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Uppity Wisconsin - Progressive Webmasters

« Outrageous Behavior in Madison | Main | Art Buchwald: "I Just Died." »

January 18, 2007


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Dave Diamond

This has been one of my favorite books since it came out five years ago. The first section, a history of the U.S. Senate from 1789 to 1948, is worthy as a textbook in its own right. Getting back to the Johnson narrative paints a great picture of the only man ever to tame the Senate.

But I don't agree with your assessment that Caro is painting an altogether unsympathetic picture of Johnson. The tone is markedly different from Caro's first book, "The Power Broker," about Robert Moses, the man who single-handedly reshaped New York and popularized freeways as the proper mode of urban development. Caro's contempt for Moses -- or at least for the things he did -- comes through very clear.

Johnson is more of a tragic figure in Caro's three-volume-and-counting narrative. There's a note of admiration mixed in with the admonishment. I'm looking forward to the fourth volume, to see how Caro contrasts the two great achievements of Johnson's presidency, Medicare and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, with the great tragedy of Vietnam.

Charles Hughes

I think it's important to mention that while Johnson may have had "despicable" tendencies (to quote Barry), it is also completely reasonable to argue that the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act would NEVER have been passed under the Kennedy administration, nor perhaps under any president who did not possess the long-earned political capital gained by Johnson during his time in the Senate, as well as his early days in Texas politics. Between the acts of 1957, 1964 and 1965, plus economic-based "Great Society" programs both successful and frustrated, LBJ did more for African-American freedom and equality than any president since Abraham Lincoln. He also made the small, yet hugely symbolically important, move of quoting "We Shall Overcome" in a speech introducing the Voting Rights Act to Congress, a shout-out to radical culture that was both brave and unexpected.

I certainly don't mean to either romanticize LBJ's career nor give him too much credit for the successes of the 1960s black Freedom Movement. Countless activists, many whose names we'll never know, did far more work (and sacrificed far more) in supporting the cause of African-American freedom. Still, Johnson's accomplishments mustn't be trivialized: not only did he spend most of his accumulated political favors to finagle the seemingly-impossible task of passing sweeping civil rights legislation, but his overarching vision of an American "Great Society" sounds like absolute *socialism* compared to most current mainstream political rhetoric, on either side of the aisle. (After all, even most of Nixon's policies would get him labeled a liberal today.) He also knew full well that, by signing the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, he was sacrificing the Democratic Party's Southern dominance. (Of course, it wasn't just a Southern thing: George Wallace would draw significant numbers in Democratic Party primaries in states like Wisconsin in coming years.) Kennedy's the mythic hero, but Johnson deserves infinitely more credit for actual legislative contributions to the continuing cause of African-American freedom.

Barry Orton

Charles and Dave:

Let's wait for the next Caro book before we credit LBJ too much for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. If the inside story is anything like that of the 1957 Act, Johnson was selling out all sides simultaneously.

BTW, Caro absolutely verifies the famous stories of LBJ's means of establishing dominance over all his staff members, both male and female, by forcing each of them to take dictation in the bathroom while he sat on the toilet at length. Hard to forget when you watch Bill Moyers or Jack Valenti pontificate on TV.

Charles Hughes

Frankly, I don't really care if he sold anybody out to get the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts passed. He got the laws passed, which is more than Kennedy, FDR, or anyone before him was willing or able to accomplish. For whatever reason, with whatever intention, and with the powerful challenges of activists as impetus, Johnson passed the single most sweeping package of legislation concerning African-American citizenship since Reconstruction, laws demanding the (theoretical) desegregation of public accomodations and the protection of black voting rights. The proof is in the pudding: the Democratic Party most definitely suffered the loss of the white South (and some of the white North) from that point forward. If he was "selling people out" to further his own career fortunes, it damn sure didn't work.

I'll wait to see if Caro unearths something that contradicts what seems to be near-consensus among American historians, namely that LBJ spent much of his accumulated political capital - some of which was absolutely gained through nefarious means - to temporarily cement the splintering New Deal coalition within the Democratic Party (labor, Northern blacks, Southern whites) in the service of passing Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Frankly, after the wealth of scholarship on the subject, I'm doubtful that Caro's perspective will be that different.

By the way, I'm certainly not giving Johnson a free pass on race: the mistreatment of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic Convention (where Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale are implicated along with LBJ) is perhaps the turning point in civil rights activists' opinions towards the possibility of appealing to the higher ideals of even sympathetic voices in the federal government. Johnson's political manipulations are most certainly at the core of the MFDP story.

The remark I was responding to most directly was Barry's characterization of LBJ as "despicable," both politically and personally. Personalities aside, I find it impossible to dismiss as merely politically "despicable" a president who enacted - among other things - the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Medicare, and Head Start.

Barry Orton


My "despicable" is aimed at the Senate years; I'll withold judgement on the 60's until the Caro book is out. Take a week off from your work and read the book and then we'll argue about how we characterize LBJ. I'll buy lunch.

Dave, you're invited, too.

Charles Hughes

I'd read the Caro book, but I frankly don't have time to take a week off until at least June. I'm fine with having lunch to talk LBJ, but I'll probably just repeat what I've said here. Still, if you're interested, I probably wouldn't decline.

Dave Diamond

It's kind of hard to discuss if you haven't read the first two volumes. They form a much more complex -- and interesting -- characterization of Johnson.

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