This year is the 50th anniversary of the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. In the most recent installment of his exhaustive multi-volume biography of LBJ, Robert Caro portrays LBJ’s role in the passage as a central event in the larger narrative of man who was ruthless and relentless in acquiring power, but who used the ultimate power to do great things.
Now comes Clay Risen, an editor at the New York Times and author of a forthcoming book on the Civil Rights Act, to challenge Caro’s account and argue that LBJ is far from the central hero in the story of the bill’s passage.
Risen’s argument is summarized in a piece just out from The New Republic.
Caro, Risen asserts,
largely parrots Johnson’s own account of the period: “It was a struggle,” [Caro] writes, “whose strategy and day-by-day tactics were laid out and directed by him.” And the play All the Way, which opened last fall with “Breaking Bad’s” Bryan Cranston in the role of Johnson, likewise portrays the president as the omniscient political manipulator.
But this is mostly myth. Johnson had many legislative achievements during his presidency, but on the Civil Rights Act, he was largely ignored by his Senate allies and rebuffed by the recipients of his bear-hugging affection. The real work was performed by a long list of senators and representatives, their staffers, and a dream team of Department of Justice men who included Robert Kennedy, Nicholas Katzenbach, and Burke Marshall — not to mention civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., who built immense moral momentum behind the bill.
Risen, by the way, gives significant credit to Hubert Humphrey, who was still in the Senate but later in 1964 would be chosen by LBJ as his running-mate. Risen takes on specific pieces of the evidence on which Caro had relied in emphasizing LBJ’s role.
We have a tendency, Risen argues, to assign landmark legislation mostly to the credit of the president who signs it.:
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.
Risen doesn’t argue that LBJ played no role in pushing through the 1964 law. Just that it’s often overstated, and specifically by Caro.
This year we will hear a lot about the Civil Rights Act as one of Johnson’s signature accomplishments. If we leave it at that, we will miss much of what the bill’s story has to tell us — about how to achieve bipartisan cooperation, about the role of social activism in policy-making, and about the limits of the executive branch when it comes to crafting landmark legislation.