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Lyndon Johnson in New Orleans, October 1964

On October 9, 1964 Lyndon Johnson spoke at the Jung Hotel in New Orleans and tried to explain to his fellow southerners why it was that he was pushing such a strikingly liberal agenda; an agenda that in many ways was at odds with his record:

When Mr. Rayburn came up as a young boy of the House, he went over to see the old Senator, the leader, one evening, who had come from this Southern State, and he was talking about economic problems. He was talking about how we had been at the mercy of certain economic interests, and how they had exploited us. They had worked our women for 5 cents an hour, they had worked our men for a dollar a day, they had exploited our soil, they had let our resources go to waste, they had taken everything out of the ground they could, and they had shipped it to other sections.

He was talking about the economy and what a great future we could have in the South, if we could just meet our economic problems, if we could just take a look at the resources of the South and develop them. And he said, “Sammy, I wish I felt a little better. I would like to go back to old”-and I won’t call the name of the State; it wasn’t Louisiana and it wasn’t Texas — “I would like to go back down there and make them one more Democratic speech. I just feel like I have one in me. The poor old State, they haven’t heard a Democratic speech in 30 years. All they ever hear at election time is Negro, Negro, Negro!”

The story presumably lacks identifying details because it’s apocryphal. But the point speaks to what I was saying about the role of morality in political action. Johnson is saying that while many Southern Democrats may have been hard-bitten white supremacists others knew perfectly well that they were doing the wrong thing and just did it anyway. Johnson argued that it was time to knock it out: “we have a Constitution and we have a Bill of Rights, and we have the law of the land, and two-thirds of the Democrats in the Senate voted for it and three-fourths of the Republicans. I signed it, and I am going to enforce it, and I am going to observe it, and I think any man that is worthy of the high office of President is going to do the same thing.”

It seems convincing to me, but of course it wasn’t convincing to the people of Louisiana or the Deep South, all of whom swung rather suddenly to GOP nominee Barry Goldwater whose libertarian rationale for opposing the Civil Rights Act united the economic and cultural strains of the American right and laid the foundation for the modern conservative movement.

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Meanwhile, thinking about LBJ should help put any liberal disgruntlement with Barack Obama in perspective. Very few people in American history (Lincoln, FDR) accomplished more for progressive policy. And yet, Johnson left office despised by an American left that — not incorrectly! — believed his administration had made horrible mistakes and committed terrible crimes in other fields of policy.