You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Shrinking of Lyndon Johnson

He wasn’t the arm-twisting, indomitable genius of Robert Caro’s imagination

Cecil Stoughton//LBJ Presidential Library

A few minutes after he signed the Civil Rights Acton July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented Hubert Humphrey, who had led the fight for its passage in the Senate, with a copy of his signing speech. On it, the president wrote, “without whom it couldn’t have happened.”

Johnson wasn’t one to share credit easily, but he understood a simple fact about Washington: Humphrey—and the dozens of other people who made the bill happen—would be relegated to a footnote, and history would give credit to the man who signed it. And he was right. Three days later, The New York Times credited Johnson as “the man who pushed [the bill] through Congress.”

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, and the impression that Johnson single-handedly drove his forces in the Senate, manipulating his opponents with flawless ease, has only grown with time. In the latest volume of his acclaimed Johnson biography, 2012’s The Passage of Power, Robert Caro largely parrots Johnson’s own account of the period: “It was a struggle,” he writes, “whose strategy and day-by-day tactics were laid out and directed by him.” And the play All the Way, which opened last fall with “Breaking Bad”’s Bryan Cranston in the role of Johnson, likewise portrays the president as the omniscient political manipulator.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

But this is mostly myth. Johnson had many legislative achievements during his pres­idency, but on the Civil Rights Act, he was largely ignored by his Senate allies and rebuffed by the recipients of his bear-hugging affection. The real work was performed by a long list of senators and representatives, their staffers, and a dream team of Department of Justice men who included Robert Kennedy, Nicholas Katzenbach, and Burke Marshall—not to mention civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., who built immense moral momentum behind the bill.

Correcting the record isn’t just a matter of historical rebalancing. Fifty years later, pundits, enemies, and even fellow Democrats criticize Barack Obama for not being more of an arm-twisting, hard-nosed partisan like Johnson. (According to a recent New Yorker profile of Obama, Caro even felt it necessary to explain to the president at a White House dinner that his book “wasn’t an unspoken attack on you.”) But on what many consider his most famous piece of legislation, Johnson was at best a supporting player. The question is, does that indict Johnson, or does it point to something more fundamental about how we judge our political leaders—and how American politics actually works?

One reason Johnson gets credit for the bill’s success is his legendary ability to wheedle and threaten and beg to get what he wanted, the so-called Johnson treatment. But in the case of the Civil Rights bill, Johnson’s strong-arm tactics misfired. When he took office in November 1963, the bill was stuck in the House Rules Committee, which approves legislation before it goes to the floor and which was run by the arch-segregationist Howard Smith of Virginia. Johnson demanded that the Democrats issue a discharge petition, in which a majority of House members can force the committee to release a bill. But the petition was a lost cause, and, in the end, quiet bipartisan negotiations, not Oval Office big-footing, got the bill out of Smith’s clutches.

The president was equally out of touch with the Senate. During the run-up to the filibuster, he demanded that Mike Mansfield, Johnson’s successor as majority leader, “get out the cots”—that is, force the Senate into 24-hour sessions as a way of wearing down the senescent Southern Democrats. But Mansfield, a quiet, pipe-smoking ex-Marine, respectful of Senate tradition and deferential to each senator’s independence, did all he could to keep the president at a remove from his chamber. When a visiting group of rabbis urged Mansfield to follow the president’s advice, the majority leader replied bluntly: “When Johnson was majority leader, he ran things the way he wanted them. Now I am majority leader and will run things the way I want them.” The cots did not come out.

Believers in Johnson as the bill’s primary mover often point to marching orders he handed down to Humphrey during the filibuster. After Humphrey went on “Meet the Press” on March 8, 1964, to praise Everett Dirksen, the Senate minority leader who held the key to dozens of fence-sitting votes, Johnson gave him a congratulatory call. “Boy, that was right,” he said, and he encouraged the senator to do more of the same. “You drink with Dirksen! You talk to Dirksen! You listen to Dirksen!”

