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Presidents celebrate Civil Rights Act, LBJ and 'lost causes'

Obama, Carter, Clinton and George W. Bush take part in a summit marking the 50th anniversary of the landmark 1964 law that Lyndon Johnson risked his political capital on.

April 10, 2014|By Christi Parsons and Kathleen Hennessey
  • President Obama greets Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) after speaking on civil rights at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. Looking on are First Lady Michelle Obama and Mark Updegrove, the library’s executive director.
President Obama greets Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) after speaking on civil… (Ashley Landis / European…)

AUSTIN, Texas — President Obama lauded Lyndon B. Johnson on Thursday and offered lofty reflections on the importance of taking political risks to advance causes like the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but steered clear of any political references to his own battles.

Speaking at the Johnson library here, Obama paid tribute to the Texas Democrat and recalled that Johnson's advisors had warned him against risking too much political capital for the landmark legislation.

"One particularly bold aide said he did not believe a president should spend his time and power on lost causes, however worthy they might be," Obama said. "To which, it is said, President Johnson replied, 'Well, what the hell's the presidency for?'"

"What the hell's the presidency for," Obama asked, "if not to fight for causes you believe in?"

The question was the recurring theme of his keynote address at the 50th anniversary celebration of the law. With Presidents Carter, Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama made his way to the LBJ Presidential Library this week to take part in a civil rights summit.

The former presidents talked about the contemporary American duty to continue the work of the civil rights veterans and elected officials who fought for equality and integration. Carter warned against complacency. Clinton called for political bravery.

Obama passed up the chance to exhort others, to outline a new agenda for the cause, or to point fingers at political rivals. Instead, he offered a meditation on his role as president.

"The office humbles you," he said. "You're reminded daily that in this great democracy, you are but a relay swimmer in the currents of history, bound by decisions made by those who came before, reliant on the efforts of those who will follow to fully vindicate your vision."

The presidency affords its holder an opportunity to bend those currents, he said, by shaping the law and the debates — "by working within the confines of the world as it is, but also by reimagining the world as it should be."

"This was President Johnson's genius," Obama said. "As a master of politics and the legislative process, he grasped like few others the power of government to bring about change."

The moment marked a rare acknowledgment by Obama of the Vietnam-era president. Until Thursday, he had gone five years into his presidency without talking much about Johnson in public.

When others have done so, it has been to compare Obama's legislative skills unfavorably to Johnson's mastery. Obama openly admits that almost anything he supports is doomed in the bitterly divided Congress.

Civil rights veterans and historians debated the Johnson-Obama comparison on the sidelines of the summit.

Scholars note that in passing civil and voting rights bills, Johnson benefited from an increasingly powerful social movement and growing support for racial equality.

"By the early 1960s, there was a moral consensus on what needed to be done on civil rights," said H.W. Brands, a presidential historian at the University of Texas at Austin.

Johnson had to forge a coalition of moderate Republicans and Northern Democrats, but he "never faced anything like this, even when he was dealing with his most passionate opponents," said Julian Bond, an early organizer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a prominent civil rights leader.

In contrast, Obama faces opposition that views him as "other," said Bond, now a professor at American University and the University of Virginia at Charlottesville.

Johnson did encounter limits to his powers of persuasion. In the 1966 midterm election, Democrats lost seats in Congress and Johnson began to feel backlash from lawmakers he had won over, particularly when it came to funding the Great Society programs.

President Clinton told the summit Wednesday night that political courage outlasts political capital.

"That is often the case with big votes that change millions of lives," Clinton said. "I've had my fair share of tough phone calls to good people who lost their seats after we won this or that big measure by just a vote or two in the House or the Senate."

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