"That's just not true": What "Selma" and the establishment get wrong about LBJ

Johnson was a real believer in civil rights movement, historian tells Salon -- but he couldn't do it without help

Published January 13, 2015 5:45PM (EST)

David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. and Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon B. Johnson in "Selma"      (Paramount Pictures)
David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. and Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon B. Johnson in "Selma" (Paramount Pictures)

Because of last year being the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act — the equally important (and currently imperiled) Voting Rights Act will hit the half-century mark later this year — and because of the runaway success of the film "Selma," Lyndon Baines Johnson has been a real topic of conversation in American politics so far this year. At first blush, this probably seems odd; Johnson's been dead for more than four decades. But as Princeton historian Julian Zelizer demonstrates in "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and Battle for the Great Society," his new look at the 36th president's most fruitful years, one of the reasons Johnson still looms so large in the American consciousness is because the politics of his time and the politics of today are much more alike than you may think.

Because we were interested in his book, as well as what lessons — if any — he believes the construction of the Great Society can provide to progressives today, Salon recently spoke with Zelizer over the phone. We touched on what people misunderstand about Johnson, the politics of the 1960s, and the reason why Kennedy's successor was able to accomplish so much in such a short period of time. We also discussed Zelizer's view of "Selma," and whether the film gives Johnson his due. Our conversation is below and has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What made you want to write this book? What were the elements of this period in American history you most felt deserved further scrutiny?

I think there were two things that were really on my mind when I started. One was just knowing there was this period in American politics not that long ago when a lot of legislation passed at a very quick speed — and it wasn't just the numbers, it was legislation that had a huge impact on American society. Living in an era when that doesn't seem to happen and where it's almost a miracle if one big bill makes it through, I wanted to have a better understanding of what worked during that window.

The second was Lyndon Johnson. I've written a lot about this period in American history, I've studied Lyndon Johnson from different angles, and I know all the arguments about how he was able to work politics, so I wanted to understand if they were true. I wanted to really get deep into the White House and at the same time keep a good focus on Capitol Hill so I could understand exactly what was it about him or the period that allowed him to be so effective. I think those were the two probably connected interests that led me to write this book about the Great Society.

Let's start with LBJ. He has a pretty outsize reputation as a master manipulator who could, through force of personality and personal will, make Congress do his bidding. What did you find as you began to examine that depiction?

What I found was that Johnson was a good politician, and part of what made him very good is that he came through Congress. He had spent much of his career in Congress so he had a really good feel for how Washington works and for the power of Capitol Hill. By the time he becomes president in 1963 he's very aware, right from the start, of the limits of presidential power and of how much power he had.

That is who he was, but what I learned — and I knew this, but I really learned it in many ways going through each bill and seeing the timing and sequence of how this all happened — was that he depended on a lot of things for it to work. He depended on the civil rights movement and on liberalism, more broadly— unions, religious organizations, which were all creating this overwhelming pressure on Congress to do something about civil rights and poverty. Johnson needed that to allow his bills to move forward.

The other thing I learned, which is very straightforward and, in some ways, obvious yet not treated as central in our work on the period, was that after 1964, before a lot of the bills passed but after civil rights, he had huge majorities in the House and Senate. They weren't just huge majorities, they were liberal majorities. It was a Democratic caucus finally dominated by liberals, and these members of Congress were willing and ready to move on legislation whether he was or not. They were pushing him, they were pressuring him, they were working with the movements of the period, and that's really what got a lot of his bills through. It was still hard but a lot of this moved rather smoothly when those majorities were in place.

When those majorities end and when the conservative coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans start to regain their power in the midterm elections of 1966, he's done and all his tricks and all his wizardry and all the schmoozing which are still going on are not producing results anymore. It was the political environment that mattered greatly during this period.

You also take a closer look at the idea of the '60s as this halcyon era for liberalism, when it was popular with the public at large and the dominant force in American politics. Did you find anything that complicated or conflicted with that view?

The most complicating factor was Congress. Other than the short period from the '64 election to the midterms of '68, Congress was dominated by conservatives. Again, this was in the era when Democrats controlled both chambers throughout the whole period, but you had this coalition called the Conservative Coalition, which was Southern Democrats who chaired all the major committees in Congress and Midwestern Republicans who were pretty anti-government. They ran the place.

