In one of those coincidences that get you thinking in historical analogies, President Obama announced support for same-sex marriage just a few days after the publication of Robert Caro’s fourth volume on the life of Lyndon B. Johnson, “The Passage of Power.” Obama arrived at his position in very much the way that John F. Kennedy decided to put the force of the White House behind civil rights: slowly, reluctantly, and with a big assist from his overlooked, often ridiculed Vice-President.
I spent the summer of 1980 as an intern at a legal-aid office in southern Alabama, and in the houses of poor black people I got used to seeing a sign on the wall that said, “The three who set us free,” beneath pictures of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. It always struck me as unfair that Johnson had been erased from history, not just in those homes in Alabama, but in the judgment of liberal-minded Americans all over the country. After all, it was President Johnson who got civil rights and voting rights passed, along with the entire program of social-justice legislation known as the Great Society.
For their part, President Kennedy and his brother, the attorney general, spent their first two and a half years in office doing everything possible to avoid taking a position on the central moral issue of their time. The Freedom Rides, sit-ins, James Meredith, Albany, Georgia, Birmingham, and Bull Connor-time after time, the Kennedys watched Americans risking and giving their lives for basic rights and refused to take a clear side. Instead, the President urged patience and talked about enforcing laws and court orders, as if it were a purely legal question. In May, 1963, in the midst of police violence and massive arrests of schoolchildren in Birmingham, Kennedy was asked by a reporter whether it would be useful to speak to the country on the issue.
“Well, it might. If I thought it would I would give one,” was his non-committal answer. The next day, Erwin Griswold, a member of Kennedy’s civil-rights commission, said, “It seems clear to me that he hasn’t even started to use the powers that are available to him.” According to Richard Reeves’s “President Kennedy: Profile of Power,” Kennedy privately fumed, “That son-of-a-bitch! Let him try.” Compared with his attitude toward the unfolding Buddhist crisis in Saigon that same month, “The President seemed more detached about the events in Birmingham,” Reeves wrote. ” ‘Life is unfair,’ he had said many times. His sense of irony and his wit kept him out of corners where he might have to choose between right and wrong.”
A month later, on June 10th, after another crisis-Governor George Wallace blocking the door to the University of Alabama-Kennedy finally gave the speech, on national television, from the Oval Office. It was one of the best and most important of his Presidency. “This is not a sectional issue,” he told the country.
Nor is this a partisan issue…This is not even a legal or legislative issue alone…We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.
From then on, there was little doubt that the President of the United States stood with the marchers, and not the police-although Kennedy was unable to get his civil-rights bill through Congress and left it to his successor to succeed where he had not.
History remembers that much, even if most Americans forget. But what the great Robert Caro has revealed is the role L.B.J. played in civil rights during the Kennedy years. Ignored and humiliated by both brothers, convinced that his political life-that is, his whole life-was over, Johnson only showed signs of his old vitality when it came to civil rights. Kennedy hardly bothered to ask for the advice of the one American politician who had managed to get a civil-rights bill passed in the twentieth century (as Senate majority leader, in 1957, the climax of Caro’s previous book, “Master of the Senate”). But given the chance, on June 3, 1963, Johnson weighed in with the full passion and shrewdness of which he was capable.
First, tactically, he urged Kennedy to wait on a civil-rights bill, since the Southerners who controlled the key Senate committees would block every other Kennedy bill in order to defeat it. He explained how Kennedy could hold up other bills that every senator wanted-appropriations bills for dams and other public works-as he slowly built enough support for civil rights to defeat a filibuster. Johnson had to give Kennedy’s alter-ego, Ted Sorensen, a primer in the workings of the Senate, one that the Kennedy White House appeared to need badly. And in terms of the principle of civil rights, Johnson was clear. “I think that I know one thing,” he told Sorensen, according to Caro, “that the Negroes are tired of this patient stuff and tired of this piecemeal stuff and what they want more than anything else is not an executive order or legislation, they want a moral commitment that he’s behind them.”
Sorensen assured the Vice-President that he would pass on his suggestions. A week later, Kennedy gave his civil-rights speech and used the same word that Johnson had used-“moral.” How much direct influence Johnson might have had on the speech isn’t clear, since, having allowed the Vice-President literally fifteen minutes of advice, Kennedy and his brother quickly returned to shutting out and undermining Johnson, and L.B.J. fell back into a deep depression. But one thing is clear: Johnson got there ahead of Kennedy. And he already had a strategy for how to get a bill through a seemingly intractable Congress-a strategy that Kennedy would ignore, leaving it to Johnson to follow his own advice in 1964.
For better and worse, the President Barack Obama most readily calls to mind is Kennedy. He has J.F.K.’s intellect, his detachment, his cool under pressure, his carefulness, his aversion to either-or thinking, his equivocations, his good looks. Like so many Americans, Obama has always characterized Kennedy in heroic terms, and in the 2008 campaign he seemed disinclined to acknowledge the contributions of Lyndon Johnson to American justice. His campaign got into a silly argument when Hillary Clinton alluded to Johnson’s key role in passing civil rights, as if this obvious point were a slight against Martin Luther King, Jr. And at the convention in Denver, the nominee gave his acceptance speech on the forty-fifth anniversary of the March on Washington, an event that Obama rightly saluted-while neglecting to mention that the previous day, August 27th, had been the centennial of the birth of the greatest civil-rights President in the twentieth century.
If Obama identifies with Kennedy, it’s worth wondering if Biden feels at all close to the ghost of L.B.J. Both men rose to power in the Senate by learning to master its byzantine ways. Both were defeated for the Presidential nomination by much younger, more glamorous senators whom they regarded as less than their equals, at least as colleagues in the Senate. Both suffered unflattering leaks and periodic scorn from members of the White House staff once they became Vice-President. Neither was considered a great friend of equal rights by those on the front lines of the issue of their day.
There are big differences, too. Obama seems to hold Biden in far higher regard than Kennedy did Johnson, in Caro’s portrait. Johnson’s Vice-Presidency nearly destroyed him; Biden’s has, for the most part, elevated him. And while Kennedy took very few risks in domestic policy until that speech on June 10, 1963, Obama gambled-and might have gambled away-his first term with a historic health-care bill that consumed his first year in office.
But it was Johnson who pushed hard on civil rights where Kennedy, assuming he’d get to it after his reëlection, hesitated. And it was Biden who, inadvertently, forced Obama to stop evolving and declare himself on an issue that the President clearly hoped would leave him alone until after November. Though same-sex marriage isn’t a cause on the same scale of historic injustice as the color line in America, it is the issue that forces today’s politicians to take a clear and politically difficult moral stand. It’s an issue for politicians whose egos are not under tight rational control-who are, come heaven or hell, passionate.
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