BC Expert: LBJ; Civil Rights Act 50th Anniversary
PROFESSOR PATRICK J. MANEY, HISTORY DEPARTMENT, BOSTON COLLEGE
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Prof. Maney is a political and presidential historian, with a particular focus on American history from 1865 to the present. He is the author of a biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt titled The Roosevelt Presence: The Life and Legacy of FDR. He is working on a book on Bill Clinton’s presidency. Professor Maney has appeared on public television, C-SPAN, National Public Radio, and in Cognoscenti.
EXPERT COMMENT: LBJ MOST UNDERRATED PRESIDENT OF 20TH CENTURY
He became president in the midst of a national tragedy - the assassination of a popular commander-in-chief – while taking over the reins of the Vietnam War. So it’s understandable that when Lyndon Baines Johnson left office, his popularity was wanting. But this week, the nation’s 36th president may be getting his due as four presidents will gather in Austin, TX to celebrate the 50th anniversary of what was perhaps President Johnson’s most noteworthy accomplishment - the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
"I really believe that he’s the most underrated president of the 20th century," says Boston College History Professor Patrick Maney, an expert on the 20th century. "He has the Great Society legislation, the Civil Rights Act of ’64, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, aid to education, and immigration reform – think about how tough that is. Getting consensus on any serious immigration reform seems impossible right now, but it got through during Johnson's administration.
“All these other things I think are comparable to what Franklin Roosevelt did in many respects,” says Maney, author of a biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt titled The Roosevelt Presence: The Life and Legacy of FDR. “I think Johnson played a greater role in their passage."
While Johnson inherited the seemingly larger-than-life shoes of the beloved John F. Kennedy, whose presidency was ended by an assassin's bullet in November 1963, Maney says had Kennedy lived, he wouldn't have been able to enact much of the landmark legislation for which Johnson deserves credit.
"Kennedy was never an insider – he never quite figured out how things worked in Congress - but most of all, and much more important than that, he was elected with a razor thin margin in 1960,” says Maney, a presidential expert. “He didn't have a mandate and Democrats were a divided party with conservative white southern Democrats opposed to all civil rights legislation to the point where they were going to hold up everything else. There were weaknesses that Kennedy had.
“One of the things Johnson did so brilliantly was to use Kennedy’s death in order to get a lot of these bills through saying, ‘We owe it to Kennedy,’ so in that respect Kennedy was more powerful in death than he was in life. But it was Johnson who was able to seize on the grief and guilt I think that the nation experienced and felt at the time.”
And with legislation came broad changes in America's social fabric.
“There’s a tendency of going too far here too because Johnson didn’t come into office and say ‘Let’s do civil rights and let’s do healthcare reform, education reform,’” says Maney. “All these things had been building up for years – there were grassroots movements behind all of this but he facilitated them. My sense is that a lot of these things were proposed during the Kennedy administration, belatedly when it came to civil rights, but if Kennedy had lived, I just don’t see any chance that any of these changes would have become a reality.”
Despite Johnson's vast accomplishments, the consensus is he hasn’t received the full credit he deserves, largely because of the shadow Vietnam still casts and the fact he replaced one of the most popular presidents in history.
“I think people are so enamored with the Kennedys and so willing to give President Kennedy more credit than is due for having introduced or helping to introduce these measures,” says Maney. “When people think of Johnson, they think of the Vietnam War and then if they do think of these other pieces of legislation, it’s more ‘Well, Kennedy did that.’
“When you talk about Lyndon Johnson, the first thing that comes to mind is Vietnam - you can’t ignore it but it puts too much weight on him. He’s not the one who started America’s involvement – that began with the Truman administration, expanded under Eisenhower and Kennedy and expanded more under Johnson, but it would have required a unprecedented U-turn to reverse the course the United States was already on. One thing I do is show my students Gallup polls: In 1968, well into the war, by which time the United States had lost 25,000 men in Vietnam, you still had more people supporting the war than opposing the war. So how is a president to turn that around?”
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