Johnson the saint, Johnson the sinner


Who was Lyndon Johnson? Half a century ago, he pushed landmark civil rights legislation through Congress. Yesterday in this space we published excerpts from his speech to the nation on the day he signed the first of those bills, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Johnson certainly deserves full credit for that accomplishment — which, along with Medicare and Medicaid, crowns his legacy as president. He knew just where the levers of power were, and he pulled every one of them to get what he wanted. He called in favors, he twisted arms, he delivered the famous LBJ “treatment,” he cajoled and wheedled and praised and promised and scolded and threatened until he had the votes he needed. He did what probably no other politician could have done.

But still we have to wonder (since much has been written about him, some of it pretty ugly): Who was Lyndon Johnson? Was he a racist?

Well, by the usual standards, yes, he was. Certainly his colleagues on Capitol Hill considered him one of them — a solid member of the Solid South, the Democrats who had ruled the halls of Congress for generations and had done their best to block every civil rights bill that came up. (Knowing that passing the 1964 bill would be the legislative struggle of his career, Johnson made it a bipartisan effort; sure enough, on the final vote it got the support of only 63 percent of the Democrats, but 80 percent of the Republicans.)

Yes, at great moments Johnson did take the high road. He did say, “We believe that all men are created equal.” But did he really mean it? He did say, racial discrimination must end — “Our Constitution, the foundation of our Republic, forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it.” But was he just talking for the TV cameras?

According to contemporaries, including two biographers, Johnson used the “N-word” all the time — and not just among his good-ole-boy cronies, but also face-to-face with black people. A chauffeur later wrote that the president told him he would always be black, and shouldn’t expect to be addressed by his name; instead, he should let the N-word “roll off your back like water ... Just pretend you’re a goddamn piece of furniture.” And LBJ would use geographical variations on that word that could range all the way from “nigra” to “negra” to “negro,” depending on the audience.

But then he went and said, “We shall overcome,” on national television, and his old pals in Congress felt betrayed.

So we have to wonder: Was it all for show when Johnson said he wanted to “eliminate the last vestiges of injustice in our beloved country”? He was a man of his time and place, after all, and in his personal habits he doesn’t seem to have risen above those factors, at least not by much.

But who among us can see into another’s heart? And how much does it really matter? Don’t actions count more than words?

Who was Lyndon Johnson? He was a complicated man, a mensch and a monster, a saint and a sinner. When push came to shove, he was there on civil rights, but at other times he could behave like an unreconstructed old cracker. And he got us deeper and deeper into the war in Vietnam.

Going against the brutal history of race relations in this country, and particularly of the part of it where he grew up, Lyndon Johnson tried “to bring justice and hope to all our people.”

It was more than anyone had done in a century.



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