WASHINGTON — History offers a rough kind of justice.
As the nation’s current president and three of his predecessors gathered this week at the University of Texas for an LBJ Library conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, they confirmed what has been building for many years now: a thoroughly justified revival of Lyndon B. Johnson’s standing.
If historians still don’t quite go “All the Way with LBJ,” as his 1964 campaign slogan would have it, they have moved a good part of the way in his direction since he departed the White House in 1969, leaving behind a country torn by the Vietnam War and weary of the conflicts the 1960s unleashed.
The Johnson comeback brings with it a new appreciation of the durability of the reforms enacted on his watch. It turns out that there are irreversible social reforms — changes in how we govern ourselves and view our society that future generations come to take for granted and refuse to wipe off the books.
It’s impossible to imagine that the Civil Rights Act will ever be repealed. The law itself and the broad political and social movement that came together to pass it permanently altered the nation’s attitudes on race. Racism will never be fully stamped out, but our default position — most visible in the rising generation — is that racial discrimination is both wrong and stupid. At the least, attacks on the civil rights legacy must be indirect and subtle, as in the Supreme Court’s weakening of the Voting Rights Act.
Similarly, despite all the efforts to contain Medicare’s costs, government-provided health insurance for the elderly is a fact of life. An overriding contest in our politics now is whether the guarantees in the Affordable Care Act will also come to reflect a new normal.
The list of other achievements in Johnson’s heyday is well documented in the 2008 book The Liberal Hour by Colby College scholars G. Calvin Mackenzie and Robert Weisbrot. Environmental advances along with the establishment of new consumer protections and federal aid to education set the stage for more progress in later years.
But the LBJ fixation can be misleading. There is, for example, a devout wish that President Obama had the inclination to match LBJ as the Harry Potter of legislative wizardry. It’s entirely fair to criticize Obama for his apparent aversion to schmoozing legislators. Charlie Cook, the veteran political analyst, has said that the movie He’s Just Not That Into You might as well be about Obama’s relationship with even members of his own party in the House and Senate.
The problem is that Obama could spend hours sharing beer and bourbon with our elected representatives and still not overcome the sharp ideological turn in contemporary conservatism that has moved Republicans toward resolute opposition to nearly everything he does.
The GOP wasn’t always like this. Two valuable new books on the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Todd Purdum’s An Idea Whose Time Has Come and Clay Risen’s The Bill of the Century, both point to the unsung Republican civil rights heroes — notably the insufficiently remembered Rep. William McCulloch, whose district was in a similar area of Ohio as House Speaker John Boehner’s is today. Republican help on the bill was essential because back then, Southern Democrats were among the most implacable conservatives in Congress. The philosophical heirs to those Dixiecrats are now Republicans who play an outsized role in the party.
And as the distinguished historian David Garrow makes clear in a review essay on the Purdum and Risen books in The American Prospect, we often forget how important religious voices and church-based organizing were in pushing through civil rights. The “values voters” of that era were focused on the struggle for justice, not on battles over culture more recently associated with that label. There is both an opening and a need for such a movement again, focused this time on economic injustice and the injuries of class inequality.
The LBJ revival is seen — by my Washington Post colleague Karen Tumulty, among others — as signifying a “leftward tilt” in the Democratic Party, and it’s true that progressives are gaining ground. But the deeper LBJ legacy is of a consensual period when a large and confident majority believed that national action could expand opportunities and alleviate needless suffering. The earthily practical Johnson showed that these were not empty dreams and that finding realistic ways of creating a better world is what Americans are supposed to do.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EJDionne.
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