As America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the hot parlor game is to compare ‘n’ contrast Lyndon Baines Johnson’s style of presidenting with Barack Obama’s, largely to the latter’s detriment. As Obama journeyed to the LBJ Library yesterday to speak at its three-day Civil Rights Summit, here were the first nine search results when you plugged “Obama LBJ comparison” into the Googletron.
Take that last piece, which ran in the Los Angeles Times.
In the age of partisan gridlock, the master of the Senate, as Johnson became known during his time as majority leader, has become for many Democrats an example of how a president once used government to do big things. By comparison, the current president has become a symbol of how little government can get done.
But, as the hardworking staff noted not long ago, the conventional wisdom about Johnson’s bear-hugging, arm-twisting, steamrolling prowess in pushing the landmark legislation to passage has been challenged by New York Times editor Clay Risen in his new book, The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act.
Witness this from Risen’s recent piece in The New Republic, which contends that “Johnson was at best a supporting player” in the legislative tussle:
Even [Vice President Hubert] Humphrey, a Johnson partisan, conceded in a memo . . . that the president did not play much of a role on the bill: “We did give him regular reports on the progress of civil rights over at the Tuesday morning breakfasts. But the president was not put on the spot. He was not enlisted in the battle particularly. I understand he did contact some of the senators, but not at our insistence.”
The impact of that senatorial outreach was minimal. Johnson won over just one vote for cloture . . .
Risen’s play-by-play of the Civil Rights Bill is fascinating (eat your heart out, Johnson bio-parrot – according to Risen – Robert Caro), but here’s the bottom line in the Obama/LBJ bakeoff:
When we talk about landmark actions by the federal government, we tend to let the respective president take the credit (or blame). We recall that it was Abraham Lincoln who freed the slaves, even though dozens of congressmen wrote and supported the laws that pushed him to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. The Affordable Care Act is labeled “Obamacare” by its detractors and supporters, even though Obama consciously let Congress take the lead on crafting the bill.
So Obama is actually channeling LBJ.