The most liberal president of the 20th century

Nick Kotz's new book about the civil right years argues convincingly that the true hero of the American left is LBJ.

Published February 2, 2005 8:00AM (EST)

Toward the end of Nick Kotz's "Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws That Changed America" comes a startling bit of information about the disastrous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. "Barely noticed during violent clashes between police and antiwar demonstrators," Kotz writes, "the proud integrated delegation from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was seated in place of the Mississippi regulars. Fannie Lou Hamer, now an official delegate at last, received a standing ovation from the convention as she took her seat."

That such an event could happen merely four years after the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, N.J., where the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was denied recognition in favor of the Mississippi delegates who were chosen via a system that prevented blacks from voting, is a mark of how far and how fast the civil rights movement had come. That it could be so little noticed is a measure of how quickly the movement was being eclipsed by Vietnam.

Fannie Lou Hamer -- who had led the charge for the MFDP in 1964, testifying before the credentials committee about the violence faced by blacks who tried to register to vote, and then dismissing the compromise the party offered the MFDP with "We didn't come all this way for no two seats" -- was a living presence at a convention that, for all the turmoil both inside and outside the hall, was haunted by ghosts. Absent was Lyndon Baines Johnson, who in 1964 had found Hamer's televised testimony so damning of the Southern Democrats he needed to gain the party's nomination that he convened a press conference to knock her off the air. Five months earlier, depressed by the growing reaction against the Vietnam War, convinced the war was unwinnable but unable and unwilling to extricate himself from it, Johnson announced his decision not to seek reelection. A few days after that, Martin Luther King Jr., who believed that LBJ's removal would pave the way for the end of American involvement in Vietnam, was shot to death in Memphis, Tenn. Two months later, the candidate whom many, including King, expected to bring the troops home, Robert F. Kennedy, was murdered in Los Angeles.

And yet the heartbreaking trajectory that Kotz details in his rich and necessary book suggests that even if King and Kennedy had lived, even if Johnson had been the Democratic candidate in 1968, the civil rights movement still would have frayed irreparably.

The hope and fervor and uplift that accompanied the end of legal segregation in the South began to dim when it became clear that segregation's demise had barely begun to address the resentment that centuries of oppression had left behind, or the poverty suffered by blacks throughout the country. Hard on the heels of the 1965 Voting Rights Act came the Watts riots, an event that shocked both LBJ and King because it expressed that for many black Americans, the new laws had changed nothing. The Poor People's Campaign, a six-week protest held in the early spring of 1968 in Washington to highlight poverty, had fizzled, failing to equal the impact of the 1963 March on Washington or 1964's Freedom Summer or the campaigns in Birmingham and Selma, Ala. And the emergence of Black Power proponents (typified by Stokely Carmichael, then head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) changed the tone and inclusiveness of the movement.

By 1968, civil rights had ceded to Vietnam as the most urgent issue in American political life. King had recognized earlier than most the link between civil rights and Vietnam. Despite Johnson's insistence that America could have both guns and butter, King knew that the Congress could not fund both the antipoverty and education programs of LBJ's Great Society and a war. And the disproportionate numbers of blacks and poor who were drafted was as insidious a practice of institutionalized racism as any that had been defeated by legislation.

The connection between civil rights and Vietnam was denied by those who criticized King for speaking out against the war, many of them his past supporters. A New York Times editorial called the two issues "distinct and separate," while the Washington Post referred to the linkage as "sheer inventions of unsupported fantasy." King was right to see the moral and economic consistency in working to end poverty and opposing Vietnam. But his critics in the civil rights movement -- among them Whitney Young of the Urban League, and the NAACP board of directors who unanimously voted to condemn King -- were not wrong to believe that focusing on Vietnam would inevitably mean taking America's attention off civil rights. That shift of focus coincided with an unspoken sense of weariness on the part of whites who, though only some said so out loud, wondered, after the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Act and Johnson's War on Poverty, "What more do blacks want?"

It was a question that could be an expression of outright racism; of naiveti about how much it would take to better the lot of black Americans; of a patronizing expectation that blacks should be grateful for the recognition of rights that never should have been denied, and resentment that their fawning gratitude never came. It was a question that even Lyndon Johnson asked. Johnson acknowledged the destructive legacy of racism, as in a speech articulating the basis for affirmative action (though it was not called that yet) in which he said, "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, 'you are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair." But, a man of enormous and fragile ego, he still felt personally betrayed by the Watts riots. "After all we've accomplished," he asked. "How could it be?"

"All we've accomplished" was not just a politician's vanity. One of the great virtues of "Judgment Days" is the case it makes for LBJ as the most liberal American president of the 20th century. That statement will no doubt anger or amuse those who still insist on seeing Johnson's shameful deceptions regarding Vietnam as the totality of his presidency; those who confuse politics with the priesthood and recoil from Johnson's pragmatic mastery of political deal-making; or those who wish for all the change that power can effect without understanding that you first have to have the power to effect change.

