Thursday, August 28, 2008

LBJ and Obama

Hillary was pilloried in the press when she invoked the name of LBJ and pointed out, rightly, that he was integral in helping bring to fruition the hopes and goals of the civil rights movement when he ushered the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act into law. The controversy caused by Hillary's statement stems from the fact that LBJ's presidency is tainted by his failures in the Vietnam War and that his Civil Rights record was complex and evolved as he accumulated power in the Senate and finally ascended to the office of the Presidency after tragedy struck President Kennedy.

Barack Obama's acceptance speech tonight to be the Democratic nominee for President of the United States is another historic milestone in the fight for equal rights in this country. While LBJ will in all likelihood go unmentioned, his praises are being sung in two excellent op-eds. One written by George Packer and published in the New Yorker, LBJ's moment. The second, a NYtimes op-ed by Robert Caro, an LBJ biographer, Johnson's Dream, Obama's Speech.

Some Great excerpts in the case you don't have time to read both:
LBJ's Moment
James Farmer, the great leader of the Congress of Racial Equality, told the story of a conversation he once had with Johnson in the White House:
I asked him how he got to be the way he was. He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, here you are, calling senators, twisting their arms, threatening them, cajoling them, trying to line up votes for the Civil Rights Bill when your own record on civil rights was not a good one before you became Vice President. So what accounted for the change?” Johnson thought for a moment and wrinkled his brow and then said, “Well, I’ll answer that by quoting a good friend of yours and you will recognize the quote instantly. ‘Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.’”

Four decades later, Barack Obama is a beneficiary of those transformative events of the early Johnson Presidency. His nomination would not be possible without the Voting Rights Act. Michael Janeway, the author of The Fall of the House of Roosevelt, told me that when Johnson’s former aide Harry McPherson, now almost eighty, went to vote in the Maryland Democratic primary in February, a precinct official recognized him and said, “Lyndon Johnson would be a happy man today.”
Johnson's Dream, Obama's Speech

All during this long primary campaign, after reading, first thing every morning, newspaper articles about Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency, I would turn, as part of the research for my next book, to newspaper articles from 1965 about Lyndon Johnson’s campaign to win for black people the right to vote.

And I would think about Johnson’s great speech, when he adopted the rallying cry of black protest as his own, when he joined his voice to the voices of all the men and women who had sung the mighty hymn of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King cried when he heard that speech. Since I am not black, I cannot know — cannot even imagine — Dr. King’s feelings. I know mine, however. To me, Barack Obama is the inheritor of Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights legacy. As I sit listening to Mr. Obama tonight, I will be hearing other words as well. I will be hearing Lyndon Johnson saying, “We shall overcome.”

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