Lyndon Baines Johnson was no pushover. The 36th president of the United States was any estimations a hard-charging personality, content to engage in tough negotiations with lawmakers on Capitol Hill — sometimes literally cornering his opponents in invasive, lapel-grabbing conversations that took place in a space no bigger than a phone booth.
It was this style of direct, in-your-face, horse-trader politics that helped secure Johnson’s presidential legacy: creator of the Job Corps, architect of the Great Society and the War on Poverty; and a catalyst for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 — two of the landmark pillars of the civil rights era that black and minority Americans are heir to today.
His relentless pursuit of those two landmark laws have helped secure for LBJ a credible claim to being the most effective president on behalf of the civil rights agenda. President Roosevelt’s New Deal policies elevated black employment numbers during the Great Depression, but those were policies rightly meant to lift the nation as a whole. They weren’t tailored to specifically address the inequities facing black America at that time.
President Truman’s Executive Order 9981, directing the integration of the U.S. armed forces, was a similarly seismic event but mostly within the closed society of the American military. Truman also championed social reform and racial equality, and elevated the need for civil rights to a national platform.
President Eisenhower signed a civil rights bill in 1957; its protection of voting rights for black Americans was the first such legislation made law since the turmoil of Reconstruction.
The actions of Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower set the stage for President Johnson who, in a flurry of civil rights-related legislation, enacted a sweeping social mandate addressing a century of racial inequity.
But throughout the public record, and according to the work of presidential scholars, it’s possible to see glimpses of the LBJ who exhibited a personal aspect at odds with the political. The man had his blind spots.
Early in his career, both as a member of the House (when he opposed civil rights legislation), and later as Senate Majority Leader in 1957, LBJ made conversational use of the n-word. According to Robert Caro’s 2003 book Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, there were numerous exchanges between Johnson and other lawmakers in the Senate cloakroom in which the slur was a frequent companion of the future president of the United States.
There are reports that, even after becoming president in November 1963, Johnson used the n-word in private conversations at the White House and aboard Air Force One — even invoking the n-word to describe Thurgood Marshall, whom he’d soon appoint to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In presidential historian Michael Beschloss’ book Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson’s Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965, we discover a President Johnson who bears some emotional detachment from the cause he espouses. In a March 1965 conversation with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Johnson mentions how a strategy planned by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., to call for an economic boycott of products made in Alabama, was harshly criticized.
Johnson reacts to King’s announcement of the plan on that week’s airing of NBC’s Meet the Press: “This civil rights thing’s pretty hot … this King really got screwed up Sunday with economic boycotts and all that.”
It’s hard to miss the flattening, minimizing aspect of the word “thing” in the context of the civil rights experience. (You can’t help but hear an echo of that in President George H. W. Bush’s dismissal of “the vision thing” as a presidential necessary.)
But shortly before he became vice president after the 1960 presidential election, and certainly after President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, Johnson had views on race that evolved; he made a conversion that was as much a calculation rooted in practicality as it was a personal, come-to-Jesus moment.
In a Jet magazine story marking the 20th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, Simeon Booker in May 1985 recalled a Lyndon Johnson who summoned every major civil rights leader to the White House in the first seven days of his presidency; the president who invoked the words “we shall overcome” in a special address to Congress; the president who ultimately came to take delight in breaching the precincts of segregation.
How LBJ desegregated the faculty club at the University of Texas is a gem. For a New Year’s party, he showed up with his black secretary, Gerri Whittington. “Does the president know what he’s doing?” someone asked Bill Moyers, who quipped, “He knows.” The next day when a club member asked if he could bring black guests, a club official answered “no problem.”
Facing the need to follow through on Kennedy’s late-to-the-game initiatives on civil rights, and as the scope and power of the civil rights movement emerged, Johnson opposed discrimination on both practical and moral grounds:
In his 2007 book The White House Looks South, author William E. Leuchtenburg notes:
Southern particularism on race, Johnson had long ago concluded, exacted too high a cost. Quite apart from the pain it inflicted on blacks, to which he was not insensitive, racism was not an indulgence Southern whites could afford if they expected to thrive in a global economy.
LBJ’s realpolitik approach to racial imbalance had unintended consequences; ironically, even as his signing into law of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act helped endear black Americans to the Democratic Party, it also helped ensure the enduring opposition of southern states.
Johnson made that chilling forecast himself. The author Bill Moyers, a former Johnson aide, recalled this at a Johnson Library symposium in 1990:
The night that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, I found him in the bedroom, exceedingly depressed. The headline of the bulldog edition of The Washington Post said, “Johnson Signs Civil Rights Act.” The airwaves were full of discussions about how unprecedented this was and historic, and yet he was depressed. I asked him why.
He said, “I think we’ve just delivered the South to the Republican Party for the rest of my life, and yours.”
That’s the paradox of Johnson’s presidency: that a southerner could mitigate so forcefully on behalf of civil rights in an era when the South was ground zero for American racial strife; that a politician could act so contrary to his own survival instincts; that perhaps the 20th century’s most transformational president on matters of race and equality could be so utterly backwards behind closed doors.
Johnson died in January 1973. Had he survived into the Facebook era, his relationship status with race matters might well have been filed under “It’s complicated.” LBJ recognized that his own contradictions on race matters were the same ones the country was wrestling with. The fact that the public Lyndon Johnson could be incompatible with the private Lyndon Johnson may have made him duplicitous. It certainly made him human.
His ability to submerge his own biases on the nation’s behalf, his willingness to stand on principle regardless of the political consequences set a high bar for future presidents and lawmakers — an aspirational benchmark worthy of the lawmakers in today’s not-so-great society.