Near the beginning of "Judgment Days," Kotz writes of Johnson in the hours following JFK's assassination, finally retreating to his bed only to sit up until 3 a.m. with a small group of aides. Johnson began talking passionately and determinedly about how he intended to pass the civil rights bill, a voting rights bill, a bill to allow Americans to pay for higher education, and how he was going to realize Harry Truman's cherished dream of providing healthcare to the elderly. "No president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s," Kotz writes, "had attempted such a broad assault on social and economic inequality." Furthermore, Johnson was talking this ambitiously only a few hours after the murder of a beloved president. And he was not dissuaded when, two days later, a poll showed that 70 percent of Americans did not believe he could govern as well as JFK.

Liberals were suspicious of Johnson's record of voting with the segregationist Dixiecrats on every civil rights bill that came before him during his time in the House and the Senate. But as much of a burden as the presidency came to be to Lyndon Johnson, it was also his liberation as a politician. Having attained the highest office in the land (and not sure he would be able keep it come November '64) Johnson began acting like the politician he always dreamed he could be.

This was a man who had been an ardent New Dealer. Johnson had shepherded the rural electrification bill that brought electricity to the Texas hill country where he grew up. He had seen the effects of poverty on the poor Mexican students he had taught during his time as a schoolteacher. And, as Robert Dallek reported in the first volume of his LBJ biography, "Lone Star Rising," after visiting Germany in the '30s, Johnson arranged passage to Mexico for Jews, who were then smuggled into Texas job-training camps that Johnson had helped set up to aid his constituents in finding work during the Depression. At the opening of a Houston synagogue in 1968 where LBJ and Lady Bird were the guests of honor, members of the congregation approached Mrs. Johnson to tell her they'd be dead if it hadn't been for her husband.

Of course there were political considerations behind Johnson's socially progressive legislation. Always concerned about his place in history, Johnson wanted to prove himself worthy of the liberal legacy of JFK.

What should long ago have become a plain fact of American history but remains hostage to political myth is that LBJ dwarfed JFK as a president. Johnson's vision, his willingness to cast civil rights and the war on poverty as moral issues, his shrewd use of the power of the presidency to ensure the passage of his bills, makes Kennedy's timid, halfhearted gestures toward civil rights seem puny in comparison.

For Kennedy, civil rights had the inescapable air of noblesse oblige, something that he would get around to when he deemed the moment was right, expecting blacks to be patient meanwhile. Civil rights neither engaged his sympathies nor resonated with his experience the way it did with Johnson's. For Johnson, civil rights was the cornerstone to realizing his gargantuan and romantic vision of the presidency. Wanting to, as he said, "out-Roosevelt Roosevelt" and "out-Lincoln Lincoln," Johnson attempted nothing less than to end the Civil War by enshrining the New Deal as the highest legislative expression of American principles.

Two quotes from Kotz's book suggest the breadth of Johnson's vision and the timidity that characterized Kennedy's presidency. On May 30, 1963, Johnson made the hundredth Memorial Day speech on the battlefield at Gettysburg. He spoke with more bluntness, eloquence and urgency about the plight of American blacks than any president had to that time. "One hundred years ago," Johnson began, "the slave was freed. One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin. Until justice is blind to color, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unaware of the color of men's skins, emancipation will be a proclamation but not a fact. The Negro today asks justice." Then, rebuking those who, like Kennedy, feared that civil rights must not proceed too fast, Johnson said, "We do not answer him -- we do not answer those who lie beneath this soil -- when we answer 'Patience'."

Contrast Johnson's simple realization of the necessity of swift and decisive action with a comment made by Bobby Kennedy, then the attorney general in his brother's administration, that Johnson's advocacy was coming "when it was not useful." What the attorney general meant was that he feared Johnson was harming JFK's reelection chances in Southern states. But his words need to be examined. How is it possible for the highest law enforcement officer in the land to envision any time when it is "not useful" for American citizens to be accorded their constitutional rights?

As others, like King biographer Taylor Branch, have done, Kotz makes a steady, consistent, irrefutable case for all the ways in which JFK lagged on civil rights, even to the point of allowing the bill he introduced in June 1963 to languish as it became clear he would face Goldwater in 1964. But those facts have done little to diminish the seemingly unassailable myth of JFK as the great friend to civil rights. Part of that, of course, is a sentimental attachment to a man who died so horribly so young. Much is due to feelings that are not so defensible.

Even before JFK's assassination, people treated LBJ, as they have other white Southerners from Elvis Presley to Bill Clinton, with a finicky WASPish disdain for what they perceived as vulgar. Reporter David Broder's infamous comment about Bill Clinton in Washington, "He came in and trashed the place, and it's not his place," is the most blatant example of that attitude, a way of talking about white Southerners as if they were hillbillies who put their feet on the furniture. Broder's message was clear: Those people have no place in our country.

Whatever their differences, this was not an attitude King held toward LBJ. Kotz reports that before King's first meeting with Johnson, King's advisor Clarence Jones told him, "You've got more in common with Lyndon Johnson than you do with John F. Kennedy or with me. White and black people in the South share the same culture -- food, music, religions, speech. You need to talk with him like no one else can." King himself later said he was happy there was a "fellow Southerner" in the White House concerned about civil rights.