Liberals up through John F. Kennedy's assassination were totally frustrated that they couldn't get a single bill through. These members of Congress wouldn't even let bills come up for a vote! There was a guy named Howard Smith who was the chairman of the Rules Committee and he just wouldn't let people even vote for a bill. There was a guy named Wilbur Mills who was the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and each time Kennedy proposed Medicare, and when Johnson proposes Medicare in 1964, Mills has enough power to say, well, I'm not bringing this up for a vote. It's not going to pass, I don't think it's a good idea, period.

That coalition will reassert itself after 1966, so if you just turn your attention away from the White House and towards Capitol Hill you see the immense power that conservatives had in 1960s Washington. There are other aspects of conservatism in terms of groups and intellectuals during this period but for me Congress was really the base of conservative power. You see a totally different story if you change your perspective that way.

Why was it that the conservative coalition had so much power over Congress? It wasn't exactly reflective of popular sentiment, was it?

Part of it is that this is a period where we had a seniority system in Congress. If you stayed in office long enough, you kept moving up the ladder and you would eventually get a committee chairmanship. You didn't have to be very loyal to the party, you didn't have to be a very good legislator, you just had to stay alive and stay in office. Southerners who tended to be conservative on a lot of the big issues that we're talking about came from safe seats, certainly in the House of Representatives, and they were reelected again and again. Many of them, over the course of the 20th century, had moved up, and by the 1960s they were the ones who had power.

It was an era when the committees had more power than the party leadership, so each committee chair could basically do what they wanted. They had a lot of autonomy and power, so one Southern conservative who didn't like civil rights didn't have to listen to that from the party. The rules were set up in such a way that they had immense autonomy, so I think that was another important factor.

Then, numerically, they were enough Southern Democrats who were conservative on issues of race or healthcare or unionization, combined with the Republicans, to kill any legislation they didn't like and even to push for legislation liberals didn't like. Did it represent where national opinion was overall? Probably not, but it was still rooted a significant portion of the population.

You note the key roles that outside forces played. The policies those liberal groups were asking for, the stuff they didn't get under Eisenhower or Kennedy, were they essentially the Great Society? Or were they even more modest than that?

Many of them were the Great Society bills, literally. A lot of the origins of the Great Society isn't when Lyndon Johnson becomes President, or even when Kennedy becomes President. It's around 1956 and 1958 that you have a huge surge of liberal legislators from the North— both Senators and members of the House like Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota — pushing for a lot of these ideas at the time when Johnson is the Senate Majority Leader. Sometimes they were more expansive than what would eventually pass and other times they were about the same but most of the ideas on healthcare, on civil rights, and even on poverty and housing policy, you could find a lot of this being proposed a decade earlier.

There was a guy named Paul Douglas who was a senator from Illinois, a very liberal guy. If you look at his speeches and proposals in the '50s, you could see the outlines of the Great Society already, and so that's where Johnson learned about a lot of this. He learned about it from his colleagues on the hill, and he learned at a time when he couldn't, as Senate majority leader, get a lot of this through.

A lot of liberals were skeptical of Johnson when he first became president; they didn't necessarily expect him to have the success he did and to be the liberal champion on domestic policy that he became. Can you tell me why they were so unsure that he was one of them? Was he always one of them and they were wrong — or did something change within him that caused him to move left?

He was a Southerner, so just to begin with you have to understand that many liberals in this period didn't trust the South. They thought the Southerners, basically as a whole, were against almost every piece of civil rights legislation and they also believed they were against unions. Liberals thought Johnson was one of the Southerners, and he had been mentored by Richard Russell, who was very conservative Senator from Georgia. When Johnson was Senate Majority Leader in the 1950s, he also often pushed back against liberals, saying a lot of their ideas weren't going to work. They had a distrust of him, and many of them feared that he was really a conservative at heart. Even though he often spoke like a liberal, they just didn't trust that region.

The irony is that when I looked at Johnson for this book and did the biographical part of it it was clear that he was extremely liberal — in some ways more liberal than John F. Kennedy. He was a very liberal politician. He came of age during the New Deal; he fundamentally believed that government was necessary to solve a lot of social problems. He was very sensitive to the problems of poverty because as a youth he had taught in a Mexican-American school where he saw first-hand what poverty was like and how racial discrimination worked. Even with all these beliefs, even with his background, a lot of Northern liberals still thought he was going to be a Southerner ... and, ultimately, they didn't trust him.

