President Obama, with Michelle Obama, the library director, Mark K. Updegrove, left, and Representative John Lewis. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times
Presidential legacies were on everyone’s mind in Austin, Texas, this week as President Obama and three other presidents addressed the crowd at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum on the 50th anniversary of Johnson’s signing of the landmark Civil Rights Act — a law that Obama said led directly to his election as president.
As described by the
New York Times, “President Obama presented himself on Thursday as the living, walking, talking and governing embodiment of the landmark 1964 law that banned discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin.”
While acknowledging that racism still exists and that government programs have not always succeeded, Obama said, “I reject such cynicism because I have lived out the promise of L.B.J.’s efforts, because Michelle has lived out the legacy of those efforts, because my daughters have lived out the legacy of those efforts.”
Obama said that because of the Civil Rights Act, “new doors of opportunity and education swung open for everybody,” regardless of race, ethnicity, disability or sexual orientation. “They swung open for you, and they swung open for me,” he said. “And that’s why I’m standing here today, because of those efforts, because of that legacy.”
The occasion of the anniversary and the speech on Johnson has prompted many to compare Obama unfavorably with Johnson, a legendary dealmaker who would twist the arms of Congress when he needed something done. They say Obama needs more of those arm-twisting traits. But the ultimate irony is that Obama is responsible for the greatest piece of domestic legislation—universal health care—since Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act and Great Society legislation that included Medicare, Medicaid and immigration reform.
And as writer
John Dickerson pointed out on Slate.com, even LBJ couldn’t be LBJ in the current media environment.
“Johnson developed his skills in an institution that now has an approval rating in the low double digits,” he wrote. “It’s hard to imagine that today’s electorate, which has such a foul view of Washington and the unprincipled politicians who work there, would vote for such an operator. It’s also hard to imagine that Johnson could rise intact as a public figure in today’s saturated media environment. Johnson’s skills for understanding human needs came from his own deep neediness. His vindictiveness, penchant for bragging, and bouts of paranoia would never have been confined to the back offices the way they were in his day. They’d be the subject of vast
Vanity Fair and New Yorker profiles, and consume endless hours of cable talk.”
Dickerson argues that perhaps it’s time to stop comparing presidents to LBJ.
“Is it time to stop looking for someone with Johnson’s skills and rethink what it means to be effective in Washington? Obama supporters argue passage of the stimulus in 2009, the Affordable Care Act, and Wall Street reform are all signs of the president’s effectiveness. Those measures were passed without Johnson era bipartisan majorities, which means that while Obama didn’t achieve a new era of cooperation, he may have discovered the tactics to win in the new era.”
Times described the event at the LBJ Library as feeling “a little like a time capsule”—featuring 1960s anthems by Bob Dylan and grainy black-and-white video with scratchy audio of Johnson. There was a photo montage that recalled the famous, and infamous, moments of the era, then traced the progress of race relations all the way to Obama’s presidency. And then the crowd stood as gospel singer Mavis Staples performed “We Shall Overcome.”
In addition to Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama, other attendees included Johnson’s two daughters, Luci Baines Johnson and Lynda Bird Johnson Robb; Maria Shriver, the niece of President John F. Kennedy; and civil rights figures like Julian Bond and Andrew Young.
“He was charming when he needed to be, ruthless when required,” Obama said of Johnson. “He could wear you down with logic and argument, he could horse trade and he could flatter.”
“You’re reminded daily that in this great democracy, you are but a relay swimmer in the currents of history, bound by decisions made by those who came before, reliant on the efforts of those who will follow to fully vindicate your vision,” Obama said. “But the presidency also affords a unique opportunity to bend those currents by shaping our laws and by shaping our debates, by working within the confines of the world as it is but also by reimagining the world as it should be.”