In response to Joseph Califano‘s 12.26 Washington Post Op-Ed piece that sharply disputed Selma‘s portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson as being reluctant to support voting rights legislation, director Ava DuVernay tweeted yesterday that “folks should interrogate history…don’t take my word for it or LBJ’s rep for it…let it come alive for yourself.” I tried that yesterday by reaching out to LBJ historians Robert Caro, Robert Dallek and Ronnie Dugger…no dice. DuVernay’s film essentially portrays Johnson as a pragmatic, vaguely patronizing racist (i.e., that dismissive pat on the shoulder of David Oyelowo‘s Martin Luther King) who had to be pressured into pushing for the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Tom Wilkinson‘s LBJ “offers a few shadings and nuances,” as I noted yesterday, “but mainly you remember his disagreements with King and saying ‘not now.’” So this morning I captured this anecdote from former Johnson administration attorney Roger Wilkins in David Grubin‘s LBJ, a PBS American Experience doc that originally aired in 1991.
How reluctant was Johnson to push for voting rights legislation in early ’65? Was he in fact reluctant, as Selma dramatizes? Perhaps he expressed concerns along these lines at some point. But yesterday’s HE story contains a White House recording of a 1.15.65 discussion between Johnson and Martin Luther King that undermines Selma‘s view.
David McCullough‘s narration of LBJ quotes Johnson as saying that while some men have called the White House a prison, “I’ve never felt freer.”
There’s a story that came from James Farmer, leader of the Congress of Racial Equality, in an 8.24.08 New Yorker story by George Packer called “LBJ’s Moment”: “I asked him how he got to be the way he was,” Farmer recalled. “He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Well, here you are, calling senators, twisting their arms, threatening them, cajoling them, trying to line up votes for the Civil Rights Bill when your own record on civil rights was not a good one before you became Vice President. So what accounted for the change?” Johnson thought for a moment and wrinkled his brow and then said, ‘Well, I’ll answer that by quoting a good friend of yours and you will recognize the quote instantly. ‘Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.’”’
From Packer’s piece: “For decades Johnson has been a pariah in the Democratic Party, because of the disaster into which he led the country in Vietnam. And today, because of our complex racial politics, even his successes, which partly redeem the sins of his war, can’t be attributed to Johnson. When Hillary Clinton, during the ’08 New Hampshire primary, made the historically unimpeachable point that there would have been no Civil Rights Act without a President Johnson to push the bill through, she was accused by everyone from the New York Times to the Obama campaign of somehow denigrating King. These charges were false, but they showed that there is something unmentionable about Johnson’s courage and his accomplishment.”
McCullough again: “LBJ, Lyndon Baines Johnson — Texan, Democrat, political virtuoso. He rises up out of the 1960s like a Colossus, like something from Shakespeare, filling the stage — 10, 12 characters in one. He is admired and he is detested. Everybody who knew him had stories.
“Yet Lyndon Johnson was hard for the country to know. He seemed so stiff and colorless on television, not at all himself. The real Lyndon Johnson was a mover, a driver, a charmer, a bully — six feet four inches tall with a size 7-3/8 Stetson hat. He loved food — chili and tapioca pudding. He loved attractive women. He was a good dancer, a brilliant mimic. He was funny, often hilarious. They all say that.
“But the real measure of a leader is what he gets done, the size of the problems he faces. Before Lyndon Johnson, we were essentially a segregated society. Inequality among black Americans in the South was set in law. Before Lyndon Johnson, there was no Head Start program, no Medicare — so much that we take for granted — and before Lyndon Johnson, very few Americans had even heard of Vietnam. He is a story, a very American story and, in all, a tragedy in the real sense. He’s the central character in a struggle of moral importance ending in ruin.”
At the conclusion of LBJ biographer Ronnie Dugger says the following: “He was just interesting as hell. I mean, you know, compared to most people who kind of go through life vainly, making their dreadful moral points of condemning this or hoping for that or scratching the back of their head, Lyndon really moved. He was moving all the time. The few times I was with him, it was — he was just fun to be around. And you liked him. You liked him. I liked him when I was with him…more than I did when I was thinking about him.”