I think that changed. I think a lot of civil rights leaders, in the early '60s, when he was still vice president, came to see him as someone who was genuinely committed to the cause. by '64 and '65 they saw this guy who was furious about domestic policy. Of course, all this went with Vietnam and he'll lose the liberals by 1967 and '68, but I do think it took a long time before he could even convince them that he was true and genuine when he said he wanted liberal reform.

What do you think of the way the relationship between Johnson and MLK is depicted in "Selma"? Is it accurate? Is it fair?

I saw the film right when it came out in New York and my impression is the following: the movie as a whole is very good. It's pretty stunning. Part of what I want to argue in my book is that the grass-roots actors ultimately moved a lot of these issues, so you see in this film how Washington, for whatever reason, is gridlocked on voting rights in 1965. It takes activists who are willing to risk life and limb going on the streets, confronting the South, confronting the police to get the bill moving.

That's true, and I think the movie does a really wonderful job, but they do make Lyndon Johnson seem indifferent— and even hostile— to civil rights. He is not enthused at all about the program and a lot of the story line is about his relationship with the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover, investigating Martin Luther King rather than trying to work with him. That's just not true. Lyndon Johnson, by the time he's reelected in '64, one of the first things he does is tell Nicholas Katzenbach, who's going to be his attorney general, go write me the strongest voting rights bill you can get.

In early January '65, he's totally committed to doing this but the big debate for him was when to do it. He was scared that he had all these bills he was trying to get— many of which he thought were important for African Americans like education assistance and funding for his poverty program — and that if he pushed for voting rights too soon all those bills would start to get tied up in the debate over voting rights and voting rights wouldn't even pass. Johnson gets back the presidential power but even after the election of '64 he was still fearful and worried that the power he finally had was very limited and would be fleeting. I don't think the movie captures that at all.

He tries to get the bill in order, he's even negotiating secretly before the marches and he gets the framework for a bill, and in the end the grass-roots activists force his hand and make him propose it right away. That is true, but they do not capture in this film how committed he was ... to this issue and to this cause.

Last question: Do you agree with the view of American history in which there are brief windows in which a lot is accomplished that sticks around even after the window has closed? What does that tell us, as Americans, about how our political system works?

I do think we have a system that, by design, is made in a way that is not conducive to a lot of change and a lot of progress. I think Congress itself is fractured, it's fragmented, it's messy, it's divided, and that combined with the interaction with the president and many other factors of our political system ... I think, generally, the norm is not to do a lot. We talk about dysfunctional Congresses but, in fact, I think that is what Congress is like and I think it's just not an institution where a lot of big policies are going to happen very often. We're looking for anomalous moments.

That's part of what makes progressive reform difficult, but I also think conservatism is and has been very strong in national politics. Congress has often been a base for conservative power, for different reasons in different periods but conservatives have done pretty well in that institution, certainly in the 20th century.

If you take those two things together, you realize that for real, sweeping progressive reform to take place Washington needs huge external push. It's a push that will temporarily create space for policy making but the space is probably going to close because that's not the natural state of affairs. I think that's the story of the Great Society and that's the story of 1960s America, and I think it's been true ever since. Obama had a small window early in his presidency for various reasons and he did get some important bills through but that closed even more quickly on him. I think that's just the nature of our system.

It's striking just how much the politics you describe in the book resembles the one we have today.

I do think progressive reform requires a huge mobilization and push, so what's remarkable about the early '60s — and it's something that's different from today — is that liberalism had this really vast and sizable organizational infrastructure. The unions were more important than anything; they were this huge force that had a membership which could be mobilized. The AFL-CIO had very good lobbyists on Capitol Hill who were constantly working the rooms and the White House, who worked with other organizations like civil rights groups and religious leaders, who were getting attention for issues and monitoring all the tricks Congress played, who were fighting against the filibuster when the filibuster against civil rights took place.

Liberalism wasn't this amorphous idea that everyone supported, it literally was an organized movement, and I think that is hugely important in understanding what took place. They were the key pressure point and we don't have that right now. There are liberal groups and organizations but I think a President like Obama after his election didn't have a lot to rely on — but conservatives do. I think it's very damaging, politically, and at the same time part of the explanation for the 1960s.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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