What I'm getting at is that, legitimate grievances with LBJ's politics, his ego, his crudeness, his mendacity and scheming aside, there has always been something inescapably patrician and white in the contempt for LBJ. Ralph Ellison wrote of this in his 1965 essay "The Myth of the Flawed White Southerner." "No one," said Ellison, "has initiated more legislation for education, for health, for racial justice, for the arts, for urban reform than he. Currently it is the fashion of many intellectuals to ignore these accomplishments and promises of a broader freedom to come, but if those of other backgrounds and interests [emphasis added] can afford to be blind to their existence, my own interests and background compel me to bear witness." Contrast that with Mary McCarthy, recalling, in 1974, hearing the news six years earlier that Johnson was not seeking reelection. McCarthy and colleagues were in a Hanoi hotel room listening to Johnson's speech on Armed Forces Radio and reports "dancing, kissing, hugging each other ... I felt a dazed pride myself. We had helped to bring the war to an end." McCarthy immediately acknowledges the naiveti of that belief. And no one in March '68 could have foreseen the hell of the next five months that would give rise to Richard Nixon's election in November.

But even without Cassandra-like foresight, McCarthy, belonging to one of the "other backgrounds and interests" of which Ellison wrote, perceived LBJ's presidency with striking narrowness. It was not white intellectuals like Mary McCarthy who had benefited most from LBJ's presidency. And it would not be white intellectuals who would suffer most when not only the war continued but civil rights were rolled back at home under the law-and-order ethos of the Nixon years. (Ellison ended his essay by saying, "President Johnson will have to settle for being recognized as the greatest American president for the poor and for Negroes, but this, as I see it," he added with an implicit chiding of those whose vision was less expansive than his, "is a very great honor indeed.")

None of this excuses the very real harm LBJ did. His passion for civil rights stands side by side with his allowing FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to direct a massive smear campaign against King. Hoover went so far as to violate FBI policy by deciding not to inform King of threats against his life, and even mailing to his home an audiotape, made from wiretaps, of King's extramarital affairs with a note suggesting that King kill himself to keep the tape from becoming public. Kotz details how LBJ aide Bill Moyers gave FBI agent Cartha "Deke" DeLoach the go-ahead to disseminate the bureau's surveillance on King. (Kotz tells of an FBI agent trying to persuade Atlanta Constitution editor Eugene Patterson to publish a story of King's affairs. Patterson refused, telling the agent, "What you're doing is the story ... the federal police force of the United States doing this to an individual citizen." Does anyone believe an editor today would show that discretion?)

Kotz writes of how much LBJ feared Hoover's power. He does not excuse Johnson for giving that thug so much leeway, but he doesn't make the mistake so many have made with Johnson and take that as the whole of the man.

Kotz tells the story of the relationship between Johnson and King as a tale of the tenuous marriage of idealism and pragmatism. It's to Kotz's credit that he does not depict it as an either/or choice. Which is what makes his section on the 1964 Democratic Convention and the MFDP so irresolvable. You feel how disgusted the MFDP and its supporters were at the prospect of seating a delegation controlled by the Mississippi Democratic Party, a power structure that intimidated blacks and protected the murderers of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Cheney, and the killers of many others. At the same time, there is no doubt what a catastrophe a walkout on the part of the Mississippi delegation would have been: It would have triggered a walkout by other Southern delegates and seriously weakening LBJ's chance of reelection. So the unquestionable morality of seating the MFDP butts heads with this chilling potentiality: President Goldwater.

I came to "Judgment Days" wondering what there was left to say about this subject and these two men after Dallek's "Lone Star Rising," after the two volumes already published of Taylor Branch's trilogy "America in the King Years," after the documentary "Eyes on the Prize." I should have realized that, like World War II, the civil rights era is a seemingly inexhaustible storehouse of narrative, and like World War II, an era in which America had to decide whether it was willing to live up to its stated principles.

Specifically, by keeping his focus on the relationship between Johnson and King in the years from 1963 to 1968, Kotz has allowed us to see the struggle of each to balance idealism and pragmatism. He may focus more on Johnson than King (as I have), but Johnson is a figure whose achievements are less acknowledged than they should be. And Kotz has found an ineluctable sadness in both men. Kotz writes on the insecurities of Johnson and King with what you might call empathetic bafflement. King, perpetually weary from an exhausting schedule and with a mournful fatalism toward the martyrdom he expected at any moment, and LBJ, as ruthless and effective a politician as America has ever produced, but also one who wanted the public's love and knew he would not have it, who was not even satisfied with his crushing defeat of Goldwater (he wanted to know how anyone could have voted for his opponent) -- each of them were contradictions. But both were visionaries convinced of the morality of their cause and racked by constant, nagging self-doubt. Committed to civil rights, they were shadowed by Vietnam, a stalking ghost through the story of "Judgment Days," ready to swallow it whole. It is a measure of their mutual achievement and of their personal sadness that you put down "Judgment Days" believing them, on some essential, irreducible level, brothers under the skin.

-- Editor's note: This story has been corrected since its original publication. --

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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