lost part of himself in the process, retreating to his Texas ranch when he knew all was lost electorally.
He could not have won re-election in 1968 and bowed out after his weak showing in the New Hampshire primary. It has taken all these years for Vietnam to recede enough in the nation’s consciousness that generations coming of age since then can evaluate him in a different light, and appreciate his gifts of persuasion and leadership.
He was an ends-justify-the-means kind of guy, and some of his bullying tactics would not stand up under the light of day in the modern era. But his heart was in the right place. He identified with the little guy trying to make it, and unlike many of his contemporaries, he evolved on civil rights way beyond where anyone might have predicted. Civil rights activist Julian Bond, working then with SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) recalled in an NPR interview that he feared the worse when Johnson became president. All he knew was what a friend in Texas told him, that Johnson was a tool of the oil and gas industry.
Information didn’t spread as fast then as it does today, but Johnson moved quickly to allay people’s qualms. Five days after the assassination of President Kennedy, Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress and said no memorial to the slain president could be as great as passing the civil-rights legislation that he had been struggling to get through Congress before he died.
Working with the legendary Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, D-Tex., LBJ powered through Congress civil rights legislation that set the stage for the diverse world we enjoy today. Tape recordings of his conversations with various power players have been public for some time, and they are classics. Speaking with Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, R-Ill., you can hear Johnson employing a combination of flattery and veiled threats to convince Dirksen to marshal the necessary votes.
Johnson worked both sides of the aisle. Before joining the Kennedy ticket in 1960, he was the Senate Majority Leader. He knew everyone in both parties, who could be moved on what issue, and what it would take to get their vote. He had a tactile feel for politics and a legislative record that may never be matched.