On Thursday, President Barack Obama joined other dignitaries at a civil rights summit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signature accomplishment as president — passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And in a nod to the shoulders that he stands on, Obama said, “I have lived out the promise of LBJ’s efforts.”
But some Americans, particularly those who lived through LBJ’s presidency, wish that President Obama not only reaped the rewards of President Johnson’s leadership but also led more like him. And to that point, I recently attended the critically acclaimed Broadway play All the Way, in which Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston portrays the president during the year in which he struggled and eventually triumphed in his efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act.
Seeing the production, two things became obvious: Cranston will get a Tony Award nomination for his performance, and the president he portrays is very different from the president we have today. After I saw the production with a family member who lived through the civil rights movement, she couldn’t help remarking about how different Johnson — one of the presidents she admires most — is from the current president, whom she also admires greatly.
And she also couldn’t help wondering if things today might be different if President Obama had a little bit more of LBJ in him, so to speak.
All the Way, and the countless historical accounts and documents it is based on, make it abundantly clear that Johnson wasn’t someone you’d typically call a “nice” guy. But he was a man who got things done. He would employ charm when necessary, asking allies and adversaries about their wives, children and hobbies if he thought it would advance his agenda. But in the next breath he would threaten to cripple them financially or politically if it meant the difference between getting a piece of legislation he cared about passed and not.
To illustrate that point, one of the photos selected for Johnson’s Wikipedia page shows him physically in the face of Georgia Sen. Richard Russell with a caption that reads, “President Johnson giving ‘The Treatment’ to Senator Richard Russell in 1963.” That became journalistic and political shorthand for how Johnson handled people from whom he wanted — and ultimately expected — something. The New York Times also has an amusing gallery of Johnson giving “the treatment.”
Let’s just say every tip our parents gave us for polite interactions with people, Johnson regularly ignored. He was willing to both intimidate and ultimately alienate Russell — a fellow Southern Democrat, as well as a lifelong friend and mentor — in his obsessive pursuit of passing the Civil Rights Act. Russell was far from the only one.
In one of the more chilling accounts of his role in civil rights, the president is portrayed as threatening one of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s chief financial backers in an effort to pressure the civil rights activist, and other black activists, to compromise and support some of his less popular political maneuvering. To paraphrase Johnson as portrayed by Cranston, “Politics is war by other means. Actually, politics is just war.”
President Obama was elected in part because he has never discussed — nor does he see — politics in those terms. He speaks of a world in which politics is not about war and enemies but about finding those areas of common ground in which we might all be allies. That used to be one of my favorite qualities about him, and I once wrote a column that irritated some of my more activist friends in which I likened Obama to quiet, unassuming African-American tennis great Arthur Ashe.
I argued that occasionally that demeanor is more effective in the world, particularly for people of color, than comporting oneself like the more voluble Serena Williams. But All the Way reminded me that sometimes you have to throw a racket or two to get things done.
It isn’t always pretty, but sometimes it’s effective. As my mother has said, “Sometimes you have to go down to people’s level for them to know that you'll go there, and ultimately for them to respect you or fear you enough that they won’t ever provoke you into going there again.”
Jonathan Alter, bestselling author of The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, which chronicles the Obama era of American politics, described to me that Johnson and Obama, and the eras in which they led, are so different that it isn’t fair to compare the two. “It’s an unfair comparison because the times are so different. LBJ had huge Democratic majorities and could use pork — projects in districts — in exchange for votes.”
But Alter explained that one of Obama’s shortcomings is something that has been reported to be one of Johnson’s strengths. “If Obama schmoozed more, as I note in The Center Holds in a chapter called ‘Missing the Schmooze Gene,’ he would help himself at the margins, which is where a lot of politics play out. It might not get many Republican votes, but he could win a few more small battles.”
Even when dealing with those who hated him, Johnson and his wife were known for their attention to detail, asking about family members, remembering favorite recipes when someone visited the White House, and so on. These are qualities that the president, unlike his most recent predecessors — Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — isn’t known for, and they’re not really qualities that can be faked or taught.
But despite all that, Alter ultimately concluded that there are many more reasons to be grateful for an Obama presidency. “It’s a good thing he’s not more like LBJ on foreign policy, where we lost tens of thousands of American lives in Vietnam for nothing.”
Keli Goff is special correspondent for TheRoot.com, a news, opinion and culture site for African-American interests.
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