Last week marked the fiftieth anniversary of the US Civil Rights Act 1964, one of the most important (and difficult) pieces of legislation passed in modern US history. It was President Lyndon Johnson who pushed it through, after nearly a century of resistance from the Senate. President Kennedy complained that no one could judge a President until they had ‘sat in the chair’. This review of Robert Caro’s fourth part of his huge biography of Lyndon Johnson is unique in that it is written by another President-Bill Clinton. Clinton speaks of his admiration for Johnson in pushing through a bill that, months before under Kennedy, seemed stuck fast in the House of Representatives:
You don’t have to be a policy wonk to marvel at the political skill L.B.J. wielded to resuscitate a bill that seemed doomed to never get a vote on the floor of either chamber. Southern Democrats were masters at bottling up legislation they hated, particularly bills expanding civil rights for black Americans.
Clinton goes on to explain that Johnson’s pursuing of this bill strikes to the core of what being the President is-spending political (or what we would call leadership) capital:
Their skills at obstruction were so admired that the newly sworn-in Johnson was firmly counseled by an ally against using the political capital he’d inherited as a result of the assassination on such a hopeless cause. According to Caro, Johnson responded, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?” This is the question every president must ask and answer.
Clinton goes on to explain Johnson’s capacity for persuasion and the need for a politician to do something:
I said then that too many of us spend too much time worrying about advancement or personal gain at the expense of effort. We might fail, but we need to get caught trying.
A number of commentators have compared Obama with LBJ and reflected on LBJ’s ability to pass ‘sweeping’ legislation where most others have failed (or have not even been caught trying). The difficulty is to know why? Was it his (terrifying) persuasion, the famous Johnson treatment (see photo above)? Was it his tactical knowledge and skills, honed through years as majority leader in the Senate? It was all these things but also more. While Johnson himself was an immensely skilled legislator, it was the assassination of his predecessor Kennedy that created a context and a cause which could be used. It is untangling this complex picture that can prove so hard in leadership studies.
Interestingly, as a side note the current state of the voting rights is fast becoming a key political issue following a succession of court decisions over voter identification and registration-both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have spoken out against these incremental changes around the voting law. It seems LBJ’s ghost has not gone away yet.