The LBJ delusion: Why Obama can't just have his way with Congress

“He knew, and was fascinated by, what made people tick, what their vanities and weaknesses and insecurities and appetites were, and he played on them all to magnificent effect,” the author Todd Purdum, a senior writer at Politico, told me. Purdum has just finished a book on the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which will be published in April. “Whatever else he was, he was a student of human nature, and he deployed his knowledge not only of legislative procedure and practice, but of people, in service of his goals.”

In his new book, Purdum will remind readers that Johnson didn’t exactly enact historic change on his own. The civil rights bills became law only because African Americans demanded change from the streets and in the courts, as well as the halls of Congress—and because the party of Lincoln stayed true to its founding ideals. In those days before Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” carved the South away from the Democratic Party, the great civil rights bill became law due to moderate Republicans like Dirksen, and Reps. Charles Halleck, William McCulloch and Clarence Brown (who left his deathbed to cast the vote in Rules that moved the Voting Rights Act to the floor), who stood with northern and western Democrats on behalf of black Americans. So, even, did Nixon. Obama can only dream of that sort of bipartisan spirit.

Still, the legislative victories were on Johnson’s watch. Good government types, then and now, would squawk at what it took to make Congress come along-waste in federal spending, the crude political log-rolling, the looting of the taxpayers represented in LBJ’s willingness to keep the Navy yards open in return for O’Neill’s vote on the Rules committee. And with cause: one of the workshops that O’Neill labored to save in Charlestown was “the rope walk,” a holdover from the age of sail.