It’s a great quote. But it’s cheerleading, not strategizing. And if getting close to Dirksen was a new idea for Johnson, he was the last of the bill’s supporters to discover it: John F. Kennedy and his staff began courting Dirksen before they even introduced the bill in June 1963.

Even Humphrey, a Johnson partisan, conceded in a memo written shortly after the filibuster ended that the president did not play much of a role on the bill: “We did give him regular reports on the progress of civil rights over at the Tuesday morning breakfasts. But the president was not put on the spot. He was not enlisted in the battle particularly. I understand he did contact some of the senators, but not at our insistence.”

The impact of that senatorial outreach was minimal. Johnson won over just one vote for cloture: Carl Hayden of Arizona. And Hayden, who was pro-civil-rights but supported filibustering on principle, merely agreed to absent himself during the cloture vote. Johnson failed to swing a single Southern Democrat, despite the fact that several, including J. William Fulbright of Arkansas and Al Gore Sr. of Tennessee, were considered possible converts.

Perceptive journalists picked up on this. “As majority leader, the president was all muscle and scant conversation. In the present impasse, the criticism is freely heard that the reverse is true,” wrote the columnist Doris Fleeson in The Washington Star on April 22, 1964.

Not that Johnson didn’t try. On April 10, he called West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, who caucused with the Southern Democrats against civil rights. “You’re with me! You’ve got to be with me,” he implored.

But Byrd was unmoved: “No, my convictions are against the bill.” Johnson tried a different tack. It was, after all, an election year. “It’s going to be rougher if I don’t pass that bill.”

“No, it won’t either.”

“Yes it will. Are y’all going to beat it?” the president asked, referring to the Southern Democrats.

“I hope to hell we beat it,” Byrd said.

Soon after, Johnson hung up in dismay.

Johnson did make two considerable contributions to the bill’s success. In The Passage of Power, Caro documents at length how the president labored successfully to get Senator Harry Byrd, the Finance Committee chairman, to release the administration’s $11.5 billion tax-cut bill in time to clear the Senate before the filibuster. As Caro argues (and Johnson believed), had Byrd kept the tax cut back, the Southerners could possibly have used it as a hostage to force a compromise on the Civil Rights bill.

But Johnson’s most important contribution was symbolic. His speeches, from the first time he addressed a joint session of Congress on November 27, 1963, are filled with demands that Congress pass a strong Civil Rights bill. It took courage, in an election year, to put the full weight of the presidency behind such a controversial measure. Johnson was also hedging his bets, though. When asked at a press conference five months later whether the bill was moving fast enough, he said, “That is a matter for the Senate to determine.” Even as he supported the bill, Johnson didn’t want to catch the blame if Humphrey and his team failed.

The fact is, no single person made the bill happen. And while this lesson is particularly true for the Civil Rights Act, it is also true for the history of American lawmaking in general. When we talk about landmark actions by the federal government, we tend to let the respective president take the credit (or blame). We recall that it was Abraham Lincoln who freed the slaves, even though dozens of congressmen wrote and supported the laws that pushed him to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. The Affordable Care Act is labeled “Obamacare” by its detractors and supporters, even though Obama consciously let Congress take the lead on crafting the bill.

But reducing a law’s history to the actions of a single person obscures the complexities and compromises that define it and its lessons for future lawmakers. This year we will hear a lot about the Civil Rights Act as one of Johnson’s signature accomplishments. If we leave it at that, we will miss much of what the bill’s story has to tell us—about how to achieve bipartisan cooperation, about the role of social activism in policy-making, and about the limits of the executive branch when it comes to crafting landmark legislation.

On the evening of June 19, 1964, a few hours after the Senate voted to pass the Civil Rights Act, Humphrey strode out onto the eastern steps of the Capitol, where he found several hundred civil rights well-wishers. “Freedom!” they shouted. “You gave us justice, senator.” Humphrey beamed. President Johnson was nowhere in sight.

Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times and the author of the forthcoming The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act.